Cordless phones buying guide

What to look for when buying a digital cordless phone.
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  • Updated:25 Jun 2008

01.Cordless phones buying guide

Cordless phone on table

Digital cordless phones are about to push analogue models off the market. They provide better sound quality and encrypt your conversation, so eavesdropping isn't likely to be an issue (unless someone has access to a high-tech scanner as used by the military or government) - particularly important if you use your credit card over the phone.

Digital technology allows for small and lightweight handsets that not only look similar to mobile phones, but also come with features and functions that used to be the domain of mobiles - such as an LCD display, caller ID, landline SMS and a choice of (sometimes polyphonic) ringtones.

There are currently two digital systems:

  • Digital enhanced cordless telecommunications (DECT)
  • Digital spread spectrum (DSS).

DSS is claimed to have langer range and better sound quality.

On the downside, DSS phones are more likely to interfere with other wireless applications they share their frequency band with.

The DECT frequency band is exclusive to cordless phones, so interference is unlikely.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

What to look for

  • Cordless phones rely on mains power, so keep an additional ordinary phone for emergency use in case of a power failure.
  • Before you buy, add up the ringer equivalence numbers (REN) of the equipment you already have connected to your phone line. Any phone, fax, answering machine, etc, draws from the line’s capacity. The amount drawn is the REN, which is usually printed on the bottom of the appliance. Generally, phone lines have maximum REN capacity of 3. If the sum of the RENs of your appliances exceeds this, they may not work properly (for example, the phone may not ring).
  • Type: If you're using your home phone for credit card transactions, or are worried about other people using scanners to listen in to your conversations, go for a digital model. There are different systems: the majority of tested models are DECT phones, which operate in a frequency band that's reserved for cordless phones. So they're unlikely to interfer with other wireless appliances. DSS models share their frequency bands (2.4 and 5.8 GHz) with other wireless appliances and may therefore interfere with them. So if you have other wireless appliances at home, a DECT model may be a better option for you.
  • Consider whether you want a model with an integrated answering machine. None of the models in this test has one.
  • Try the handset before you buy to make sure it’s not too small or too heavy, is comfortable to hold and fits well to your face.
  • If you have a large house, a model that supports multiple handsets (for example, one on each floor) is useful. It also allows you to switch calls between handsets, and with some models to make free calls from handset to handset via an intercom. Additional handsets are available for most of the tested models.
  • Alternatively, look for a model with a dial pad and speaker on the base, which allows you to make calls from the base.
  • If applicable, check whether the phone is compatible with a hearing aid, and the sound is loud and clear enough. None of the models in this test claims to be. However, according to audiologists, there shouldn't be any interference between the tested phones and newer-style digital hearing aids, as some of their components are lined to avoid this problem. If you're using an older hearing aid you may find it's incompatible with digital cordless phones, and you may have to get an analogue one.
  • Headset connection: Using a headset can be handy if you make long calls or need to make notes during them.
  • SMS compatible: This allows you to send and receive short text messages (SMS) on your home phone. (Note: This service is currently only available to Telstra customers.)
  • Polyphonic ringtones: Similar to mobile phones - polyphonic ringtones are more music-like than conventional ones.
  • Look for clearly labelled, large keys and a backlit keypad, which is handy if you need to use the phone in poor light.

Features they (almost) all have

  • LCD display
  • Caller ID compatible: If you’ve subscribed to caller ID, the phone lets you know the number a call is coming from, unless the owner has requested anonymity.
  • Digital signal encryption secures your conversations and over-the-phone credit card transactions from eavesdropping by all but the most high-tech scanners.
  • Last number redial
  • Pager from base station to handset, which is useful if you’ve lost the handset around the house or in the garden.
  • Battery-low indicator
  • Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries. These don’t contain toxic cadmium, and are therefore safer to dispose of at the end of their life than older-style NiCads.
  • Adjustable ringer volume and voice volume control settings on the handset.
  • Out of-range warning
  • Mute button
  • Call waiting compatible
  • At least five ring tones
  • At least 10 phone book entries (most have more)
  • Call log for at least the last 10 calls
  • Hands-free use
  • In case you’re interested, they’re all made in China.

Ready to buy? Check the results of our latest Cordless phone with answering machine test and cordless phone test.



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