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Dial 'M' for Making Sense of Choices in Phone Technology

March 06, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

"Watson, come here. I need you to show me how to work this thing."

It's come to this: Techno-Confusion From Beyond the Grave. After all, the only thing Alexander Graham Bell had to do was talk into his invention. He didn't have to fret about multiple lines, answering devices, call waiting, remote access, caller identification and the whole welter of gimmicks, gizmos, bells and whistles and ware both soft and hard that confronts the residential telephone user today.

So Bell, the person who brought you the 3 a.m. wrong number, the dinner-time recorded survey call, the Prince Albert-in-a-can bit and weeklong phone tag, is probably wandering shakily through eternity, holding his head and muttering distractedly about how nobody writes letters anymore.

It's all but impossible today to buy a plain vanilla telephone in the face of the showrooms full of Star Trek-like communications gear and, once it's plugged in, all but impossible to ignore the array of custom services that can be appended to it simply by striking a monthly deal with the phone company. The home telephone has, in a sense, evolved full circle, from novelty to necessity to designer accessory to centerpiece of the electronic cottage to--once again--novelty (albeit a highly sophisticated one).

A decade ago, before the breakup of AT&T, your choices were necessarily limited to AT&T's current stock of hardware. They supplied it, you paid a monthly fee for it. Today, you buy your own phones and the choices can be dizzying. However, it's possible to narrow the field a bit by lumping features that are available in what might be called the phone hardware into three general categories.

The Basics: You can still, believe it or not, buy a desktop rotary telephone. However, said Doug Weber, a salesman for House of Phones in Costa Mesa, the most popular basic model continues to be the familiar Trimline, with the buttons in the receiver. And even the most basic of these have a last-number redial feature. Depending on the manufacturer, they can cost from about $25 to around $70.

You can get pretty fancy with a basic phone, since the necessary electronic guts of the thing can be contained in almost any size and shape of container. Weber sells basic phones with casings in the shape of everything from a pizza slice to a box of French fries to a pink Cadillac.

Frills: There are four principal add-ons that many people opt for, Weber said. A built-in speaker phone feature will jack the price up only about $10 in most cases, he said, and a multiple-line feature will increase it about another $15 per line. One-touch automatic dialing ups the ante still more, depending on the number of phone numbers that can be stored in memory. The most expensive common addition, however, is a built-in answering machine, which will cost an extra $50 and more, Weber said.

High-tech: Apart from such things as LED readouts that tell you what number you dialed last, among other things, and other programmable features such as call transferring and automatic redial, the ne plus ultra for home phones is the one that can do all the tricks and still be cordless. The newer 900 MHz models have a much wider operating range, but you'll pay for it. They cost around $300 and more.

However, the features you can manipulate with the phone itself are only a fraction of your phone system's repertoire of tricks.

Then there's what might be called phone software, supplied independently of your telephone. Orange County's two phone companies, Pacific Bell and GTE, offer a fascinating laundry list of custom-calling features which, in Pacific Bell's case, just got longer this week. (The two companies have several calling features in common, and GTE is expected to announce additional ones soon, according to company spokeswoman Jaya Koilpillai.)

Here are some of the hoops--available as services charged to your phone bill each month--you can make your phone jump through:

Call return: automatically returns the last call your phone received, whether or not you were able to answer it before the caller hung up.

Priority ringing: gives a unique ring to calls from certain pre-selected numbers.

Smart ring: offers two phone numbers on one line, and each rings with its own particular ring.

Call forwarding: automatically transfers all incoming calls to another telephone number.

Select call forwarding: transfers only certain selected calls.

Call waiting: a tone signals that there's another call coming in.

Repeat dialing: redials a busy number automatically and completes the call when the line is free.

Three-way calling: a conference call feature.

Speed calling: dials frequently called numbers by pressing a single button.

Call screen: blocks calls from specified numbers.

Special call acceptance: enables callers from certain phone numbers to get through to you while others are routed to a recording.

Call trace: automatically traces a call when the call recipient hangs up and dials a special code.

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