Joe Clark: joeclark.org (E-mail)
[Originally written 1994 |
Updated here 1999.07.04]
Pick hit: AT&T Digital Answering System Speakerphone 1545
Must to avoid: Philips Enhanced Telephone
With the home becoming an office for thousands of telecommuters, the phone is becoming more than a means of talking and listening. Two big trends in postmodern phones:
A sampling of these postmodern phones:
AT&T DIGITAL ANSWERING SYSTEM SPEAKERPHONE 1545: This grandly-named model ($230) features four mailboxes that record on chips, not cassettes; up to 16 preset phone numbers; HOLD and MUTE keys; a choice of two answering-machine greetings (e.g., one for weekends, another for weekdays); and a synthesized male voice with pleasant intonations that announces the day and time of each message before playing it. Those of us who have learned to live with autotaxic cassette-based answering machines that loudly click and whirr like a robot in a 1950s sf movie will love the 1545's quiet operation: You can turn the ringer off and adjust the answering-machine volume low enough that you can take an undisturbed nap in the same room as the 1545 and miss no calls.
A liquid-crystal display shows the number you're calling, how many calls are in each box, and so on. The LCD's backlighting is so bright it could attract mosquitoes on a summer night, but that makes it all the more readable. Only some of the displayed information is duplicated by the synthesized voice, though, meaning that blind users cannot tell how many messages each mailbox contains without either calling into the phone from another location (the 1545 will announce the number of messages then) or listening to the contents of each mailbox and keeping count. And the 1545's buttons, while pleasing to the touch, are arranged in groups in which all buttons have the same shape and feel-- again, not helpful for blind users. (The exception is the PLAY key, which is concave instead of convex. Why not go all the way, AT&T, and make all the buttons distinguishable by touch?) And while the LCD does display the word RINGING when the phone rings, there's no flashing light or similar indicator to get a hard-of-hearing person's attention, though presumably cranking the volume all the way up would help there.
The 1545's handset becomes uncomfortably warm a few hours after you first activate the phone and stays that way; it's also a bit too rectilinear for comfortable holding in curvy human hands. And when, I ask in desperation, will phone makers clue into the fact that some people need to store phone numbers longer than 16 digits (the 1545's limit)? I need 18 just to plug into my long-distance carrier, plus 11 more for the actual number; I have to spread that load across three keys on the 1545. The voicemail function is not good at recognizing when a caller has decided to hang up rather than leave a message; it doesn't delete the clunk of the caller's handset. While picking up the 1545's handset turns off the speakerphone, picking up the handset of an extension phone on the same line doesn't. I found that only somewhat speedy dialing could cause the 1545 to miss a digit or two; since there is no computer-like backspace key to fix errors in dialing, you have to hang up and start from scratch. If that happens at digit 28 of your 29-digit calling sequence, you'll be pissed. Still, the 1545 shows generally intelligent design. Can't wait for the next generation. A MINUS
SONY IT-A3000: Potential purchasers are supposed to be wowed by the $300 IT-A3000's Digital Message Shuttle, a jog wheel (like those on high-end VCRs) that lets you play back messages at variable speeds. I found this feature of little use when it worked at all; most of the time it didn't. I'd shuffle the Shuttle and hear either nothing or what sounded suspiciously like normal-speed playback.
The IT-A3000 has a speakerphone and three voxmailboxes, but using them is an exercise in frustration. The IT-A3000's puny LCD isn't backlit, shows only five digits of a dialed phone number at a time (how many phone numbers are only five digits long?), and uses dim little icons to notify you when messages are stored in mailboxes 2 and 3. (An LED blinks when the main mailbox, number 1, contains a message.) Twice I missed these little icons and spent a couple of days not knowing that people had called me.
The Sony phone is a sleek black number with a beautiful smooth metal handset, but that material only accentuates the heat it picks up. The AT&T 1545 handset is merely warm; the IT-A3000 is almost frighteningly hot. I hated the dial-pad buttons; their M&M-like shape, smooth finish, and shallow detents (i.e., they don't travel very far when you push them) make it difficult to dial accurately. While there are only six preset keys to store frequently-used phone numbers (and for some reason the redial key doesn't work if you used one of those keys to dial the number the first time), you can store more numbers using a special macro-like key and the dial-pad buttons; one of those slots is big enough for my mammoth long-distance access code.
