I have been intrigued for a couple of years now by gadgets that can make your cell phone and home phone work better together. They let you use any phone in your house to make and receive cell calls. That means you can use regular cordless (or corded) handsets to take advantage of free long-distance minutes on your cell plan. You can get several family members on extensions to share the weekly call to the grandparents. And you can answer cell calls in dead zones, places in your house where the signal doesn't reach.
Now three companies -- Motorola (MOT ), RCA, and Uniden -- have come out with cordless phone systems that almost seamlessly integrate home and cell phones. They're a huge improvement over the adapters sold by a couple of small companies, which let you hook up your cell to a single conventional phone.
You can see how these new units work just by looking at the handsets. The simplest have buttons that say "land" and "mobile," or "home" and "cell." Pick up the handset, choose the line you want to use, and make your call. You also can program the systems to use different ringtones so you know whether you're getting a call on your land line or cell phone.
I used all three for a couple of weeks and liked the RCA 23200 and Motorola SD4500 Series models the best. Their setups are similar. Each comes with a base station, which includes a cordless handset, and a separate docking station for your cell phone. You plug the base into a phone jack and an electric outlet. The docking station, which also recharges your phone, requires only an electrical outlet. The idea is that you can put it someplace else in your house -- either a convenient location, such as where you usually recharge your cell, or in the spot that gets the clearest cellular reception.
The RCA system sells for $120 to $130, and extra handsets run about $50 apiece. (The system can handle up to two more.) Each component of Motorola's is sold separately so that you can piece together the system you need. The cell dock runs $72 to $98, depending on where you buy it. There's a simple handset and base station ($52 to $66) like RCA's, and others that include answering machines ($52 to $90). You can add up to seven extra handsets for $40 to $50 each. There's also a video camera, which I didn't test, in case you want to use the system to monitor a baby's room, for example.
Uniden took a more ambitious approach, and it doesn't work as well. At around $250, it's the most expensive of the three systems. Instead of a docking station, your cell and the cordless phones are connected by a Bluetooth radio link. I had trouble getting the connection to work on a Nokia 6682, a brand-new Bluetooth phone: The Uniden's flip-open handset would connect to the cell phone and dial the number, but I couldn't talk over it or hear the person I had called. It worked fine, however, with a Nokia (NOK ) 7610 phone.
After I got it working, I discovered that the Uniden cordless phone didn't have the range of the RCA and Motorola systems. It would just drop the call if I got too far away. That's not a Bluetooth problem; the cordless phone just isn't as good.
If you really want a Bluetooth connection between your cell and home phones, check out the Dock-N-Talk ($210 with the Bluetooth module) at phonelabs.com. It doesn't come with a cordless phone, but if you already have one, you can plug it in and make cell calls using that phone. To get it to work much the same way as the new phone systems -- with both cell and land-line service -- you'll need to get a cordless phone system that's designed to handle two separate land lines.
None of the systems work with all cell phones. Because Bluetooth units bypass the proprietary hardware connections that cell-phone makers use, they theoretically will work with the most. Uniden says it has tested the phone with 36 models, and Dock-N-Talk works with more than 600, though you'll have to buy a $20 adapter cable to use it with non-Bluetooth phones. RCA's comes with adapters for Motorola, Nokia, and Sony Ericsson phones and can handle about 60 models. Motorola's only works with Motorola phones, and not even all of those. (It couldn't accept my V220, for example.)
All three phones come with Caller ID and a memory for speed-dialing your calls. With extra handsets, two people can use the phones simultaneously, one on the land line and one on the cell. And you can use the Uniden and Motorola phones as an intercom within your home.
You don't even need a land line for these systems to work. If you have an old cell phone lying around, add it to your mobile service plan for an extra $10 per month or so, and drop it into a docking station. You'll get most of the advantages of both land and wireless -- multiple extensions throughout the house and free long-distance calls and voice mail -- without a monthly home phone bill.
To see how these cell phone docking stations work, watch BusinessWeek Weekend. Please check your local TV listings or go to businessweekweekend.com to view this and other stories from our weekly TV program.
By Larry Armstrong