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TECHNOLOGY

Merging Mobile, Home Phones

Telecom: Docking stations conveniently combine wireless and wired service on the same two-line phone.

July 08, 2002|BRUCE MEYERSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

With cell phone companies heaping thousands of "free" off-peak minutes on subscribers, the wireless crowd is beginning to question the wisdom of paying extra to make long-distance calls on regular home phones.

Although many may not mind using a cell phone indoors, a small but growing number of people use a special cradle that allows them to make wireless calls using a "regular" telephone.

I can see why. Talking on a cell phone indoors feels all wrong.

The sound of cellular still can't compare with the near-perfection of a wired phone, and after a lifetime of gripping a full-sized receiver between ear and shoulder, a mobile phone seems inadequate for gabbing away the hours.

Besides, I think many people, leery of overtime charges, still view cellular as a tool for quickie calls--not hourlong talkfests.

The two docking stations I tested, VoxLink and CellSocket, do a reasonable job of addressing some of the aforementioned shortcomings. But both products, which can be found for as low as $100, remain works in progress.

The devices, which are compatible only with certain popular handset models, conveniently combine wireless and wired service on the same two-line phone, helping blur the distinction between cellular and regular calls.

They look like the desktop cradles used to sync a hand-held computer or recharge a cell phone. In fact, both devices also double as a recharger for a mobile handset, though the CellSocket stops charging whenever the device is being used for a call.

Depending on your preference, you can set up a distinctive ring for incoming cellular calls or use the same ring tone for both types of call.

Psychologically, because my cell phone was now patched into my home phone, there was less reason to view wireless as a beast peculiar to the great outdoors: no tiny handset, no pulling up an antenna, no ear bud.

Except for hitting the pound sign after punching in a number--the equivalent of hitting "talk" or "send" on a cell phone--dialing was virtually identical.

There was, of course, the obligatory pause before a wireless call connects. But that was no big deal.

To further replicate the experience of using a regular phone, the docking stations even generate a dial tone for the wireless line when you pick up the receiver.

Although the VoxLink and CellSocket seemed to eliminate some of the tinny, crackly sounds of cellular, there are lingering shortcomings to wireless phones and networks that are beyond the control of these docking stations.

Invariably, of course, there were times when my cell phone couldn't pick up a signal, failed to connect a call on the first try or, worst of all, disconnected in mid-sentence. There were times when only one person could hear clearly.

That sort of thing just doesn't happen anymore in wireline telephones. In the industry, they refer to it as "the five nines," meaning 99.999% reliability.

Although wireless technology and network coverage has improved steadily in recent years, cell phones still don't do the five nines, or even the two nines, and that's not something you can fix with VoxLink or CellSocket.

Even if you buy a booster antenna for the phone, or one made specifically for the CellSocket, there are going to be issues with reliability and clarity, particularly for indoor calls. It all depends on your tolerance for such things.

There was little distinction in the basic sound quality and performance of the two products. But the VoxLink may hold some added appeal to some users for a few reasons.

First and foremost is compatibility: VoxLink works with a wide variety of Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson phones. The CellSocket only works with several Nokia lines, though a version for Motorola phones is being readied for launch.

In terms of aesthetics, the VoxLink is smaller, and so takes up less real estate on a night table or desk, and a bit sleeker compared with the boxier CellSocket.

Another possible advantage with VoxLink is a feature for those who have a certain type of home wiring that would enable them to route their wireless calls to all the phones in the house.

Though certainly an appealing feature, the instruction manual probably will be mind-numbing or intimidating for anyone who isn't familiar with the esoterics of standard phone wiring.

I managed to get this feature to work on one of my phones, but not all of them, and that's where I gave up.

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