The phone's synthesized female voice is hard to understand and announces the day and time of a call after playing the recording, which seems unnatural for a reason I can't put my finger on. The voice does not quite know how to articulate certain times of the day: 5:09 P.M. is pronounced as "five nine P.M." And once you get the phone home, you absolutely postively need the manual to set it up; even setting the time and date is, as they say in computers, nontrivial. The house that Morita built has to be able to do better than this. C PLUS
PHILIPS ENHANCED TELEPHONE, alias the P100 SCREEN PHONE: The P100 is a sincere but fatally flawed attempt at mating computers and telephones. You get standard phone features like preset keys and a speakerphone along with computery features like a keyboard, a dialing directory to store phone numbers, and ports for adding a printer or an external keyboard. The P100's computer components, while functional for TT use, are actually intended for those fabled Information Superhighway services we're all supposed to be clamoring for: Home banking, home shopping, BBSing, and the like. Philips' research suggests that Joe and Jane Average Citizen are more likely to accept a phone with computer overtones than a computer with phone overtones.
Maybe. But Joe and Jane Average Citizen can't set the clocks on their VCRs. As an expert user of phones and computers (there are millions of us out there), I resent the way the P100 fails as an exotic phone and as a basic computer. For example, it has only four preset keys for commonly-dialed numbers; one of them is a big red panic button intended to be programmed to dial 911 or equivalent, and all have artificially low capacities. The P100 is the only phone I've used that won't work with a headset. (When I complained about this, Philips asked my why I need a headset when the P100 already has a speakerphone. I don't want one or the other; I want both.) Despite all the computer brainpower in the P100, you can't time the duration of a call.
The P100 can automatically detect if it's connected to another phone or a TT and flip into the correct mode. If you're TTing someone who can speak but not hear or vice-versa, you can switch from TT to voice mode at the press of a key, a feature known in the industry as voice carryover (VCO). This means you could type your messages to a friend who can speak; your friend could then reply using speech. It's a sophisticated feature, though you have to wait a couple of seconds every time you switch modes.
The joy of text is limited, though, by the P100's slide-out keyboard, which gives new meaning to the word "Chiclet." Tiny keys are arranged in what could charitably be described as an innovative layout, with the Return key at bottom right (labeled with a nonstandard icon), the apostrophe next to the P, and so on. Ten-finger touch-typing is impossible, forcing me to stare at the keyboard while typing. This turns me into a slave of the P100, which I rather resent.
The TT function is dumb enough to lack word wrap: A word that doesn't fit at the end of the line is simply broken at the end of that line instead of being brought down to the next line and kept in one piece. The directory feature, which lets you store names, numbers, and a setting indicating whether the number is TT or voice, is powerful and Sharp Wizard-like but inconvenient to use, requiring you to page through a few screens of commands just to get to the directory, then more keypresses to find a specific name. The LCD isn't backlit, making it hard to read, and does not display the minimum number of characters per row (80) and lines per screen (24) needed to function as a real computer terminal. Any home-banking services would have to be set up specifically for the P100's unusual screen dimensions. I would call the P100 a white elephant if it weren't also available in black. D
ULTRATEC UNIPHONE 1000: Less ambitious and less expensive ($229 from 800-482-2424), the Uniphone is a simple voice phone and TT in one unit. Ultratec is the leading supplier of standalone TTs (of the sort you see in AT&T commercials) and knows what it's doing when it comes to multistandard TT modems-- the Uniphone connected to every TT I rang, including one in England. But dialing is such an ordeal. A DIAL key on the keypad can override the setting of the little switch on which the handset rests, so the phone might not be hung up even if the handset is on the cradle. And the Uniphone entirely lacks a dial pad; you have to use the numbers on the keyboard to dial. To send the star (*) and pound (#) signals ubiquitous in the voicemail age, you have to press Shift plus a keyboard key. This is the telephone equivalent of a penalty box and is untenable. The Uniphone ought to make like a Trimline and include a dial pad in the handset.
The keyboard is little better than the P100's; Ultratec describes its tiny size as a deliberate feature meant to make buyers think of the Uniphone as a (surprise!) "universal phone" instead of a TT with a phone attached. Piffle. I've seen five-dollar calculators with more readable screens than the Uniphone's dim LCD, and again there is no word wrap. You'd best keep a keen eye on that display, too, because unlike most standalone TTs, there's no printer to record your words (not even a printer port). Though deaf people are a primary market for the Uniphone, there is no visible ring indicator. Ultratec promises to soon release a new and improved Uniphone 1100 with a backlit display, auto-answer capability, and a flashing ring indicator, among other niceties. Buy that one instead. C PLUS