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Two noteworthy trends: Phones use higher frequency bands, and a growing number can handle multiple handsets from a single base.

Its 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 within the house, even when no phone jack is nearby.

However, manufacturers still offer a bewildering array of phones: inexpensive models that provide the basics; multihandset, full-featured phones with a built-in answering machine; single-line and two-line phones; digital and analog phones, and different frequency bands. In many instances, a phone will have a phone-answerer sibling. Many phone-answerers are available in a phone-only version. If you have a cordless phone thats several years old, its probably a 900-MHz phone. Newer phones use higher frequencies, namely 2.4 or 5.8 GHz. They arent necessarily better than the older ones, but they could provide more calling security and a wider array of useful capabilities and features.

WHAT’S AVAILABLE

AT anyone with an RF scanner or comparable wireless device might have the ability to listen in. Analog phones are also more likely than digital phones to suffer occasional static and RF interference from other wireless products. Price range: $15 to $100.

Digital. These offer about the identical range as analog phones, but with better security and fewer susceptibility to RF interference. And, like analogs, they’re unlikely to cause interference to other wireless products. Price range: $50 to $130.

Digital spread spectrum (DSS). A DSS phone distributes a call across a variety of frequencies, providing an added measure of security and more immunity from RF interference. The range could also be slightly better than that of analog or digital phones. Note that some DSS phones–usually the 2.4-GHz or the multiple-handset -capable phones with handset-to-handset talk capabilities–use such a large swath of the spectrum even in standby mode that they could interfere with baby monitors and other wireless products operating in the identical frequency band. Price range: $75 to $225 (for multiple handset systems).

Frequency. Cordless phones use one or two of the three available frequency bands:

900-MHz. Some manufacturers still make inexpensive, 900-MHz phones, usually analog. They’re fine for many households, and still account for about one-quarter of the market.

2.4-GHz. The band most phones now use. Unfortunately, many other wireless products–baby monitors, wireless computer networks, home security monitors, wireless speakers, microwaves ovens–use the identical band. A 2.4-GHz analog phone is inherently susceptible to RF interference from other wireless devices, and a 2.4-GHz DSS phone may cause interference in other products. However, DSS phones billed as 802.11-friendly are unlikely to interfere with wireless computer networks.

5.8-GHz. The band that newer phones use. Its main advantage: less chance of RF interference because few other products currently use this band. Some phones are dual-band, but that only means they transmit between base and handset in a single band and receive in another; you cant switch to or choose one band or another.

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 allow you to support two or more handsets with just one base without the necessity for extra phone jacks. Additional handsets including the charging cradle are usually sold separately, although more phones are being bundled with a further handset and charging cradle.

An LCD screen, found on many handsets and on some bases, can display a private phone directory and useful information such because the name and/or number dialed, caller ID, battery strength, or how long youve been connected. Caller ID displays the name and variety of a caller and the date and time of the decision if you employ your phone companys caller ID service. If you have caller ID with call waiting, the phone will display data on a second caller when youre already on the phone.

A phone that supports two lines can receive calls for 2 phone numbers–useful when you’ve got, say, a business line and a personal line that youd like to use from a single phone. Among the phones have two ringers, each with a distinctive pitch to let you already 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 may also be useful.

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

A base keypad supplements the keypad on the handset. Its handy for navigating menu-driven systems, since you dont should take the phone away out of your ear to punch the keys. Some phones have a lighted keypad that either glows in the dark or lights up whenever you press a key, or when the phone rings. This makes the phone easier to make use of in low-light conditions. All phones have a handset ringer, and lots of phones have a base ringer. Some let you turn them on or off, adjust the quantity, 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 permits 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 bottom for an incoming call and start talking without having to press a button, and any key answer.

Some phones provide a battery holder for battery backup–a compartment in the base to charge a spare handset battery pack or to carry alkaline batteries for base-power backup, either of which may enable the phone to work if you lose household AC power. Still, its 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 should be within range of the base for handset-to-handset use. Others lack this handset-to-handset talk capability; they permit you to transfer calls from handset to handset but not to make use of the handsets to conference with an outdoor caller. Still other phones allow direct communication between handsets, so you’ll be able to take them with you to make use of like walkie-talkies. Some phones can register up to eight handsets, as an illustration, but that doesnt mean you need to use all eight without delay. You might be able to make use of two for handset-to-handset intercom, while two others conference with an outside party.

