Take Your Message Tape And Toss It

In this brave new world of anytime, anywhere communications, people get antsy about missing their phone calls. Which is why some 60% of U.S. households have an answering machine. Ah, but what a frustrating piece of equipment it is. The tape can break, the power can go out and leave messages unrecorded for hours, or you can mess up the complicated set of codes needed to check messages remotely and instead erase them all. As one anguished answering-machine victim wails: "With all of our techno-accomplishments, why can't someone come up with a foolproof way to handle phone messages?"

Well, they're trying. The latest key to more reliable performance is digital technology. The new crop of digital answering machines provides features unheard of in old-fashioned cassette-tape models. Local telephone companies with fancy digital switches are offering customers a home version of the voice-mail systems used by most offices. And a personal computer, when it is equipped with a modem and special software, can turn into the most sophisticated answering machine on the block.

NO MOVING PARTS. Digital answering machines have been around for about six years, but a recent wave of cheaper, easier-to-use models from AT&T, Sony, PhoneMate, Panasonic, and several other manufacturers makes this option more attractive. The big advantage: no moving parts. A microchip records incoming and outgoing messages. That one change makes a vast improvement in reliability, since the first thing to malfunction on most answering machines is the tape. Because the microchip is programmable, manufacturers can also build in such high-tech features as a gizmo to note the date and time of each message. And you can instantly play, replay, skip, or delete any message at whim.

The fanciest models act something like a switchboard. AT&T's 1545, for example, is a combination speakerphone and answering machine, with four mailboxes for incoming messages. You can record different outgoing messages and switch between them by just pushing a button. For each message, a display shows the date, time, and which incoming line it was on. It can store up to 26 minutes worth of messages.

Bogen Communications' Friday, billed as an "electronic receptionist," is even more elaborate. It features music-on-hold capabilities and remote call forwarding. This kind of gadgetry doesn't come cheap, though. The 1545 lists at $219.99 and the Friday at $399.

There are plenty of cheaper models. AT&T's 1339 lists for only $89.99. But it has a problem common to low-end digital machines: The microchip can't store as many messages as a tape. With the 1339, messages are limited to a minute in length, and total capacity is only seven minutes.

Sound quality is another negative. The recording on a microchip tends to be tinny and scratchy, so listen to several models before buying one. Some also lack a backup electrical supply. If there's a power outage, the messages vanish.

If all this seems too complicated, you can call your local phone company and order in-home voice mail. The service usually costs between $6 and $8 a month and is the ultimate in convenience. You just pick up your phone when you get home, and a beep will alert you to any messages. Punch in your password and retrieve your messages, recorded with the same sound quality as the public telephone system offers. The service is accessible from anywhere, offers lots of capacity, stores messages indefinitely, and, like digital machines, allows instant and random access. Of course, you pay for the service month after month, so it ultimately costs more than an answering machine, but it's about the most reliable of the available options. "Answering machines always break. The phone company doesn't," says Evan Schwartz, a Boston-based freelance writer, explaining why he chose home voice mail.

FEELING OF LOSS. That's not exactly true. Some home voice-mail subscribers complain that the service does go down at times--and when that happens, all the messages are lost. But breakdowns are rare. A more common complaint is the lack of any blinking message light. The only way to tell if a message has come in is to pick up the phone and check. "It's easy to forget," says Schwartz. But, he adds, "that's a convenient excuse for not calling someone back."

If you've laid out money for a PC in the past year, chances are you can turn that into the most cutting-edge answering machine around. Several manufacturers, including Compaq Computer, AST Research, and Packard Bell Electronics, offer computer-based phone-management systems as a standard feature. Just plug the computer's modem into the wall jack, and your PC can do voice mail--with a mailbox for each family member--as well as receive faxes. You can check your messages remotely, reroute them to another number, and even have the PC read you a fax or an electronic-mail message over the phone. In other words, you need never miss any message, ever.

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