I’ve been using Google’s GrandCentral since well, before it was Google’s GrandCentral. My day job is based in Virginia and with GrandCentral, I could have a 703 area code phone number that didn’t tie me to my home office all day. However, over the last few months I’ve been frustrated by the service’s limitations and glacial progress.
While there are many virtual PBX options for SMBs and Enterprise, most are priced way out of an individual’s reach. They also tend to include features like toll-free numbers, multiple extensions and incoming/outgoing calls charged by the minute. I’m not looking for an answering system for my business…I’m a web worker looking for a better way to manage my personal and professional communications.
Where can you go when you’ve outgrown GrandCentral (or never got a chance to try it in the first place) but you’re not ready to spend a lot on features you don’t need? PhoneFusion One. I’ve been using the $9.95/month service for the last few weeks in a free trial account, and I’m quite impressed with it. Enough to give up GrandCentral completely? Yes, I think so.
For the purposes of this review, I’m going to focus on PhoneFusion One’s standard plan at $9.95 per month. The company also offers a Premium plan which provides everything in the standard plan plus VOIP outgoing call features. With the standard plan, outgoing calls made through the PhoneFusion system are billed at 3.5 cents per minute. This is still preferable to similar services such as RingCentral which charge for both incoming and outgoing minutes.
Don’t let the dated graphics on PhoneFusion’s website deter you. The company is in the process of updating the site’s look and feel.
Like with GrandCentral, you tell PhoneFusion which phones should ring on an incoming phone call. You can transfer calls and screen to voicemail. That’s where the similarity to GrandCentral ends, as PhoneFusion gives you far more control over exactly what happens when that call comes in, for both you and the caller.
When someone dials a GrandCentral phone number, they hear what they think is a standard phone ring while GrandCentral is trying to find you at the numbers you specify. With PhoneFusion, the call is immediately answered by the system with an audible greeting that you can record. In addition, you decide whether your want your callers screened (“who may I say is calling?”), and you can upload your own music for your callers to listen to while they wait for the system to call your numbers and find you. While GrandCentral does allow you to customize what callers hear, they no longer allow you to upload music from your own library.
Every possible option is configurable on the PhoneFusion website. You decide whether you want your phone numbers to ring one-at-a-time or all at the same time. You decide how long you want the system to wait for you to answer, and how long it should wait for you to accept the call. You set the specific hours you want phones to be accessible (as opposed to GrandCentral’s blanket “business hours” option).
You can configure what happens if the system gets your home voicemail, and whether calls should be auto-accepted. It takes some tweaking to get the timings right, being mindful that you will have someone sitting on hold. After some back and forth I finally have it set where the caller doesn’t have to wait a total of more than 45 seconds, while still giving me enough time to answer the phone before I lose the caller to voicemail. I’ve also configured it so my cell phone auto accepts calls so I don’t have to worry about scrambling for the keypad while on the go.
Like with GrandCentral, an email and/or SMS message is sent when a voicemail is received. With PhoneFusion, you can be notified of hang-ups, too, in case a caller didn’t have the patience to wait for your destination phones to ring.
Your PhoneFusion number is also your fax number. No need for a separate eFax account. Yes, I know…faxing is so old school. But when that secretary is holding a piece of paper and you need a copy of it, “Can you scan that and send it to me as a PDF attachment or upload it to a file sharing service and email me the link?” likely won’t get what you need over “Can you fax that to me?” If a fax tone is detected on an incoming call, you receive the fax as a PDF attachment. Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with someone who said they were sending me a fax. We hung up and seconds later the fax was in my inbox. Much faster routing than with eFax. Unfortunately, the only way to send a fax through PhoneFusion is with a PC-only print driver.
An interesting PhoneFusion feature that I haven’t had a chance to try yet is MeetMe conferencing. Rather than using a separate service such as FreeConference, you can easily schedule a conference call for up to 5 participants from within the control panel.
After the call is set up, you receive an email containing access information you can forward to participants. The participants call your PhoneFusion number and then press 9 and enter the access code you provide them.
PhoneFusion does not have an internal contact list. So unlike GrandCentral, you can’t have different greetings for different callers or groups of callers. Considering how difficult it was to keep the GrandCentral contact list up-to-date, I do not miss this much.
The company also offers VoiceMail Plus, which allows you to manage all your voicemail messages from multiple sources (home, cell, etc.) into one visual voicemail interface. We took a brief look at this service a few months ago. Unfortunately, Apple/AT&T won’t allow iPhones to participate so I was unable to test this feature. It currently works with Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices.
My favorite thing about PhoneFusion is how easy it is to manage and work with your account when you’re not at your desktop. GrandCentral has a passable mobile website with minimal ability to change settings. Deal breaker for me: there is no way of listening to an already-played GrandCentral message from an iPhone.
When you call your own GrandCentral number from your cell phone, you can only listen to new messages and change greetings. When you call your PhoneFusion number from your cell phone and hit * (skipping the password prompt if you’re calling from a number you’ve configured to be a “preferred” phone number), you can do so much more. Yes, you can listen to old messages. You can also manage your destination phones.
Let’s say you’re working from a temporary office or you’re visiting friends and don’t have access to a computer. Just dial your PhoneFusion number and add a new destination. Or disable an existing destination. You can review faxes, set up conference calls, you name it…all by phone. Very very handy. You can even call your PhoneFusion number, hit *, then 9 (for an “outside line”), and enter the phone number you want to call when prompted (remember, this is charged per minute on the cheaper plan). No need for a dedicated dialer application. It’s that easy.
The base price of $9.95/month is attractive, yet there are a number of a la carte options that can add up, beyond the 3.5 cents per minute per outgoing call. Want to remove the PhoneFusion.com branding callers hear immediately when they call? That’s another $10/month. Additional storage, automatic phone recordings and other such features are also additional services.
In addition to unlimited VOIP calling, the $29.95 plan includes a softphone and the ability to use VOIP adapters. If you’re looking to have your PhoneFusion number be your only incoming and outgoing phone number, it’s the way to go. Otherwise, you can easily stick to the cheaper plan and not miss out on much. Support has been excellent, and the service has been rock solid.
PhoneFusion One is a nice blend of powerful features companies pay hundreds of dollars per month to get, and simple, consumer-friendly options for the mobile individual. If the only price you’re willing to consider is free, then stick with GrandCentral and hope that Google gets its act together. If you’re ready to get what you pay for, then PhoneFusion One seems to be well worth it.