From the April 1998 issue of Startups

Today's office phones are more than just a means of communicating with the outside world. Features such as cordless mobility and programmable memory banks have turned phones into productivity tools that allow businesspeople to keep in touch with their customers without being tied to a desk or searching frantically through piles of paper for that all-important phone number.

Choosing the right multiline phone for your office is simply a matter of balancing your needs against your budget. If your business requires that you roam freely through the office, consider a cordless multiline phone. While many early-model cordless phones suffered from static and limited range, the 900 MHz radio frequency used by newer models minimizes these problems.

An automatic channel search feature ensures other cordless phones in your area don't interfere with yours--if one channel is being used, the phone simply hops over to a clear one. Some phones equipped with digital technology contain a microchip that encrypts your conversation to prevent eavesdropping.

If you're still concerned about security (or how long the battery charge will last), you should stick to traditional corded models. Plenty of these boast features that turn your telephone into a receptionist, sans the long lunch hours. Caller ID will tell you who is calling before you pick up the receiver; it works even if you're already on the phone with someone else. (Before buying a phone with this feature, make sure your local telephone company can handle Caller ID.)

Most newer speakerphones--which are great for conference calls--feature full-duplex speakers that won't cut you off if others interrupt. Some of the more expensive models even include a digital (tapeless) answering machine to handle after-hours calls.

Here's a look at a variety of office phones to suit small-business needs.

Vodavi Communication Systems infinite DVXPlusI

Phone: (800) 821-2161

Price: $300-$500 (price varies by region)

Features: Caller ID and call duration display, full-duplex speakerphone, 40-number system speed-dial memory

Warranty: two years

Designed specifically with small-business needs in mind, these digital, corded office phones offer cost-control features such as toll restriction, an intercom and a message waiting light for improved user productivity, and after-hours attendant controls with a Night Mode. There is also plenty of room for growth: These phones can handle up to six lines and are Computer Telephone Integration (CTI) ready for hassle-free linking to your computer system when used with Vodavi's Discovery CT.

Nortel Venture

Phone: (800) 4-NORTEL

Price: $319.95

Features: Caller ID, call duration display, full-duplex speakerphone, 200-name and -number directory

Warranty: one year, parts and labor

The Venture is a corded, three-line, analog phone that makes installation and setup easy with multilingual LCD screen prompts and a simple design. Equipped with a message-waiting light for use with voice-mail systems, the Venture gives you 30 telephone-management options, including dialing restrictions on toll calls and 900 numbers. A Venture model that incorporates a digital answering device is expected to be released in June.

Sharp CL-981ID

Phone: (800) BE-SHARP

Price: $219.99

Features: Backlit Caller ID with call-waiting display, Instant Call Back Key, 50-number call log and 20-number speed-dial memory

Warranty: one year, parts and labor

This single-line, cordless digital phone uses the 900 MHz radio frequency band, which eliminates signal blocking from walls and other obstacles, and Adaptive Delta Pulse Code Modulation to clear the line of static. Digital voice scrambling maintains transmission privacy, and a long battery life gives the handset seven hours of talk time and seven days of standby when away from the base unit.

Casio PhoneMate CP-760

Phone: (310) 618-9910

Price: $139

Features: Caller ID and call-waiting display with 75-number "Display and Dial" log, speakerphone

Warranty: one year, parts and labor

The CP-760 is a two-line cordless phone produced by PhoneMate, Casio's small-business telephone division. While it does use the 46/49 MHz band, this older technology is augmented by Optimum Channel Memory, which scans through 25 channels to find the clearest, and a patented UltraClear noise reduction circuit. This phone is a good choice for those in densely populated urban areas where interference from other phones is a problem.

Panasonic KX-TCC912

Phone: (800) 212-PANA

Price: $199.95

Features: Caller ID and call-waiting display with 30-number name and number memory, speakerphone

Warranty: one year, parts and labor

The KX-TCC912 is a single-line, cordless, 900 MHz unit with a unique design that incorporates the Caller ID display into the back of the handset instead of on the base. Battery standby life is 14 days; a spare battery charger is built into the base unit.

The auto security feature has more than 1 million digital security codes to keep snoops in the dark, and Panasonic's Sound Charger technology helps filter out conventional background noise. The KX-TCC942 model has all these features plus a built-in digital answering machine for $279.95.

Lucent Technologies 932

Phone: (800) 783-9248

Price: $100

Features: LCD display, speakerphone, 32-number memory

Warranty: one year, parts and labor

For an office on a tight budget, this two-line phone fits the bill. Equipped with a Distinctive Ring feature that tells you which line a call is coming in on, the 932 can be wall-mounted or placed on a desk and is even hearing-aid compatible.