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Technology Untangled: Add communication flexibility to tablets and smartphones

Stephen Bour
January 16, 2013
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technology-bourTablets were in big demand as gifts this past holiday season. Many of the more economical choices are Wi-Fi-only devices. They do not connect with the 3G and 4G cell tower networks. As such, their communication abilities are more limited than a smartphone. I was looking for ways to make Wi-Fi tablets more versatile as communication tools and found several interesting applications. Today we will look at apps to turn your Wi-Fi tablet, or iPod Touch, into a push-to-talk (PTT) walkie-talkie, a device for standard SMS texting, and even a free wireless telephone. The PTT apps also work quite well with any standard smartphone.

The walkie-talkie function caught my attention because of a recent series of PTT cell phone commercials from AT&T. It reminded me about how often a short, concise message could be preferable to a cell phone conversation. The popularity of text messaging in place of making phone calls proves the point. But many times a short, immediate voice message can work even better. The dangers of texting and driving also can be avoided by replacing those communications with PTT conversations.

The first app I investigated is called Zello. This free walkie-talkie application works between Android, iOS, Blackberry and even PC. It works over both 3G and Wi-Fi. This means it can turn any tablet into a useful voice communication device. The system beeps with a tone for both sending and receiving, so it is easy to notice the alerts when someone is trying to contact you. I found it useful for getting the attention of my kids by breaking in with my voice while they are absorbed on the tablet with a game or movie. For office settings, however, the beeping could get annoying. I found Zello most useful as a good substitute to texting while driving. It has a clearer sound than my usual speakerphone call when in the car. It also worked well for instant communication while running errands during the holiday season.

Another similar free app is TiKL Touch Talk Walkie Talkie. I think that the interface and execution of this app is subjectively better than Zello, but it only works with smartphones and not with Wi-Fi tablets. TiKL was easy to configure for simultaneous messaging to multiple recipients, making it a viable group communication app. The standard incoming alert tone is a quirky doorbell sound, but it does get your attention. There is also a “polite mode” setting that suppresses your caller’s voice until you answer. This keeps people from launching in to a walkie-talkie conversation with you while you are on an elevator, for example. In place of instantaneous PTT conversations you can also send either short voice messages or text-style chat messages that can be opened by your recipient at their convenience. I like these voice messages better than traditional phone voicemail. It works faster and more efficiently.

Be aware that when using PTT services over your 3G data network that data usage does accrue, so if you do not have an unlimited data plan, keep an eye on your usage. I do not think that Zello or TiKL use anywhere near as much data as a media-streaming feature like Pandora, but I haven’t gathered any specific numbers. In addition, I notice that phone battery life is affected a bit, more so when on 3G than on Wi-Fi.

Texting with a Wi-Fi tablet works well using a free app called TextMe. It works with both Android and iOS. It allows you to do true SMS messaging with any cell phone in the U.S. This app assigns a phone number to your tablet that others can use to send and receive text messages. I notice that I have my tablet in hand more often than my phone these days. It is convenient to be able to communicate via texting without needing to switch over to my phone. For multi-taskers, it makes it easy to talk on your phone and text with your tablet at the same time.

Additionally, TextMe allows you to make and receive free phone calls from your tablet or iPod any time you have a Wi-Fi connection. This essentially turns an iPod into a smartphone, but without the accompanying monthly cellular bill. While the app is free, you need to earn extra minutes by watching occasional ads. You do not, however, use up your minutes when making calls with other TextMe users. So, if your traditional cell phone plan is running low on minutes or has a low monthly allowance, you can call using TextMe from your smartphone and save your cell minutes for when you are on the road away from a Wi-Fi signal.

Another presumably more robust Wi-Fi phone application is available from Skype. It is not free, but you can get a Skype number and buy unlimited phone time for about $3 a month.

Since free Wi-Fi seems to be available virtually everywhere, the communication versatility of a Wi-Fi enabled tablet or iPod will continue to expand, further blurring the lines between smartphones and tablets.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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