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Cordless phones
Higher frequencies and more handsets make them indispensable.

It’s easier than ever to have a phone where you want one. The newest breed of cordless phones lets you put a handset in any room in the house, even if no phone jack is nearby.

However, manufacturers still offer a bewildering array of phones: inexpensive models that offer the basics; multiple-handset, full-featured phones with a built-in answering machine; single-line and two-line; digital and analog phones, and different frequency bands. In many instances, a phone will have a combination phone-answerer sibling. Many phone-answerers come in a phone-only version. If you have a cordless phone that's more than 5 years old, it's probably a 900-MHz phone. Newer phones use higher frequencies, namely 2.4-, 5.8-, and 1.9-GHz. They aren't necessarily better than the older ones, but they may provide more calling security and a wider array of useful capabilities and features.

what’s available

AT&T, GE, Panasonic, Uniden, and VTech account for most of the market. VTech owns the AT&T Consumer Products Division and now makes phones under the AT&T brand as well as its own name. The current trends include phones that support two or more handsets with one base, less expensive 2.4- and 5.8-GHz analog phones, and full-featured 2.4- and 5.8-GHz digital phones. Many of the multiple-handset-capable phones now include an additional handset with a charging cradle. More than a third of the cordless phones sold include a digital answering machine. Price range: $15 and up for single-handset phones, $50 and up with built-in answering machine; $25 and up for multiple-handset phones, $80 and up with built-in answering machine.

The newest phones, called DECT, short for Digitally Enhanced Cordless Telecommunication, use the 1.9-GHz band that the Federal Communications Commission reserved in 2005 for voice-only applications. By using this exclusive frequency band, DECT phones avoid interference problems caused by home networks and other wireless devices. Other phones use wireless Bluetooth technology to tap into your mobile phone service, allowing you to make and take calls over either service.

Important features

Standard features on most cordless phones include handset earpiece volume control, handset ringer, last-number redial, a pager to locate the handset, a flash button to answer call waiting, and a low-battery indicator.

Some phones let you support two or more handsets with just one base without the need for extra phone jacks. Additional handsets, including the charging cradle, can be sold separately, although more phones are being bundled with an additional handset and charging cradle.

An LCD screen, found on many handsets and on some bases, can display a personal phone directory and useful information such as the name and/or number dialed, caller ID, battery strength, or how long you’ve been connected. Caller ID displays the name and number of a caller and the date and time of the call if you use your phone company’s caller ID service. If you have caller ID with call waiting, the phone will display data on a second caller when you’re already on the phone.

A phone that supports two lines can receive calls for two phone numbers—useful if you have, say, a business line and a personal line that you’d like to use from a single phone. Some of the phones have two ringers, each with a distinctive pitch to let you know which line is ringing. The two-line feature also facilitates conferencing two callers in three-way connections. Some two-line phones have an auxiliary jack data port to plug in a fax, modem, or other phone device that can also be useful.

A speakerphone offers a hands-free way to converse or wait on hold and lets others chime in as well. A base speakerphone lets you answer a call without the handset; a handset speakerphone lets you chat hands-free anywhere in the house as long as you stay within a few feet of the handset.

A base keypad supplements the keypad on the handset. It’s handy for navigating menu-driven systems, since you don’t have to take the phone away from your ear to punch the keys. Some phones have a lighted keypad that either glows in the dark or lights up when you press a key, or when the phone rings. This makes the phone easier to use in low-light conditions. All phones have a handset ringer, and many phones have a base ringer. Some let you turn them on or off, adjust the volume, or change the auditory tone.

Many cordless phones have a headset jack on the handset and include a belt clip for carrying the phone. This allows hands-free conversation anywhere in the house. Some phones have a headset jack on the base, which allows hands-free conversation without any drain on the handset battery. Headsets are usually sold separately for about $20.

Other convenient features include auto talk, which lets you lift the handset off the base for an incoming call and start talking without having to press a button, and any key answer. Some phones have a side-volume control on the handset conveniently placing the control for adjusting volume while you’re on a call.

