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Phones That Give Home Office a Big-Office Feel


With the possible exception of a computer, the most commonly used business tool is the telephone. Yet many small offices--especially home offices--pay little attention to the type of phone they use.

Over the years I've purchased a number of inexpensive two- and three-line phones from Panasonic, Sony, AT&T and others, but I'm happiest with the three-line General Electric ProSeries Speakerphone that I recently bought for $99. A two-line version is available for about $49.

With 32 programmable buttons, a conference switch and a good speakerphone, it's not particularly fancy but does its job well. There is an LCD readout that tells you the number you last called and how long you talked, as well as a data port that you can use for a modem or other device. A switch on the side lets you choose which line to route to the modem so you can change the modem line any time you want. One thing I like about the phone is that it automatically disconnects after 20 seconds of inactivity. If you forget to hang it up, it will free up the line.

As good as the GE phone is, I just found one that's even better, but it's considerably more expensive. The Polycom SoundPoint Pro Desktop Conference Phone costs $249 for a two-line version and $299 for the three-line model. Not only is it a great speakerphone, it's one of the few office phones on the market with a built-in headset jack.

Polycom is best known for its $499 SoundStation telephone conferencing system, which provides 360-degree coverage for small and medium-sized conference rooms. But unlike the SoundStation, the SoundPoint Pro is a regular office phone that happens to have a large high-quality speaker and both a front and rear microphone. If one person is using the speakerphone option from a desk, the front microphone is sufficient. The rear microphone is used when a group is sitting around the phone at a conference table.

I don't have a conference table in my office, but I like using a speakerphone so I can answer and place calls without having to pick up the handset. While people I call on the SoundPoint can generally tell I'm using a speakerphone, most say that it sounds considerably better than a regular speakerphone.

The other thing I like about this phone is that it is "headset-ready." A few weeks ago I wrote about after-market headset systems that you can add to a regular phone, but for most phones adding a headset also requires that you add an amplifier, which is why these systems cost $50 to $300. With this phone you simply need a headset, which you can get at Radio Shack for $20. What's more important, you don't need special wiring or connectors. Just plug the headset into the phone and push the headset button. Another button switches you to the speakerphone, or you can pick up the regular handset to use it as a standard phone. The phone allows you to program 20 speed-dial numbers, which is a bit stingy for a phone this expensive. It also has built-in caller ID display and a cool-sounding ring.

If you want people who call your small office to think they're calling a really big office, check out the Concero Switchboard from Centerpoint Technologies ( The $499 two-line device, which measures 2 inches by 8 inches by 8.4 inches, allows you to turn any standard home or small office phone system into one where the caller gets to punch in the extension of the person he or she is calling.

When someone calls your number, Concero plays an outgoing message. You can ask the caller to punch a different extension number for up to five people in the office or punch another number if you want them to reach your pager or cell phone. It can also automatically route an incoming fax to a fax machine or send the call to an answering machine or voicemail system if the extension is busy or doesn't answer.

All phones or answering devices in your home or office that function as a Concero extension must be plugged directly into the Concero box, which in many cases could require a major rewiring job. In order for Concero to transfer calls to a pager, cell phone, remote voicemail system or other remote line, you need either two lines or the three-way calling option from your phone company. Three-way calling gives you better-quality calls and it doesn't tie up two lines.

You can program Concero from any touch-tone phone, but it's easier to connect it to the serial port of a PC and use the software that comes with the product. Once it's programmed, you can disconnect the device from the PC and put it anywhere you want it.

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