From the September 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Running a small business by yourself or with a small staff often means you have to cover a lot of ground around the office. Taking along a cordless phone ensures you don't miss important calls--until you walk out of range or get static on the line. Lack of clarity, restricted range and interference are among the most frequent complaints about cordless phones. It isn't unusual to even hear other people's conversations or phones ringing on your line. Frustrated with these limitations, some businesspeople have resorted to installing phone extensions everywhere, a costly solution.

Fortunately, the latest cordless phones have moved to the next level, where static has been virtually eliminated and range greatly extended, thanks to digital technology and powerful frequency bands. Digital cordless phones have much wider bands to accommodate more channels, resulting in almost static-free transmissions. For example, Lucent Technologies' phones, the bestselling phones on the market (formerly sold under the AT&T logo), provide users with 173 channels. Thomson Consumer Electronics' digital cordless phone (sold under the General Electric logo) provides 100 channels.

All digital cordless phones in our chart are on the 900 MHz radio band frequency, providing ranges of up to 4,000 feet (about three-quarters of a mile) and high-quality voice clarity. Standard cordless phones use the 43 to 46 MHz frequency and have a range of up to 500 feet. Don't judge a phone only by its range, though; buildings, weather and terrain can affect sound quality and reception. A longer range, however, means you can move farther away and receive a clearer signal as the phone automatically switches to a better channel on the band.

Digital technology also means more security. Digital phones have a microchip that encrypts signals and scrambles them across a wide spectrum to help protect against eavesdropping--important if you have security-sensitive phone conversations. Sanyo's QuietLine model protects signals with 16 million security codes to prevent unauthorized use of your phone line by other cordless phone users (if someone is using a similar phone nearby, he or she could latch onto your channel, and you'd be billed for the call) and to guard against false rings from other cordless phones. One model, Uniden's EXI 960, offers call waiting ID and provides new caller alert, a beep that tells you when you have another call.

Many new cordless phone systems employ tapeless voice mail technology, allowing users to do away with their answering machines. Although these phone systems have greater time restrictions and some cannot save as many messages as standard answering machines, they provide three conveniences in one package: cordless phone, base unit and voice mail. Other features on the new phones include time and date stamp. Panasonic's model, for instance, uses a synthesized voice to inform users of the time and date each message was received.

Some of the new cordless phones have standby modes that allow the handset to function away from the base unit for several days, but you may have to switch off the ringer or other features to get the benefit. If you need a two-line phone, check out Sony's model SPP-M920, which has three-way conference capability so users can talk simultaneously on two lines with separate outside parties.

Most digital cordless phones can be plugged into a wall jack. Toshiba's phones are the exception; they can only be used with the company's own $350 to $500 Strata DK8 digital key phone system.

Feature Facts

Deciding what you need before you shop can save money. Here is a list of the most popular features:

Auto scan channel-hopping: This feature automatically scans various frequencies for the channel with the greatest clarity.

Call log: This feature stores the last few numbers dialed on the handset so the user can scroll through if necessary.

Call waiting ID: If you want to know who's calling on call waiting, the screen identifies the caller's phone number and, on some models, the name of the caller.

Channels: Cordless phones using the 900 MHz radio band automatically monitor a variety of transmission channels and select the clearest one. Lots of channels means your phone has a greater chance of switching to another one if you encounter interference.

Digital security codes: These help prevent unauthorized use of your phone line and protect against false rings from other cordless phones in the area.

Memory telephone numbers: This feature allows you to store telephone numbers in memory.

Out-of-range alert: This beep lets you know you've walked out of frequency range while using the phone, and you need to move closer to the base unit.

Page find: Some phones have a one-way paging system to help you locate the phone if you misplace it; other phones have two-way paging to alert either party that the other is looking for them.

Range: If your work area is small, a short range may be all you need; if you wander more than 1,000 feet from your desk, look for a long-range model.

Standby time: This is the number of minutes, hours or days the phone handset can function away from the base unit without being recharged.

Time and date stamp: Some phones display this on screen; others use a digitized voice.

Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.