I’ve been using Google Voice since it was GrandCentral, and have been quite impressed. But it’s still in beta, and while invitations to the beta are finally becoming available, I understand that they’re still hard to come by.
3jam is billing itself as an alternative to Google Voice, and it’s available today, so I’ve given it a quick spin. This is not a complete review, as there are some of 3jam’s features that I haven’t tried, such as SMS messaging, forwarding to Skype, an API that lets you write your own applications to interact with their service, and “group” numbers that allow multiple users to share voice mail and messaging.
Signing Up and Getting a Number
Signing up for the service is easy. Just select an area code where you want a number and 3jam will display a series of available numbers from which you can pick. You can also enter words to see if you can get a “vanity number” that spells something. You can also port an existing number to the 3jam service for a onetime fee of $25, something that Google Voice doesn’t yet offer. Right now, 3jam is only offering incoming numbers in the continental U.S. If you want an incoming number in another country, you’ll need SkypeIn or another VoIP service.
In my opinion, a major weakness of 3jam’s service is its complex pricing structure. For those of us who are used to the clearly-defined packages offered by most cell phone and VoIP providers, it’s bewildering to be confronted with a choice of monthly fees and SMS packages, and to realize that the monthly fees include only a ridiculously small number of incoming minutes (just 30!) and no outgoing minutes at all.
3jam charges a monthly fee ranging from $4.99 per month for a 12-month contract, to $8.99 per month on a monthly basis. Additional minutes, SMS and even transcriptions of voice mails (over the first 30) cost extra. Additional minute rates for calls (apparently both incoming and outgoing) are competitive. The SMS prices are puzzling, though: 5 cents per message to the U.S., but only 4 cents to Uganda or Uzbekistan?
Annoyingly, information about pricing is very difficult to find on 3jam’s web site. The monthly fees are displayed during the sign-up process, but only after you’ve already selected a phone number. A more comprehensive list of pricing seems to be available only in the help section, which I found by doing a search.
By comparison, the Google Voice service does not currently charge a monthly fee, or fees for calls and SMS messages in the U.S. Google Voice charges for international calls at rates that are competitive with other VoIP services. It’s rumored that Google could make the service advertising-supported at some point.
While some people may find 3jam’s à la carte approach to pricing advantageous, I think that businesses will need to know what they can expect to pay; 3jam makes that difficult. The 3jam control panel does offer a running total of calls made and the costs incurred, so users can at least keep track of what they’ve spent.
Setting up the service is straightforward. You can set incoming calls to the 3jam number to ring on as many as six different phones, not only in the U.S., but in many other locations throughout the world. You can also forward incoming calls to Skype, something that Google Voice doesn’t offer. And you can forward incoming SMS messages to IM services like Google Talk and AIM, which is a nice touch.
3jam offers the ability to import your contacts to its address book from external email accounts like Gmail, and from Outlook, Thunderbird Entourage and .csv files. I was unable to get either Gmail or a .csv import to work, however, and didn’t try the other options.
Like many VoIP services, sound quality varies from call to call. I had several friends place test calls to me, and we heard occasional echoes, delays and crackles. But generally, call clarity was good — as good as Google Voice, if not better. The transcriptions of voice mails seem to be on a par with Google Voice as well, which is to say, good enough to get the gist of the message, even when some words are missing or incorrect.
3jam offers three applications that I didn’t try because I’m on a Mac. The first is a Windows-only desktop application for SMS messaging. (The site mentions a web version, but the link to it doesn’t seem to be working.) There is also a BlackBerry app, and a way of having 3jam send messages to you via Twitter.
For people who need maximum flexibility in routing calls and SMS messages, especially internationally, 3jam is likely to be an excellent choice. For those who need to forecast their communication costs, and those who don’t need the international forwarding options, Google Voice is probably a better choice, once it becomes more widely available.
Have you tried 3jam? How does it compare to Google Voice?