YouMail freshens up an old standby: Voicemail

One could be forgiven for thinking that voicemail is a dead medium. However, modern smartphones seem optimized to do pretty much everything except voice messaging -- and perhaps that's why opportunities exist for voicemail alternatives like YouMail.

That said, YouMail's biggest challenge is convincing potential customers they should switch away from the perfectly serviceable voicemail client that comes with their phone. After all, moving from a flip phone to an Apple (AAPL) iPhone or the visual voicemail in Google's (GOOG) Android was transformative. What more could you really need from your phone?

Actually, YouMail offers several features that go well beyond what you get with your iPhone or Android device. By default, the app greets each caller by name when it can identify the contact. This nice feature lends a personal touch to your messages with an appropriately professional flair.

Less impressive: If you prefer a simple generic greeting, some of the options you'll find in the library of recorded greetings are reminiscent of the goofy answering machine greetings you could buy on cassette tape back in the '80s. Of course, if you prefer you can record your own greeting.

YouMail also can automatically reply to calls by text or email. So, in addition to hearing your greeting, callers can immediately get a text message that you're on vacation or that provides a different way to contact you.

What really interested me in YouMail wasn't its incoming call handling and variety of greetings. I wanted to try out the app's voice-to-text feature, which transcribes your messages using machine translation. After all, the worst thing about voicemail is that it's a linear activity -- you have to actually listen to your messages.

YouMail displays the text of your messages on-screen, so listening is now optional. In practice, the app did an admirable job of translating, with errors limited to unusual phrases and mumbled messages. Most of the time I could get what I needed from a quick scan without listening to the message at all.

And YouMail packs one other powerful tool: Smart Blocking. If you're hounded by telemarketers and other kinds of phone spam, YouMail can optionally block these calls for you. Personally, I'm harassed daily by junk calls, so I turned Smart Blocking on to its Moderate setting, which blocks "confirmed spammers" and stores questionable calls in a spam folder.

Thankfully, my spam calls disappeared immediately. If you're daring -- and to be clear, I am not -- you can try the Aggressive mode, which blocks anything YouMail thinks might be spam.

Similarly, you can configure YouMail to reject any callers with blocked numbers, spammer or not.

Whether you're willing to try YouMail depends in part on whether you think these features are worth the "tax" that comes with using a third-party voicemail app. Your voicemails are no longer stored in your Phone app, for example, so you need to place calls in one app and check voicemail in another.

You also need to redirect your voicemail from your carrier to YouMail. That's not hard, but it requires following some instructions in the app when you initially set it up. If anything goes wrong, you'll need to contact your carrier for resolution. The transfer went flawlessly for me, but troubleshooting instructions in the app advise you to call your carrier if there's an issue.

If you decide you want to stop using the app, you'll need to undo all that and transfer voicemail back to your carrier. Again, fairly simple to do -- assuming it all goes well.

YouMail offers both a free and subscription edition. YouMail Business costs $10 a month, but if you can live without the voice-to-text translation, virtually everything else is packed into thee free version. One other handy feature available only by subscription is the ability to check voicemail from any PC or device in a browser window. All of this makes YouMail a very low-risk app to try for yourself.

Photo courtesy YouMail