Smartphones can do things Alexander Bell never imagined, but the actual phone and messaging experience hasn’t changed dramatically. Viber (free, Google Play) is a VoIP app that aims to improve your talk and text experience with some remarkable new tools. It might even save you a little money in the process with free voice and text messages to other Viber users.
Setting up Viber is a snap on Android: just enter your phone number and a user name, and Viber more or less does the rest. Oddly, the Android version defaults to American Samoa for the region code, but it’s the same as the United States setting. Viber even verifies itself by sending a text message to your phone, and automatically detects the included activation code so you don’t have to enter it yourself—a feature I really liked.
For better or worse your Viber account is tied to your existing phone number. As far as I can tell, this means you have to deactivate your Viber account and export your message data when you get a new device with a different number. It also means you can’t set up Viber on a device without a phone number—such as a tablet. However, the big advantage is that Viber will automatically detect which of your contacts is already using the service.
This is in stark contrast to Google Voice, which lets you create a new, independent phone number that will redirect to the devices of your choosing. Viber is focused more on communication, so look at Google Voice if you want to merge multiple phone numbers behind a single number.
Note that Viber will annoyingly create a shortcut to your device’s desktop even if you’ve already made one.
Once you’re up and running, Viber will automatically import all your contacts in the middle contacts section. From here you can quickly call or send messages using either Viber or your normal data plan. This is a smart option, since it encourages you to use Viber as your one-stop-shop for voice and messaging.
Adding and editing contacts, however, is a little wonky. Viber uses the default Android contact editor which is a visually jarring experience and a bit confusing. I’d like to see this process streamlined.
The leftmost section combines your call history and your text messages. At first I thought this was odd, but I came to appreciate the simplicity. If you absolutely must find a call, the left most call section lists only calls, and includes a dial pad.
Viber also has some fairly extensive settings, perhaps the most important of which is to automatically respond with a Viber message to an incoming SMS message. This will save you the trouble of jumping between apps and help keep your texting bill under control.
When you’re not in the Viber app, new messages appear as pop-up windows complete with a text field. This means you can dash off a quick reply, even when the phone is locked. Viber recently took some flak when a researcher found that these windows could be used to bypass the Android lockscreen. Thankfully, this behavior has been fixed in the current version. Annoyingly, there are separate settings for how alerts appear in both the main settings page and the messages settings. I’d like to see these consolidated in future versions.
Calls and Messaging
Viber created a custom answer screen for calls so you can ignore it, respond with a text message, or answer. Weirdly, when you ignore a call the caller’s phone will continue to ring until they hang up.
Calls aren’t handled by your cellphone carrier, but instead routed through Viber’s VoIP network. This means that there might be some latency issues with your call, which Viber tries to address with a handy quality indicator. Remember that when you’re not connected to WiFi, a Viber call will count towards your data plan but will probably be cheaper for some calls—particularly to other countries.
The biggest feature of Viber calls is seamlessly transferring a call to your computer and vice versa, provided you’ve installed the Viber desktop software. The two work together brilliantly, suppressing notifications on one if you’re using the other to avoid irritating notifications.
You can also transfer a call from Viber to your normal voice network. Doing so places your Viber call on hold, and then starts a new call with the stock dialer, meaning it’s not quite a seamless experience. In my testing, some of my calls had severely degraded voice quality, and the ability to jump back to my carrier’s network was useful but would defeat the purpose of a cheap call.
It’s through messaging that Viber seeks to differentiate itself from the traditional phone experience. You can send photos, videos, locations, smileys (and other icons), and large Viber-made “stickers.” This last option is unique to the service, and eye-catching, but certainly not for everyone.
You can also set a custom background for your chat, though it will only appear on your phone, and add multiple participants for a group chat. Viber shows you when your message has been seen by the recipient, and when the other person is typing. This can be particularly useful to keep participants from stepping on one another in group chats.
I was particularly impressed by how quickly Viber sent and received pictures and video, which was remarkably fast even when my Samsung Galaxy S III was connected over the cellular data network.
Due to bandwidth concerns, Viber limits the video size to 10MB. Shooting with my S III, I was disappointed to see that this translated to about 4 seconds of video. The developer says that they hope to improve support with future versions to produce longer, but lower-resolution, videos.
You can also search your messages for words or users, and Viber will refine the results as you type. This is especially useful for when you remember what you said, but not who you said it to.
A Quick Note on Encryption
In my discussions with Viber’s team, they were cagey about how their service was secured. They’d only go so far as to say that, “a lot of things in the system are encrypted” and assured me that they take security seriously.
I don’t doubt their intentions but if you’re looking for a mobile VoIP service that will keep you secure, Viber probably isn’t your best bet. Redphone Beta and TextSecure are built from the ground-up to be secure and are also completely free. Silent Circle is another service focused on security, though you’ll have to pay a subscription fee to use it.
To their credit, Viber does include an option to deactivate your account and export your message history. But the app is clearly built with user experience first and foremost, and security as a back-end concern.
The Viber Vibe
With Viber, you get all the functionality of your phone, just a little better. Sending videos and photos is faster and easier than over traditional SMS, and the call screen adds useful features like responding with a text message that aren’t available for all Android phones. It also has a leg-up on the popular WhatsApp Messenger with free voice calls to other users, though it lacks the same user base.
Viber really shines as a means to avoid paying for SMS messages and calls—though the latter is really only a practical cost-saving measure when connected to a WiFi network. The ability to switch between a device call and a PC call is excellent, and remarkably well thought out. Viber doesn’t have the powerful blocking tools and independent phone number of Google Voice, but it is a well-designed and seamless experience.Best of all, the Viber team has promised that they will never start pushing ads or begin charging for the services they currently provide. It will always be free.
Viber has found a happy medium between competing services, and it’s easy to see why it boasts over 200 million activations: it’s a 21st century take on the 19th century phone call and our Editors’ Choice for voice and messaging apps.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc