update 2: the Google Hangouts app now allows you to dial phone numbers for free and receive calls to your Google Voice number. I’ve started using it instead of the Talkatone app mentioned in this article.
update: see my follow up impressions after using my iPad as phone in place of a normal smartphone for 3 months.
If you’ve ever wanted to use your iPad as phone to make and receive texts and calls here’s how. Even if you don’t want to completely replace your smartphone, you may still want to get your texts, calls, and voicemails on your tablet, or maybe you just want to get rid of your texting package on your smartphone.
I’ve been using my new mini iPad as phone instead of a smartphone and really enjoy it. Although this setup has obvious limitations (mainly the inability to fit it into most pockets and the lack of an earpiece speaker) it also has many benefits: new calling/texting features, great battery life, a much lower bill, and a nice big screen (maybe those Galaxy Note enthusiasts are onto something.) Whatever your motivation, here’s how you can use your Android tablet or iPad as phone, or use your smartphone without a voice or text plan.
how to use an iPad as phone
Step 1: Get a phone number from Google Voice
To truly use your iPad as phone, you’re going to need a phone number to give to people so they can call and text you. Google Voice solves that problem and also gives you a bunch of great new features. The original intention of Google Voice was to allow you to have a single number (your Google Voice number) that forwards all of your calls to other phone numbers like your cell phone or home or office phone. This way you could give out a single phone number to people and have it ring all of your phones. However, you don’t need to have a forwarding number if you use Google Voice in conjunction with mobile apps to make and receive calls and texts over 3G/4G data or WiFi.
You can either port your current number to Google Voice for a one-time $20 fee, or get a new number. If you port your number, it will terminate your existing phone account. If that number is currently under contract with a wireless company you could be subject to an early termination fee. My contract was finished with AT&T and I wanted to move my service to Verizon (you’ll see why in a bit) so I ported my existing cell number over to Google Voice. This porting process can take a day or two to complete. Your existing cell service will work until the porting is complete, but once it is complete it will just stop working and you’ll get a final bill from your wireless carrier.
Google Voice also gives you some other great features: you can view all of your missed calls, text messages, and voicemails online or from the Google Voice mobile app, it transcribes your voicemails for you so you don’t have to listen to them, and you can set up email alerts so you’ll always know when you’re getting calls and texts even if your phone is nowhere near you. The only major downside I see is the lack of support for picture messaging and the call quality can be poor if your data connection isn’t great. I highly recommend Google Voice if you can live without picture messaging – even if you’ll be using it with a traditional smartphone plan. It will allow you to get rid of your text message plan and give you access to useful features like voicemail transcribing, forwarding your calls to additional phones, and never worrying about having to give out your new number when you switch to a new cell phone company. After all, you can always picture message with iMessage, email, Facebook, or many other apps.
Step 2: Download the Google Voice and Talkatone apps
You’ll want to download the Google Voice app for iPhone/iPad or Android so you can text and get your voicemails. You’ll also need to download the Talkatone app. Talkatone is free with advertisements, and it works great. On its own, Google Voice will not let you make or receive calls from a mobile phone or tablet, so you need Talkatone to receive incoming calls and make outgoing calls. Note that Google Voice will allow you to make calls from a PC, but you still cannot receive them.
Step 3: Set up Google Voice and Talkatone
Talkatone has a nice detailed setup guide that will walk you through all of the steps to get the two apps working together.
At this point in the process you can also set up your preferences on Google Voice. You may want to set up a forwarding number, such as a home or office phone (or your cell phone number if you kept you cell service and have plenty of minutes), set email alerts, and record your voicemail message. Most of these settings can only be made on a PC, and not through the app. I also found it useful to make some tweaks to the Talkatone app settings. I chose to use Google Voice to handle all of my texting and voicemail needs, so I set Talkatone to not receive texts and voicemails.
If you’re an Apple user and you do get rid of your voice service, it may also help to go into the iMessage settings and make sure iMessage is only receiving at your email address, and not your old phone number.
Step 4: Start making free calls and texts
That’s it, you should be ready to go!
Since several of my contacts have iPhones, I use iMessage to send and receive a lot of text and picture messages, and Google Voice for the rest. Perhaps you have another messaging client you’ll want to keep using like WhatsApp or Facebook. The new Facebook Messenger app for Android, Apple, and Blackberry not only lets you message your Facebook friends, it also allows you to make and receive calls if they also have the app installed. Talkatone can also sync with your Facebook account so you have one app for all of your calls if you’d like. Although Facebook doesn’t give you a phone number, this is another way to communicate with your friends without using any cell minutes.
Another option is Skype. Personally, I’m not a big Skype user, but it may be a good solution for you. Skype also allows you to have a phone number to receive incoming calls, but not for free. They support iOS and Android.
I don’t make many international calls, so I’m just interested in free domestic calling. There may be a better option out there for you if you need lots of international calling.
update: Google has a new Hangouts app for Apple and Android that acts much like Facebook Messenger. It replaces Google Talk (the chat in Gmail) and allows you to start conversations on one device and pick them up on another. It also includes group chats and video calls. As of 10/19 the Google Hangouts app was updated to allow voice calls to and from phone numbers.
A Note About Cell Providers:
Compared to what the cell companies charge for smartphone plans, the prepaid data plans for tablets are a bargain. You only pay for data, there aren’t any crazy taxes and regulatory fees, and you don’t have to worry about a contract – you can cancel your plan at any time without penalty.
I chose to go with a Verizon prepaid tablet plan for data service when setting up my iPad as phone for a number of reasons. The Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T tablet data plans are roughly the same price per gigabyte, but Verizon has some advantages: a larger LTE network, wifi hotspot ability with all plans, and ability to use your tablet data plan on a smartphone.
The AT&T LTE network is great if you have it in your city, but Verizon has much more coverage if you live in a smaller city or travel a lot. I also wanted to use my tablet as a wifi hotspot for my laptop. AT&T gives you this ability, but only with the $50/5GB plan. Verizon allows you to use your iPad as a hotspot regardless of the plan you are on. Finally, the SIM card in the Verizon iPad can be swapped out into a Verizon LTE smartphone. This allows the smartphone to be used as a data only phone. You can do this on AT&T, but their network may detect that you are using a smartphone on their network without a voice plan and send you a message saying you need to upgrade your plan. Note, you have to activate the SIM on the iPad first, and then move it over to a smartphone. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only way to get a data-only smartphone plan. Although, T-Mobile’s prepaid $30 unlimited data plan from Walmart is close if you get good T-Mobile coverage in your area.
For all of these reason, I chose to go with a Verizon prepaid tablet plan with my iPad as phone setup. I’m getting great LTE speeds at home and on the road, I use the wifi hotspot functionality all the time, and I may swap out the SIM card for a Verizon smartphone in the future.
I hope this helps you see how to use your iPad as phone, or at least add some useful new features to your iPad for free, or reduce your monthly cell phone bill. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions