New App Turns a PC Into a Calling, Texting Virtual Phone
While we all rely more and more on our smartphones, most of us still have a PC or Mac in our lives. They remain amazing devices, but there are a couple of common tasks at which they pale when compared to phones: Sending and receiving standard SMS text messages, and making and receiving voice calls.
Yes, there are many Internet-based chat services that can be used instead of cellular texting on computers. But they typically require both parties to belong to a service, or to be using a particular brand of hardware. One strong example of this is Apple’s excellent iMessage service, which can send short messages among computers, phones and tablets — but only if they are made by Apple.
And there are services that allow computers to make voice calls, as well, but they usually use a different number from the one on your mobile phone — the one the world knows you by.
This week, I’ve been testing a new app that aims to overcome those problems. It links your smartphone to a PC or Mac via a website. And, using that website, you can send and receive standard texts with phones, regardless of what cellular network they are on, what operating system they use, or whether they have the app. The messages appear to have come from the linked phone.
You can also make phone calls from the computer using the linked phone’s number, even if the phone is off or out of juice.
It also lets you display and manage your contacts.
This app is called PplConnect, and it just entered open beta in December. It comes from a six-person company by the same name in Montreal. In my tests, most of its functions worked most of the time, but, like other beta products, it’s still missing some features, and needs work to be fully reliable. It also has some design limitations.
For instance, while you can place calls from the computer as if they came from your phone — perhaps the product’s most distinguishing feature — you can’t answer them on the computer. And they cost three cents a minute and only work within Canada and the U.S.
Also, while calls can be placed even if the linked phone is off or disconnected from the Internet, texts can’t be used unless the phone is on and connected.
Also, PplConnect only links to Android phones now. The company estimates it will be roughly a year before it will have an app that creates the link for iOS phones from Apple. However, you can use a Mac via its browser as the Web side of the link.
Here’s how the product works: You first install the free PplConnect app on your Android phone, then go to the website, pplconnect.mobi, and log in with the same credentials you used on the app. The app mainly serves to create the link between the phone and computer, but it can also be used to text and make calls.
For my tests, I used a Google Nexus 5 Android phone and linked it to a variety of devices running the PplConnect website in their browsers. These included several Windows PCs, several Macs and an iPad.
In all my tests, the texting function worked very well, with few if any failures, as long as my Nexus phone was on and connected to either the cellular network or Wi-Fi.
One nice feature is that the website allows multiple texting threads to be viewed at once.
The company recommends using the Chrome browser for its service, but I was able to use it with Safari and Internet Explorer, as well.
PplConnect says it considers its biggest competitor to be iMessage on Apple devices. But it also competes with a much more established Android app called MightyText. The latter has a rich photo-syncing feature, something PplConnect says it hopes to add. MightyText excels at texting. But, unlike PplConnect, it doesn’t permit making calls directly from the computer. Instead, it only allows you to direct the phone to place a call.
My biggest gripe with PplConnect was that a significant minority of the calls I tried to make either failed or took so long that I gave up. The company says it recognizes the problem, and estimates that 12 percent to 13 percent of calls fail. That’s why it labels the calling feature a “trial.”
The company traces this problem to the fact that it uses Internet calling on the computer to simulate a cellular call from the phone’s number, and says it knows it needs to improve reliability. This use of Internet calling service is also why the calls cost money, according to the company, though it says calls don’t eat up your calling plan’s minutes.
I had a few other criticisms. For one thing, you cannot include photos or other media in your texts from the computer. The company says it’s working on that.
The product’s calling function also can’t handle extensions or access codes for conference calls yet.
And, oddly, the text on the website, while crisp and clear on Windows and the iPad, was a bit fuzzy on two of the three Macs I used for testing. The company says it hasn’t heard this before, and is investigating.
All in all, I’d say PplConnect is a promising app and service, which could one day be great. But it needs work.