With some free apps on your tablet you can send and receive text messages, call US phone numbers for free, receive calls made to your phone number, and get your voicemail. This will work on the iPad or iPad Mini, iPod Touch, Android tablets, and even an iPhone or Android smartphone.
If you don’t mind the extra size, an iPad Phone can be used to replace your phone. Or you may want to keep your phone and also get your texts, calls, and voicemails on your tablet and computer. If you have bad cell reception at home you can use these apps to receive calls over your wifi. Whatever your motivation, read on to see how.
Note: Be aware that these apps use a data connection (either over wifi or cellular) to send and receive information, and may increase the amount of data you use every month if you’re using them over a cellular data connection.
A quick video overview of the iPad Phone
Use iPad as phone – call and text from your tablet
If you want to use your iPad as a phone, you’ll need a number to receive calls and texts at. Google Voice and some free apps make this possible over a cellular or wifi data connection.
Google Voice originally acted like a call forwarding service. You could give out a single number and get calls on your cell, home, and office phones. You could also keep the Google Voice number when switching cell carriers and not have to worry about updating your friends.
Now Google Voice gives you some other great features: you can view an inbox of texts, missed calls, and voicemails in the mobile app or online in a Gmail-like interface, and it transcribes your voicemails for you so you don’t have to listen to them.
Using Google Voice with free calling apps does have some downsides though. The calling apps will not support 911 calls. Google Voice doesn’t currently support MMS, aka picture messages. Some phones, notably iPhones, send group texts as MMS. You’ll have no way of knowing that somebody sent you an MMS, you simply won’t get it. I’ve missed a few messages from friends here and there. Finally, when making and receiving calls over a data connection you may not always get the best call quality. I’ve found it to be very usable, but it can be bad if you don’t have great cell reception or your wifi is acting up.
Step 1: Get a phone number from Google Voice
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 cell phone number, it will terminate your existing contract and you could be subject to an early termination fee. The 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.
Step 2: Download the Google Voice app
You’ll want to download the Google Voice app for iPad/iPhone or Android so you can text and get your voicemails. Set up your notifications so that you’re alerted when someone texts you or you get a voicemail.
Step 3: Download a free calling app
The Google Voice app doesn’t support calling, so you’ll need a different app for that. On iPads and iPhones the Google Hangouts app supports making free phone calls, and has a setting to ring on incoming calls to your Google Voice number. Hangouts is my app of choice for free calling on my iPad Phone, even though it’s lacking some features: the caller ID only displays numbers and not names, you can’t set up favorites, recent calls disappear from the list quickly, and I occasionally miss calls when trying to answer.
Hangouts doesn’t support free calling or Google Voice integration on Android. I recommend the Talkatone app instead. It is free with advertisements, and works well. They have a nice detailed setup guide that will walk you through getting it set up with Google Voice. Note that by default Talkatone needs to be open in the background to receive incoming calls, and you may have to reopen it now and then if it’s idle for a while. It claims to support push notifications but never got it to work.
Regardless of which app you use the people you’re calling and texting will see your number and have no idea that you’re communicating with them through free apps.
Step 4: Set up your preferences
At this point in the process you can set up your Google Voice preferences, like forwarding numbers if you also want another phone to ring, set email alerts, and record a personalized voicemail message. Most of these settings can only be accessed 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 instead of Talkatone, so I set Talkatone to not receive texts and voicemails so I wouldn’t get duplicate notifications.
If you’re an iPhone user getting rid of your old cell 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 5: Start making free calls and texts
That’s it, you should be ready to go!
How much data does this use?
Talkatone has a long blog post about all the factors that go into the amount of data used during a phone call. Using standard compression I calculated a 10-minute call uses approximately 3.7MB. I ran a test on my iPad Phone and it backed up the calculation. This would mean that every 100 minutes of calling would use about 22MB of data. Keep in mind that when you’re on wifi you’re not using your cellular data. I’m constantly on wifi at home and work, so I don’t need a ton of monthly data.
The iPad Phone – without Google Voice
There are a lot of free calling and texting apps that allow you to communicate with people that have the same app installed on their device, and some even allow placing free calls to US numbers. All of these apps will work without a Google Voice number.
Google’s Hangouts is another popular app with chatting and video calling features. The iPad and iPhone versions also have the added benefits of being able to call any US phone number for free and integration with Google Voice (see above). You can also use Hangouts on your computer in Gmail, and make free calls from your laptop. Get the Android Hangouts app here.
Apple’s iPad and iPhone have two built-in apps that are great for an iPad Phone: FaceTime and iMessage. I like these apps a lot, but they will only connect with other Apple devices. FaceTime started as a video calling app, but now has the ability to make audio calls as well: when initiating a FaceTime call, press the phone icon instead of the video camera icon. iMessage is the default text messaging app on iPhones, and is also present on iPads and iPod Touches. You won’t be able to send or receive SMS text messages, but you can send iMessages to other Apple users.
My Android and iPad Phone setup
I’m currently using Google Voice with the apps described above on an iPad Phone and the Nexus 5 Android smartphone with a data-only plan. I also use this Chrome extension to get incoming calls to my Google Voice number on my laptop.
My monthly wireless bill varies from $0 to $30 per month depending on how much data I’ll need. I like being able to make and receive calls and texts on all of my devices. The call quality isn’t the best, but it’s definitely usable. I find the quality to be better on Hangouts for iPad or my laptop than it is on Talkatone for the iPad or Android.
I used my iPad Mini as phone for the better part of a year, here are some of my impressions after carrying it around with me everywhere. I like the large screen, great battery life, and it works well as a speaker phone.
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 or suspend your plan at any time without penalty.
The Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T tablet data plans are roughly the same price per gigabyte, but Verizon has some advantages: the largest LTE network, wifi hotspot ability with all plans (you can only get a wifi hotspot with AT&T on their $50 plan), and they are the only carrier that will explicitly allow you to use your tablet data plan on a smartphone (though I’ve heard from users who say they’ve had no problems doing this on AT&T). AT&T’s LTE network isn’t as big as Verizon’s, but their HSPA network, which they market as 4G, is very fast, making LTE less of a necessity. AT&T also has more plan choices with smaller amounts of data than the other carriers. See our full post on the best tablet data plans here.
I originally chose to go with a Verizon prepaid tablet plan for data service when setting up my iPad Phone. But since then T-Mobile has begun offering free tablet data every month. I’m constantly on wifi, so the little bit of data they give away is actually enough to hold me over some months. T-Mobile is great if you live in a city and they have good coverage in your area, and they also allow you to use your tablet as a wifi hotspot, even with the free data.
I’m currently using my iPad Phone with free T-Mobile data. If I need more data I pop in my Verizon SIM and purchase a chunk of data. I’m also trying out different prepaid and data-only plans in my Android smartphone.
There it is, how to use a tablet or iPad as phone. I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions you can send us a Tweet, post on our Facebook page, or email us. Also see my impressions on using the iPad Mini as a phone for several months.