Voice Mail Gets a Lot More Fun With Free Services

The days of “leave a message after the beep” could soon be a thing of the past. New Web services are giving cellphone voice mail a fresh sound with features that let users personalize outgoing messages for individual callers and eschew unwanted calls. I’ve been testing two such free services, YouMail and GrandCentral, that let you customize phone-mail features through wireless Internet communication. They’re like your voice-mail service on steroids.

Overall, I found the services fun and easy to use. There is no limit to how many personalized voice mails you can record, so everyone on your contact list can hear a greeting just for them. It’s labor-intensive to set up, but online forms are easy to navigate. The services make money by selling ads on their sites.

In addition to tailored greetings, YouMail lets you save your voice-mail messages, email your saved messages via audio files, share messages using a URL link, retrieve deleted messages, and see who called you and when and whether they listened to your message. You can do all this online, or from your phone — if it has Internet service.

You check your voice mail by phone or over the Internet. As with your carrier’s voice-mail service, you can simply dial an access number and listen to messages. I logged into my account at youmail.com and clicked on “My Voicemail.” The sound quality was superb, as it was when I listened to the audio files that were sent to my Yahoo inbox. (I gave my email address when I signed up.)

I also checked messages from other phones by dialing the access number. The service doesn’t interfere with voice mails already saved on your regular carrier’s system.

YouMail gives you the option of keeping your voice mails indefinitely. Messages are stored in your online account and offer you an email audio file as backup.

One fun feature in YouMail is DitchMail, which blocks messages from certain callers. They don’t even get a chance to leave a message. You ditch a caller by double-clicking on their names in your online phonebook and checking the DitchMail option, or by pressing 86 on your phone after hearing a message from a person you don’t want to hear from again. When dumpees call your number, they’ll hear either a standard message — “This number has been disconnected” — or one you record.

Users can record special greetings or upload ones online if their computers have microphones; otherwise, they just press 0 on their phone keypad to record.

Signing up on YouMail.com is simple. You just register your mobile number and email address, and receive a confirmation code via text message on your cellphone. Switching from your main carrier’s voice mail to YouMail takes a few minutes and switching back is just as simple. Instructions are available on the site.

YouMail has its drawbacks. The access number you use to retrieve messages is long distance, so it can get costly with some plans. And depending on your text-messaging plan, you’ll likely be charged for the alerts you get whenever someone leaves a message. But you can turn off the text-message option.

GrandCentral is even easier to use when it comes to recording multiple greetings and dumping unwanted callers. One caveat: GrandCentral is in a beta, or testing, phase. You must be invited by a member to sign up.

The service gives users another phone number, based on their ZIP Code, to which they can link their cellphone, office and home numbers. You can hand out GrandCentral’s one unified number and check just one mailbox.

I like GrandCentral’s Web interface better than You Mail’s. The features are very simple to use. You start by adding contact numbers online and recording greetings for individuals. When people call your unified number, all the phones you linked ring so you can pick up any of them. When you answer, you hear a recorded message telling who is calling and giving you options of how to handle that call. Meanwhile, the caller hears only the phone ringing.

The service recognizes each caller in your address book; new callers have to say their names the first time they call, and from then on, the service recognizes them, too.

I like the feature that lets you screen calls. When someone calls your GrandCentral number, your phone displays Caller ID information. When you pick up, a recorded message states the caller’s name and offers fours ways to handle the call: 1 to answer, 2 to send the caller to voice mail, 3 to listen in while a message is being recorded, or 4 to accept and record the call. If you press 3 and then decide you want to answer a call, you can press the star key to pick up.

Blocking a caller is similar to that YouMail feature. The callers can’t leave a message, and they hear a prerecorded message that your number is no longer in service. But unlike with YouMail, your phone won’t ring and you can’t leave the blocked caller a customized message.

Both services spice up your voice mail. And considering they’re free, they’re worth a try.

Walt Mossberg is on vacation. Find all of his columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

Email me at Sarmad.Ali@wsj.com.

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