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Cordless phones

Cordless phone buying guide

Last updated: November 2013
Getting started

Getting started

When shopping for a phone, you'll need to decide whether you want one with an integrated answerer. Many people still do, despite the ubiquity of cell phones with voice-mail capability. Single- and multiple-handset phones come in versions with a built-in answerer. Such phones often cost little more than comparable phone-only models and take up about the same space.

Features such as a speaker phone for hands-free communication, a keypad for dialing from the base, and a large LCD screen can help you get the most from your phone.

Some cordless models can stand in for your cell phone. By placing your cell phone near the cordless phone's base, you can access your wireless service using Bluetooth technology and use your cordless handset to make or take cell calls. Besides the convenience of using a cordless handset for all your calls, you might get better cell-phone reception within your home. (For example, if you don't get cell service in your basement, you might be able to make or take calls from there using the cordless handset.) It also makes it easier to use whichever account offers unused talk time. But before you buy such a phone, make sure your cell phone is compatible by checking the vendor's Web site. If you're considering an answerer, you need to consider:

Voice-quality differences

In our tests, we found some differences in the quality of the greeting and the recorded messages left by callers. Phones that let you record your greeting through the handset (using the remote handset access) usually sounded better. Some let you listen to your greeting through the handset, as opposed to listening through the base speaker; that gives you a better indication of how the greeting will sound to the calling party.

Types

A main distinction among cordless phones is whether or not they have a built-in answerer. Both types mostly use DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunication) technology. DECT phones use the 1.9-GHz frequency band, minimizing interference with devices such as microwave ovens, which use other frequencies. Today's DECT-powered cordless phones also tend to have relatively long talk times compared to analog phones and a longer range, so you can stray farther from the base. Some DECT phones support up to 12 handsets from one base and allow conferencing of handsets.

Cordless phones with answerers are only slightly larger and more expensive than their basic cousins. Besides being able to record messages, they let you listen to callers, a convenient way to screen calls. Typical answerer features include a selectable number of rings and a toll-saver, answerer on/off control, call screening, remote access, speaker-volume control, and a variety of ways to navigate through your messages. Most have one mailbox, a message day/time stamp, a message-counter display that indicates the number of messages received, and a visual indicator that lets you know when you have new messages. During a momentary power outage, most will retain messages and the greeting. Other, less-universal features you may want to consider are described in Features.

Features


Standard cordless phone features include handset earpiece volume control, handset ringer, last-number redial, a pager to locate the handset, a flash button to answer call waiting, and a low-battery indicator.

LCD screen


Found on many handsets and on some bases, this can display a personal phone directory and useful information such as the name and/or number dialed, caller ID, battery strength, or how long you've been connected. Caller ID displays the name and number of a caller and the date and time of the call if you use your phone company's caller ID service. If you have caller ID with call waiting, the phone will display data on a second caller when you're already on the phone.

Two-line support

These can receive calls for two phone numbers, a plus if you have a chatty family or run a small business from home. Some of the phones have two ringers, each with a distinctive pitch to let you know which line is ringing. The two-line feature also facilitates conferencing two callers in three-way connections.

Speakerphone


This cordless phone feature offers a hands-free way to converse or wait on hold and lets others chime in as well. A base speakerphone lets you answer a call without the handset; a handset speakerphone lets you chat hands-free anywhere in the house.

Base keypad


This supplements the keypad on the handset. It's handy for navigating menu-driven systems because you don't have to take the phone away from your ear to punch the keys. Some phones have a lighted keypad that either glows in the dark or lights up when you press a key, or when the phone rings. That makes the phone easier to use in low-light conditions. All phones have a handset ringer, and many phones have a base ringer. Some let you turn them on or off, adjust the volume, or change the ring tone.

Headset jack

Many cordless phones have a headset jack on the handset and include a belt clip for carrying the phone, useful if you want to chat while doing chores or walking about the house. Some phones have a headset jack on the base, which allows hands-free conversation without any drain on the handset battery. Headsets are usually sold separately for about $20.

Auto-talk

Other convenient cordless phone features include auto-talk, which lets you lift the handset off the base for an incoming call and start talking without having to press a button, and any-key answer. Some phones have a side volume control on the handset convenient for adjusting volume while you're on a call.

Battery backup

Some phones provide a battery holder for battery backup--a compartment in the base to charge a spare handset battery pack or to hold alkaline batteries for base-power backup, either of which can enable the phone to work on a traditional landline service if you lose household AC power. Some manufacturers have other backup features. Panasonic, for instance, says that you can place a charged handset in the base unit to make and receive calls with the other cordless handsets with some of its phones. Still, it's wise to keep a corded phone somewhere in your home.

Multiple handsets


Some multiple-handset-capable phones allow conversation between handsets in an intercom mode and facilitate conferencing handsets with an outside party. In intercom mode, the handsets have to be within range of the base for handset-to-handset use. Others lack this handset-conferencing capability; they allow you to transfer calls to another handset, but they don't allow more than one handset to take part in a call. Still other phones allow direct communication between handsets, so you can take them with you to use like walkie-talkies. Some phones can register up to 12 handsets, for example, but that doesn't mean you can use all 12 at once. You might be able to use two for handset-to-handset intercom, while two others conference with an outside party. With some models, it's possible to buy a replacement handset and charging cradle in case one breaks. With others, you'll have to purchase an entirely new system to keep that extension.

