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Walkie Talkies

Today's supersonic phones let you wander far from your desk.

See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.

If you're still tied to your desktop phone, it's time to think about gaining more freedom. Go cordless, and you can get rid of that extra long phone cord you thought would stretch from your desk to your stockroom--but doesn't quite reach. Worried about static and out-of-range problems you've heard plague cordless phones? Don't fret: The newest models have far-reaching power, pizzazz and zero interference.

Today's 900 MHz digital cordless phones feature a compact, battery-powered handset that's much less cumbersome than last year's models. You can carry the handset around or tuck it into your pocket while the base remains on your desk.

Telecommunications' new technology buzz-phrase, spread spectrum (SS), almost guarantees clear transmission and wide-ranging capabilities. Digital technology has been around for a few years in the form of a microchip that sends phone calls in computer code over the airwaves, also called the radio spectrum. While digital is hot, replacing slower, static-filled analog 46-49 MHz models, SS is even hotter. The term means that the radio bandwidth has been broadened and spread over a larger spectrum. Casio PhoneMate calls its Rockwell-developed technology Digital Spread Spectrum (DSS), while Panasonic dubs it Spread Spectrum Technology (SST).

Basically, SS seeks a free signal over a far larger area than standard digital phones, although both use the same 900 MHz frequency, or radio band. If a channel is busy, the phone call automatically hops from one channel to another, in a fraction of a second, so your call can go through.

With SS, stronger, clearer frequencies mean less interference and better voice quality, while wide bandwidths mean you can travel as far as a mile from the base unit. While manufacturers are reluctant to specify exact ranges, they claim that SS phones have a range four to seven times greater than the 300-to-500-foot range of standard analog cordless phones. Panasonic and Casio say their SS models provide a range of up to 4,000 feet under optimum conditions. Although variables such as steel buildings can affect reception, the 900 MHz frequency is unaffected by computers, microwaves or other electronic equipment.

Another huge advantage of digital SS technology is that it encrypts your voice messages, scrambling them into basic computerspeak, which makes it almost impossible for people to eavesdrop on your calls. Most new digital cordless phones include security codes as a standard feature. Casio's CP-850 uses 16 million random security codes that change every time the handset is placed in the cradle.

Having to keep a portable cordless phone handset powered up has been considered a drawback, but batteries have improved greatly over the past several years. Today, most have a standby life of seven to 14 days, depending on your usage. To guard against power loss, some manufacturers supply a battery-recharging unit, either built-in or separate, and recommend users keep a spare battery continually charged.

There is a great variety of digital SS cordless phones from which to choose, and manufacturers offer full lines, from basic units to top-of-the-line models loaded with the latest features. Sanyo offers seven different spread spectrum phones. VTech Communications, which has a 50 percent share of the U.S. market, has 18 900 MHz digital cordless models and two SS versions.

A number of digital cordless phones are space savers with three-in-one functions: base phone, cordless phone and answering machine. SOHO owners who prefer multiple features can check out models with two phone lines, built-in answering machines with remote message pickup from the handset, call waiting, caller ID and two-way paging. Some have speakerphones built into the base that allow users to send and receive calls if the handset is elsewhere. Uniden includes a clip on its handset so you can attach it to a belt.

In addition to standard features such as hold and pause buttons and automatic redial, the latest digital cordless phones are packed with extra features. These include low-battery warning and a find signal for when you've lost the handset. Sharp's Call Log even allows users to scroll through the last 50 incoming calls and then press "send" to call back.

Here's a list of features and their functions on most digital SS cordless phones:

*Battery standby life. The length of time the phone handset can function away from its base before needing to be recharged. Some models require you to turn off the ringer to achieve the maximum standby life.

*Display screen. A screen on which dialed numbers, caller ID and other messages are shown.

*Distinctive ring. This ring sounds different from the normal telephone ring and alerts you to specific callers you've designated as important.

*Dual battery system. Some phones come with two batteries and a battery-recharging unit so you'll never run out of power. You can recharge the spare battery while the other one powers the handset.

*Dual keypad. Some models have a keypad on the handset and the base unit.

*Find signal. Forgot where you left the handset? The signal pages your lost handset from the base unit.

*Flash memory. Indefinitely saves autodial numbers and stored caller ID data in the event of power failure.

*Memory. Electronically lists and saves telephone numbers to a memory bank for speed dialing with a number or a button.

*Two-way paging. Pages the base unit from the handset and vice versa, and serves as an intercom for a remote, two-way conversation.

A final word: Our chart displays specifications for 900 MHz digital SS cordless phones, but if you rarely move more than 300 feet from your desk yet need the flexibility of a remote cordless phone, a standard version such as VTech's VT1930c may be more appropriate for your needs than an SS model.

Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.

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This article was originally published in the May 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Walkie Talkies.

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