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New digital telephones go the distance

With a greater range of operation and more features than analog models, they earn their high price tag.

July 24, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

When buying a cordless telephone, there's a basic choice: analog or digital. Or to put it another way: cheap versus expensive.

Analogs still fundamentally use the radio technology that revolutionized home telephones, freeing us all from a cord plugged into the wall, when they were introduced in the early 1980s.

But state-of-the-art digital models offer so much more in terms of range and features that they make analogs seem old-fashioned and almost laughable.

That is, until you look at the price tag.

Analogs, still made by major manufacturers such as Panasonic, Uniden and Vtech, cost as little as $15. They have, indeed, been surpassed technologically, but that doesn't mean they don't have their place, especially in small homes. Some analogs offer more pleasing sound quality than some digitals -- and look better as well.

Digitals offer a far greater range of operation, more features (including speakerphones in the handsets, which free you from walking around with a phone pressed to your ear while on hold) and in some cases better volume control, which is especially welcome when trying to converse with someone using a cell phone with a poor signal. They provide greater security, practically eliminating the ability of a snoopy neighbor to listen in on a conversation using a radio-scanner.

But digitals start at about $100 for the most basic model. Add a built-in answering machine, speakerphone, expandability and other goodies, and the price rises to $200 and more. For those who live in larger houses, digital would be the way to go, especially if the phone is going to be used in the yard.

Sometimes the best solution is to use both -- a digital model, including an answering machine, as the main phone and analogs in the kitchen, guest rooms and other parts of the house.

One note before getting into specific models: Every home should have at least one phone with a cord for use in emergencies. Cordless phones don't work if the electricity cuts out.



All analogs tested for this article operate on a 900 MHz frequency band, which offers huge improvements in range and volume over the first cordless models on 27 MHz.

According to a brief history of the technology on one of the most informative and enjoyable of Web sites, www.howstuff, the 900 MHz phones were introduced in 1990 for about $400.

The cordless Vtech VT00-9113 bought for this test normally costs about $15. Although the cheapest of the analogs tested, it had the longest range -- about 70 feet -- before static started breaking up conversation. It went 155 feet from its base station before cutting out completely. (Distances were calculated with a measuring wheel used in police investigations.)

This Vtech is also light in weight, and it sports a sleek design.

The downside is in sound quality. Incoming voices were somewhat harsh. Those who got test calls from the unit said it sounded distant.

Features are minimal: a redial button and programmable numbers (cumbersome to use without a screen).

The Uniden EXAI398 costs about $40, but that gets you a built-in answering machine, the ability to use Caller ID, volume control and a headset plug.

But this analog also did not get high marks for sound, either incoming or outgoing. And its styling -- a mismatch of plastic body and metal antenna -- made it something you would not treasure in the living room.

Panasonic's KX-TC1484, about $30, provides a warm, human sound. It doesn't have a speakerphone, but its redial, volume control, Caller ID and programmable dialing features are easy to use.

If you go digital for the main cordless phone, this would be a particularly good choice for an auxiliary unit.



Panasonic's digital KX-TG5100M (about $200 with built-in answering machine) got good marks from listeners for clarity, although some found the sound mechanical.

But it has an abundance of features, which are all designed to be user-friendly.

The answering machine setup was a snap (not always the case on digital phones) and played back messages with good fidelity. Its speakerphone was also quite clear sounding, both through the base unit and handset.

This was the best-looking of the digitals tested, but that's not a huge compliment.

On the downside, the Panasonic had the shortest range of the digitals tested -- about 85 feet.

Uniden's TRU5885 (about $200, including answering machine and extra headset) is a bargain compared with the Panasonic package. It has an abundance of features that are easy to use, and its range is quite long -- about 97 feet.

But the sound quality on both the phone and answering machine was not as good as on the Panasonic.

The Vtech 5881 ($159 with answering machine) did not do well in sound tests, although one tester appreciated the clarity of its mechanical crispness. It also had a nice range -- about 103 feet.

But the biggest problem with the Vtech concerns its complicated controls. Even its redial function is "nested," meaning that you have to use a screen menu to trigger the action.

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