Caller ID


Some phones have Caller ID alerts. A phone with distinctive ring capability allows you to hear who is calling by associating the calling number with a specific ring tone. Some are visual, so you can tell who's calling by the handset display or the antenna flashing a particular color. Phones with talking Caller ID, also referred to as Caller ID announce, speak the name of the caller, which is useful because you don't have to view the display to know who's calling.

Mailboxes

Most phone-answerers have one mailbox. Some answerers have several mailboxes to which a caller can direct a voice message to an individual family member, or to separate business and personal calls, for example. That allows the convenience of listening to messages meant just for you.

Advanced playback controls

Most answerers can skip to the next message, skip back to a previous message, and repeat a message. But some also have fast playback for listening to messages more quickly, slow playback for deciphering a garbled message, and rewind to replay any message segment. Some models also have an audible message alert, typically a beep, that lets you know you have new messages without having to go look at the answerers' visual new message indicator. Some phones allow you to listen to messages from the handset and might even allow you to access to other answerer functions, such as recording your greeting; that offers more privacy and convenience.

Brands

AT&T arrow  |  Clarity arrow  |  GE arrow  |  Motorola arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Uniden arrow  |  VTech arrow

AT&T

This well-known cordless phone brand is owned by VTech. It offers a wide range of phones, with and without answering machines, for consumers and small business. Form factors include single- and multihandset models, cordless-corded combos, Bluetooth, multiline phones, and models designed with large, easy-to-read buttons/displays, and that amplify incoming sound. AT&T still offers stand-alone corded phones.

Clarity

Almost exclusively designed for people with visual or hearing impairments, Clarity's models amplify incoming sounds and have buttons that are large and easy-to-read, as are the text and numbers on their LCD displays.

GE

Thompson, the makers of GE cordless phones, has exited the retail telephone business in North America.  It may be possible to still find inventory in select retail outlets, but production has been discontinued.

Motorola

Motorola's product line, manufactured and distributed by its licensee Binatone Electronics International, has exited the retail telephone business in North America.  It may be possible to still find inventory in select retail outlets, but production has been discontinued.

Panasonic

The company has long focused on mid-to-higher-priced models in every form factor. Some trademark conveniences found on Panasonic phones include Talking Caller ID, Talking Alarm Clock, and Talking Battery Alert. Some models have Bluetooth technology for linking to your cell phone service. Some models claim to be shock resistant and splash resistant, while others have large, easy-to-read buttons/LCD displays, and amplify incoming sounds.  Panasonic still offers stand-alone corded phones.

Uniden

This market leader in the entry-to-mid-priced category offers a wide range of phones for consumers and business. Its specialized offerings include rugged and waterproof handsets, and models with large, easy-to-read buttons/LCD displays, and that amplify incoming sounds. It also offers Bluetooth models.

VTech

This market leader offers consumers a wide range of phones that emphasizes technological innovation and offers models with and without answering machines.  Form factors include single- and multihandset models, cordless and corded combos, Bluetooth models, and multiline phones.

Shopping tips

Decide on number of extensions

A single-handset phone is best suited for smaller homes where you're never far from the phone. Otherwise you might be happier with a multiple-handset phone, which supports (and usually includes) multiple handsets from one base. Each extra handset sits in its own charging cradle, without the need of a phone jack, making it easier to station a phone where you want it. With some models, it's possible to buy a replacement handset and charging cradle.

Settle on the features you want

Most phones come with caller ID, a headset jack, a speakerphone, and ringer in both the base and handset. See Important Features for others. Also check the phone's packaging or download the instruction manual from the manufacturer's Web site to confirm you're getting the features you want. As a rule, the more feature-laden the phone, the higher its price.

Decide on which performance nuances matter most to you

Our tests show that many new cordless phones have very good overall voice quality. Some are excellent, approaching the voice quality of the best corded phones. In our latest tests, most fully charged batteries provided 8 hours or more of continuous conversation before they needed recharging. Most manufacturers claim that a fully charged battery will hold its charge at least a week in standby mode. When the battery can no longer hold a charge, a replacement battery, usually proprietary, costs about $10 to $25. Some phones use less-expensive AA or AAA rechargeable batteries. (To find stores that recycle used cordless phone batteries, call 800-822-8837 or go to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.'s site at www.rbrc.org.

Try out the handset, if possible

In the store, hold the handset to see whether it fits the contours of your face. The earpiece should have rounded edges and a recessed center that fits nicely over the middle of your ear. Check the buttons and controls to make sure they're reasonably sized and legible.

Consider usability issues

More new phones have designs to enhance usability. That includes easier-to-read buttons and displays, visual "ringers" that signal an incoming call, talking caller ID, volume boost, and more. If anyone in your household has poor eyesight or hearing, it's worth looking for features like these.

Look for a cordless model with battery backup

Most cordless phones won't work without electricity unless they have some kind of power backup system. Some have a compartment in the charging base for a spare handset battery pack or for alkaline batteries for base-power backup. Some manufacturers have other backup features. Panasonic, for instance, says that you can place a charged handset in the base unit to make and receive calls with the other cordless handsets with some of its phones.

Don't discard your corded phones

It's a good idea to keep at least one corded phone with traditional landline service in your home, if only for emergencies. For most such models we've tested, the corded phone doesn't require AC power to make and receive calls, although electronic features such as the illuminated display and built-in phone directory might not work. Phones that combine a corded phone on the base with cordless handsets can give you that reliability plus greater mobility. But keep in mind that any phone connected to VoIP services or fiber-optic networks won't work if you lose electric power and don't have a backup battery for the phone modem.

Make sure you can return it

Before buying, check the return policy in case you encounter unexpected problems at home that you can't resolve, such as wireless interference.

   

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