Some phones provide a battery holder for battery backup—a compartment in the base to charge a spare handset battery pack or to hold alkaline batteries for base-power backup, either of which can enable the phone to work if you lose household AC power. Still, it’s wise to keep a corded phone somewhere in your home.

Some multiple-handset capable phones allow conversation between handsets in an intercom mode and facilitate conferencing handsets with an outside party. In intercom mode, the handsets have to be within range of the base for handset-to-handset use. Others lack this handset-to-handset talk capability; they allow you to transfer calls from handset to handset but not to use the handsets to conference with an outside caller. Still other phones allow direct communication between handsets, so you can take them with you to use like walkie-talkies. Some phones can register up to eight handsets, for instance, but that doesn’t mean you can use all eight at once. You might be able to use two for handset-to-handset intercom, while two others conference with an outside party.

Some phones have Caller ID alerts. A phone with distinctive ring capability allows you to hear who is calling by associating the calling number with a specific ring tone. Some are visual, so you can tell who's calling by the handset display or the antenna flashing a particular color. Phones with talking Caller ID, or also referred to as Caller ID announce, speak the name of the caller, useful since you don’t have to view the display to know who’s calling.

Most phone-answerers have one mailbox. Some answerers have several mailboxes where a caller can direct a voice message to an individual family member, or to separate business and personal calls, for instance. This allows the convenience of listening to messages meant just for you.

Most answerers can skip to the next message, skip back to a previous message, and repeat a message. Some also have advanced playback controls such as fast playback (to listen to messages more quickly), slow playback (to slow down a part of the message, say to understand a phone number), and rewind (to go back to a certain part of a message).

Some have an audible message alert, typically a beep, which lets you know you have new messages without having to go look at the answerers' visual new message indicator.

Some have remote handset that allows you to listen to messages from the handset and may allow access to other answerer functions, such as recording your greeting; this offers more privacy and convenience.

How to choose

Choose analog or digital technology.  A main distinction among cordless phones is the way they transmit their signals. Here are some terms that you may see while shopping and what they mean for you.

Analog phones are the least expensive type and tend to have better voice quality than digital models, though their range is somewhat shorter. They are also unlikely to cause interference with other wireless products. But analog transmission isn’t very secure; anyone with an RF scanner or comparable wireless device might be able to listen in. Analog phones are also more likely than digital phones to suffer occasional static and RF interference from other wireless products. Also, multiple-handset capable phones can’t conference handsets with an outside party, and the number of handsets that can be supported by the base unit is typically limited to two.

Digital phones provide an added measure of security and more immunity to RF interference. Their range may be slightly better than that of analog phones. Note that some phones—usually the 2.4-GHz or the multiple-handset capable phones with handset-to-handset talk capabilities—use such a wide swath of the spectrum even in standby mode that they may interfere with baby monitors and other wireless products operating in the same frequency band. The latest phones use a technology called Digitally Enhanced Cordless Telecommunication (DECT), which addresses the interference problem by using the 1.9-GHz frequency band that was recently reserved by the FCC for voice-only applications. Some digital models support up to 10 handsets from one base and allow conferencing of handsets.

To be sure you’re actually getting a digital model, check the packaging carefully. Look for wording such as “digital phone,” “digital spread spectrum (DSS),” “frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS),” or digitally enhanced cordless telecommunication or telephone (DECT). Phrases such as “phone with digital security code,” “phone with all-digital answerer,” or “spread spectrum technology” (not digital spread spectrum) all denote phones that are less secure. Phones that use dual-band transmission may indicate the higher frequency in a larger print on the packaging. If you want a true 5.8- or 2.4-GHz phone, check the fine print. If only the frequency is prominently shown on the package, it’s probably analog.

