Test Run: Phone Home

Get the 411 on these tech-savvy home telephones.

Since the dawn of the cellular revolution, more people have been cutting the cord to their landlines. But quietly, home telephones have been undergoing a revolution of their own. Advanced features compete with the most technologically advanced cell phones — some even work in conjunction with them — so you can memory dial, conference call and even surf the Web at the touch of a button. Whether you want a multitasking phone for your home office, a ringing fashion statement or just a handset that will leave you cramp-free after two hours long-distance to your grandmother in Italy, one of these phones is calling your name.

BEST DRESSED: Bang & Olufsen BeoCom 2
There’s no denying this phone has style. With its sleek, narrow aluminum handset (more comfortable than it looks) and range of colors (yellow, blue, black, silver or white), it’s more like a piece of art than a telephone. Even its ring is a pleasant hum. Good design is no surprise from Bang & Olufsen, but then, neither is the whopping price tag of $850. It’s hard to justify spending that much for a phone, no matter how nicely it rings, but for your money, the BeoCom 2 does give you function along with form. Unlike most landlines, which plug directly into a phone jack, this phone has a separate black wall base that covers your existing jack and acts as a router for your phone and up to eight handsets. You can also hook up two incoming lines — say, a business and a personal line — and designate certain phones to ring for each. You can even name your handsets so you don’t forget which phone is for which line or family member. An electronic phonebook stores up to 200 names and numbers. The only downside is the user guide, which doesn’t offer advice on troubleshooting. But if money’s no object and you’re in the market for a phone that’s a real conversation starter, this one’s for you. 4 bars out of 5

I’m a music nut, so the i5871 won me over the minute I realized I could record my own ringtones. Even though the ones that come with the phone aren’t bad (ranging from “Deep Beat,” a clubby-techno song, to the jamming “Steel Tone”), I decided to download some from my personal collection. Happily, it was easy — I plugged the audio patch cord into the handset and popped the other end into the headphone jack on my computer, opened iTunes, and in minutes I was listening to Ben Harper’s “With My Own Two Hands” through the handset. If you don’t know what iTunes is, don’t worry–you can download songs directly from your stereo, too. With 15 seconds of memory per song, you don’t get much play time, but the sound quality is incredible. The same goes for actual conversations — even on speakerphone, voices sounded crisp and clear. The phone’s other features were slightly above average, too: You can add up to eight handsets without buying extra bases, and download images to use as wallpaper or a screensaver on a 65K color screen. But nothing tops never again having to say, “Can you hear me now?” 5 bars out of 5

With so much wireless technology, it’s hard to understand why cords still exist. But on the RCA Retro Phone, it just works. Sure, you have to stay put while you gab (the cord only extends about six feet), but this phone has plug-and-play action. It’s ready to go right out of the box — no battery charging or programming required. Although its button keypad ruins the retro look a bit, you can choose a pulse dialing option if you want a more authentic feel. Still, while it’s a nice nostalgic piece for remembering your Pretty in Pink teenage years, it’s not built to meet the needs of today’s demanding caller: The reception is no more than decent, there are no ringtone options, you can only store 10 phone numbers, and the receiver is on the small end and uncomfortable for conversations longer than 10 minutes. But hey, for $20, it’s better than a calling card. 3 bars out of 5

MOST TALKATIVE: Polycom VoiceStation 300
Finally — a phone that makes three-ways more fun. The speakerphone’s trio of built-in microphones works well for conference calls, making this a great choice for home offices. I didn’t have any important conference calls to make, but I did have dishes to do and some juicy gossip to get from a friend. I set the phone on my kitchen table, dialed her number and started washing dishes. Just to make things interesting, I turned on the TV, too. The conversation went smoothly and audibly — she didn’t even know she was on speakerphone until I told her, and she was loud and clear on my end. The range, sound quality and background-noise filter sold me on this phone, but workaholics will also appreciate how it connects to fax machines, tape recorders, the Internet, and has an optional handset (though none is included) for more private conversations — like if the gossip is about me. 4 bars out of 5

The Uniden has everything you could possibly want out of a phone and then some. It has Bluetooth capabilities, downloadable picture and ringtone features, an answering machine, and can be used as a walkie-talkie within your signal range. You can even download your contacts from Microsoft Outlook in minutes. Seems like feature overload, doesn’t it? It’s not — despite a 101-page user guide, it only took me maybe five minutes to link my cell phone to the Uniden. Before long, I was answering a call from my cell phone on my house line. This is the best feature this phone offers — if you link your phones, you can still receive calls from both lines. So you can conceivably chat on any phone in the house and still use your cell phone minutes. My only complaint is cosmetic — the handset looks like a flip phone from about five years ago. I wish it looked as hip as it is. 5 bars out of 5

Now your Verizon DSL can power up with your landline to form a convenient hub of information with the Verizon One phone. It’s lightweight, has a good sound quality and comes with tons of options — probably more than you need. Check stocks, program your zip code to see local restaurants and movie times, and keep your calendar. Installation at first wasn’t such a breeze — I couldn’t get my phone to link up with my Internet — I thought it may have been because I have a Mac and the One is more friendly to PCs. But the support staff helped me reboot my phone without breaking a sweat and in no time I was able to get started. I changed the background on the 6-inch color screen, set the time, and with one touch of the stylus pen, I was browsing through the day’s top headlines. The only thing that may hinder your decision to purchase this phone is the fine print — you must be a Verizon DSL customer to enjoy all of the benefits. The phone itself may be enough to make you switch. 5 bars out of 5