Consumer Reports - Cordless-phones

by : Brooke Yan

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;
  • multihandset, full-featured phones with a built-in answering machine;
  • single-line and two-line phones;
  • digital and analog phones, and different frequency bands.

Reviews on Cordless Phones
Many phone-answerers come in a phone-only version. If you have a cordless phone that’s several years old, it’s probably a 900-MHz phone. Newer phones use higher frequencies, namely 2.4 or 5.8 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.

Types of Cordless Phones Available
AT&T, Bell South, GE, Panasonic, Uniden, and VTech account for more than 70 percent 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. Some of the multiple-handset-capable phones now include an additional handset with a charging cradle. About a third of the cordless phones sold include a digital answering machine.

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 Cordless Phones
    These phones are the least expensive type available now. They tend to have the better voice quality and enough range to let you chat anywhere in your house and yard, or even a little beyond. They are also unlikely to cause interference to 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. Price range: $15 to $100.
  • Digital Cordless Phones
    These offer about the same range as analog phones, but with better security and less susceptibility to RF interference. And, like analogs, they are unlikely to cause interference to other wireless products. Price range: $50 to $130.
  • Digital spread spectrum (DSS) Cordless Phones
    A DSS phone distributes a call across a number of frequencies, providing an added measure of security and more immunity from RF interference. The range may 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 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. Price range: $75 to $225 (for multiple handset systems).

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 are 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 same 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 one band and receive in another; you can’t switch to or choose one band or another.

Important Features of Cordless Phones

Standard features on most cordless phones include handsetearpiece 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 are usually 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 IDdisplays 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 speaker phone 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 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.

How to Choose a Cordless Phone

Decide how much hardware you need.
The basic 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 for small families or people in a small apartment with little need for more than one phone. The built-in answerer, a common choice, adds a big 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 doesn’t have a phone jack.

Select the technology and frequency band.
A 900-MHz phone should suit most users, but that type may be hard to find because 2.4- and 5.8-GHz models dominate. You’re likely to find the widest range of models and prices with 2.4-GHz phones. But if you want to minimize problems of interference with other wireless products, look to a 5.8-GHz or 900-MHz phone. Analog phones, apt to be less expensive than digital, are fine for many people. But if privacy is important, choose a DSS or digital phone.

To be sure you’re actually getting a DSS or digital phone for its voice-transmission security, check the packaging carefully. Look for wording such as “digital phone,” “digital spread spectrum (DSS)” or “frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS).” 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 2.4- or 5.8-GHz phone, check the fine print. If only the frequency is prominently shown on the package, it’s probably analog.

Settle on the features you want.
You can typically expect caller ID, a headset jack, and a base that can be wall-mounted. But the features don’t end there for both stand-alone phones and phone-answerers. Check the box or ask to see an instruction manual to be sure you’re getting the capabilities and features that matter to you. As a rule, the more feature-laden the phone, the higher its price.

Give the handset a test drive.
In the store, 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 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 the corded phone.
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.

Price range
$20 to $80 (stand-alone units); $30 to $240 (combos).