A Guide to Answering Machines

In this digital phone age, most people regard answering machines as technology on its way out. But answering machines have a distinct advantage over the built-in voicemail programs on your cell phone or landline-they let you screen your messages as they're being left. This is crucial when you're unsure if Aunt Sally is just phoning for a marathon chat or has important news to share.

Standalone or In-Phone?
Both standalone and in-phone answering machines have their advantages. In homes or offices where the telephones themselves are in frequent use, standalone answering machines let you listen to, replay and organize messages without the use of the handset. Standalone machines are the best choice for busy households and small offices as they tend to offer more message storage space and more robust features than their abbreviated, built-in counterparts. If you don't need to save or log messages for later reference or if you rely more on your cell phone for incoming calls, in-phone answering machines offer you the basic benefits of standalone units without a host of features you're unlikely to use.

Recording Options
Digital recording has replaced the tape-recording technology and delivers greater audio clarity on playback. Look for answering machines that allow you to set the length of recorded messages at a variety of increments (usually one minute, four minutes or no-limit). Setting the message length determines the overall number of messages your answering machine can record and limits how long each caller can speak.

For businesses, choose an answering machine that doesn't limit message length. This gives your customers and vendors the time to explain things in detail.

Some higher-end answering machines let you record your telephone conversations, which is a great help in small-business settings. Recording a conversation so you can refer to it later for questions, order details or service requests means you won't have to make repeated calls back to your customer to get the information straight. Don't forget to ask permission before recording a conversation with your answering machine. Recording a phone conversation without consent is illegal in the United States.

Message Storage
Unlike their tape-based predecessors, which had a message storage capacity of about 45-60 minutes, the average digital answering machine typically stores about 15 minutes of message time. Fifteen minutes may be fine for personal use, but home-based or small businesses should look for higher-end answering machines that record up to 45 minutes. You'll pay more for the extra storage, but you'll be glad you have it when a major client calls on Sunday night and can leave a message instead of hearing that your mailbox is full.

Whether it's for home or office use, if more than one person will use the answering machine, choose one with separate mailboxes. If everyone has their own mailbox with security access, the only one who can accidentally erase a message for you is you.

Remote Access
Digital answering machines can let you retrieve your messages from any phone. Look for an answering machine that lets you call in from elsewhere to hear messages, save or erase them or turn your machine on and off.

If keeping track of details isn't your strong suit, choose an answering machine that features voice prompts or a menu that prompts you through different functions. You'll still need to remember your security code, but the prompts will simplify the message retrieval process.

Finally, if you travel a great deal and use calling cards to phone home for messages, look for an answering machine with a toll saver option. The toll saver sets your answering machine to pick up after four rings if you don't have messages or two rings if you do. You'll know after the second ring whether you have messages or not and can hang up on the third ring to save the toll charge.

Backups and Additional Features
In the event of a power outage, digital answering machines will offer either a battery backup or record your messages on flash media. Battery backups ensure your machine remains functional when the electricity's out, but you'll need to remember to change the batteries. Flash media doesn't need batteries and gives you the ability to retrieve or save messages on any computer that can read the flash card.

Auto-disconnect turns the answering machine off when you answer a call after the machine has picked up; some machines only disconnect if the call is picked up during the greeting while others will disconnect at any time-but only if you answer the telephone connected to the machine (extensions won't activate the auto-disconnect feature). Time and date stamps help you keep track of who called when and Caller ID announcement reads back the incoming telephone number so you don't even need to check to see who's calling-your machine will tell you.

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