Pick a Frequency. Cordless phones use one or two of the four available frequency bands: 5.8 GHz, 2.4 GHz, 1.9 GHz, and 900 MHz. Most phones are dual-band, which means they transmit between base and handset in one frequency band and receive in another; you can’t switch to or choose one band or another. Most phones use the 5.8- and 2.4-GHz frequency bands. Since 1.9-GHz phones are new, only a few are currently available. A few manufacturers still make inexpensive, 900-MHz phones, usually analog. They are fine for many households, but they are dwindling. This band is now mainly used along with 5.8- or 2.4-GHz analog transmission dual-band phones.

Phones that use the 2.4-GHz band, unfortunately, share their frequency with many other wireless products, including baby monitors, wireless computer networks, home security monitors, wireless speakers, and microwaves ovens. Analog phones that use the 2.4-GHz band are inherently susceptible to RF interference from these devices, while their digital counterparts may actually interfere with them. Some digital phones use portions of the 2.4-GHz band that are less likely to interfere or be interfered with by wireless home networks. These are billed as “wireless network friendly” or “802.11-friendly.”

Decide on number of extensions. A single-handset phone is best suited for smaller homes where you’re never far from the phone. If your home is too large for that, give first consideration to multiple-handset phones, which support (and usually include) multiple handsets from one base; each extra handset sits in its own charging cradle, without the need of a phone jack, making it easier to station the handset where you want it.

Settle on the features you want. You can expect caller ID, a headset jack, and a base that can be wall-mounted. See Important Features for others. Also check the phone’s packaging or download the instruction manual from the manufacturer’s Web site confirm you’re getting the features you want. As a rule, the more feature-laden the phone, the higher its price.

Decide which performance nuances matter most to you. Our tests show that most new cordless phones have very good overall voice quality. Some are excellent, approaching the voice quality of the best corded phones. In our latest tests, most fully charged batteries provided an ample eight hours or more of continuous conversation before they needed recharging. Most manufacturers claim that a fully charged battery will hold its charge at least a week in standby mode. When the battery can no longer hold a charge, a replacement battery, usually proprietary, costs about $10 to $25. Some phones use less-expensive AA or AAA rechargeable batteries. (To find stores that recycle used cordless phone batteries, call 800-822-8837 or go to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.’s site at www.rbrc.org. Our Web site www.GreenerChoices.org also has advice on this topic.)

Decide whether you want an answerer. Many people still do, despite the ubiquity of cell phones with voice-mail capability. Both single- and multiple-handset phones come in versions with a built-in answerer. Such phones often cost little more than comparable phone-only models and take up about the same space. If you’re considering an answerer, you need to make these two additional decisions:

Consider voice-quality differences. In our tests, most answerers delivered very good voice quality for recorded messages and good quality for the greeting. Phones that let you record your greeting through the handset (using the remote handset access) usually sounded better. Some let you listen to your greeting through the handset, as opposed to listening through the base speaker; that gives you a better indication of how the greeting will sound to the calling party.

Choose features. Answerers usually have standard features and capabilities such as a selectable number of rings and a toll-saver, answerer on/off control, call screening, remote access, speaker-volume control, and a variety of ways to navigate through your messages. Most have one mailbox, a message day/time stamp, a message-counter display that indicates the number of messages received, and a visual indicator that lets you know when you have new messages. During a momentary power outage, most will retain messages and the greeting. Other, less-universal features you may want to consider are described in Important Features.

Try out the handset if possible. In the store, hold the handset to see whether it fits the contours of your face. The earpiece should have rounded edges and a recessed center that fits nicely over the middle of your ear. Check the buttons and controls to make sure they’re reasonably sized and legible.

Don’t discard your corded phones. It’s a good idea to keep at least one corded phone in your home, if only for emergencies. A cordless phone may not work if you lose electrical power, and a cell phone won’t work if you can’t get a signal or the circuits are full. A corded phone draws its power from the phone system and can function without household AC power.

Make sure you can return it. Before buying, check the return policy in case you encounter unexpected problems at home that you can’t resolve, such as wireless interference.

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