HOW To choose

Decide how much hardware you need. The fundamental options are a stand-alone phone, a phone with a built-in answerer, or a phone that supports multiple handsets from one base. A stand-alone phone is best suited to small families or people in a small apartment with little need for more than one phone. The built-in answerer, a standard choice, adds an enormous measure of convenience. A multiple-handset phone is good for active families who need phones throughout the house; this type of phone lets you put handsets in a room that doesnt have a phone jack.

Select the technology and frequency band. A 900-MHz phone should suit most users, but that type could also be hard to find because 2.4- and 5.8-GHz models dominate. Youre likely to find the widest range of models and prices with 2.4-GHz phones. But if you’d like to attenuate problems of interference with other wireless products, look to a 5.8-GHz or 900-MHz phone. Analog phones, apt to be cheaper than digital, are fine for many individuals. But if privacy is important, choose a DSS or digital phone.

To make certain youre actually getting a DSS or digital phone for its voice-transmission security, check the packaging carefully. Look for wording similar to digital phone, digital spread spectrum (DSS) or frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS). Phrases similar to 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 real 2.4- or 5.8-GHz phone, check the fine print. If only the frequency is prominently shown on the package, its probably analog.

Settle on the features you want. You’ll be able to typically expect caller ID, a headset jack, and a base that may be wall-mounted. But the features dont end there for both stand-alone phones and phone-answerers. Check the box or ask to see an instruction manual to make sure youre getting the capabilities and features that matter to you. As a rule, the more feature-laden the phone, the higher its price.

Performance variations. Consumer Reports’ tests show that almost all new cordless phones have very good overall voice quality. Some are excellent, approaching the voice quality of the most effective corded phones. In our latest tests, most fully charged nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) or nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries handled eight hours of continuous conversation before they needed recharging. Most manufacturers claim that a completely charged battery will last not less than a week in standby mode. When they’ll no longer hold a charge, a replacement battery, usually proprietary, costs about $10 to $25, and may be difficult to search out. Some phones use less-expensive AA or AAA rechargeable batteries. (To discover a store that will recycle a used battery, call 800-822-8837.)

Give the handset a test drive. In the shop, hold the handset to your head to see if it feels comfortable. It should fit the contours of your face. The earpiece should have rounded edges and a recessed center that matches nicely over the middle of your ear. Check the buttons and controls to ensure theyre reasonably sized and legible.

Dont discard the corded phone. Its a good idea to maintain at least one corded phone in your home, if just for emergencies. A cordless phone may not work should you lose electrical power, and a cell phone wont work in case you cant get a signal or the circuits are full. A corded phone draws its power from the phone system and may function without household AC power.

MESSAGE CENTERS AND ANSWERING MACHINES

Digital answering machines come as stand-alone devices or as a part of a phone/answerer combo unit. The main advantage of a combo unit–less clutter–has to be weighed against the loss of 1 part of the combo if the other goes bad. Answerers usually have standard features and capabilities comparable to a selectable variety of rings and a toll-saver, answerer on/off control, call screening, remote access from a touch-tone phone, and a variety of ways to navigate through your messages. Most have a message day/time stamp, can delete all messages or simply individual ones, allow you to regulate the speaker volume, and might retain messages and greeting after a momentary power outage.

Other answerer features you may want to consider are the number of mailboxes, advanced playback controls, remote handset access, conversation recording, a message counter display that indicates the number of messages received, and a visible indicator or audible message alert that lets you understand when you have new messages.

In Consumer Reports’ tests, most answerers delivered excellent voice quality for recorded messages and good quality for the greeting. Phones that allow you to record your greeting through the handset (i.e., using the remote handset access) usually sound better. Some allow you to take heed to your greeting through the handset, as opposed to listening though the base speaker; that provides you a greater indication of how the greeting will sound to the calling party. Price range: $20 to $80 (stand-alone units); $30 to $240 (combos).S., Inc.

For the newest information on this and lots of other products and services, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.

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