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Research Center




Choosing an Answering Machine

By Staff Writer, 06/29/03

Finally... TADs, DTADs and OGMs explained!
Just to get started, a telephone answering device (TAD) answers your phone when you're not (and even when you are) home. It plays a prerecorded message, called an outgoing message (OGM), to the caller and takes a message from the caller, called an incoming message (ICM).

Almost all TADs use a computer chip to digitally record your outgoing and incoming messages. These types of answering machines are called digital telephone answering devices (DTADs). These DTADs function much like the elaborate voice mail systems used in large companies but are equipped with familiar tape recorder controls, such as "fast-forward," "rewind," "pause" and "stop." Most models can store at least 20-25 minutes' worth of messages, though this number varies depending on the unit.

If you are home, an answering machine allows you to check who's calling by waiting for the caller to start leaving an message. This is called "call screening."

Consider these key questions when shopping for an answering machine:
1. Do I need an answering machine at all?
2. Do I want a standalone TAD or one combined with a phone?
3. How many messages can it hold?
4. How many private "mailboxes" do I need?
5. What other features should I look for?

1. Do I need an answering machine at all?
Some people may not want a TAD at all. Many local phone companies offer subscription-based voice mail service. But why would you prefer to pay an on-going fee versus a single, flat capital investment?

Well, if you use just one line for voice and data calls, voice mail service is one way to ensure that you never miss a call. You must disable Call Waiting when you're online. Accordingly, no one will be able to reach you while you're online. The voice mail service will pick up these "while you're on the line" calls. Also, subscription voice mail service could represent a savings over buying an answering machine and subscribing to Call Waiting.

Your PC is another TAD alternative. There are many software packages available that turn your PC into a sophisticated TAD, using your hard drive to store messages (if you're reading this, we're assuming your phone is connected to your PC).

2. Do I want a standalone TAD or one combined with a phone?
In the old tape-based TAD days, getting a combined phone/answering machine was as bad an idea as buying a TV/VCR combination is today — you essentially combine a solid-state device that's designed to last 10 or more years with a mechanical device that will probably break down in less than five.

But now that TADs are digital (DTADs), the answering machine will likely last longer than the phone. And since DTADs are inexpensive to build — it's really just a chip and some software — a combination device is barely more expensive than the phone itself.

So, why would you buy a separate DTAD rather than a phone/DTAD combo? First and foremost, you may already have enough phones that you just need an answering machine. The other reason is freedom of placement. Your primary phone may be centrally located in your home, but you might prefer to put the answering machine by the front door. This would enable you to check for messages on arrival or to change the OGM as you leave. Conversely, you may have several phones scattered throughout your home and want a centrally located answering device.

3. How many messages can it hold?
That all depends on how you configure your DTAD. As noted, the best DTADs can't store more than about 30 minutes' worth of calls, and most store substantially less than that — some hold less than 10 minutes' worth. The amount of recording time is not always a price issue.

Many DTADs allow you to program the length of each message — unlimited, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, et al. If you expect many calls, find a unit that allows you to limit the length of incoming messages.

4. How many private "mailboxes" do I need?
Modern DTADs are actually mini voice mail systems. These more expensive models have a number of voice mail boxes, allowing each resident of the home to have his or her own personal messaging system. You know what I mean: "Press 1 to leave a message for Sam; press 2 to leave a message for Jane."

One caveat for an inexpensive multiple mailbox DTAD is the outgoing message. While there may be multiple incoming message boxes, you may have to settle for a single outgoing message to cover all the individual voice mailboxes. If each resident wants his or her own outgoing message, look for a unit with multiple OGM options or one that gives you the option of adding personalized OGMs to each mailbox.

5. What other features should I look for?
Features available on TADs differ widely depending on model and manufacturer. Try to decide which features are most important to you before you shop.
  • Auto Disconnect: Also called automatic interrupt or extension disconnect, this common feature automatically stops and resets the machine when you pick up any phone to answer the call. Without this feature, once the OGM has been activated, you must wait until it finishes to begin your conversation.

    There are several varieties of auto disconnect. Many TADs will stop and reset only when the outgoing message is playing, not once the machine starts recording. The TAD will keep recording your conversation; if the speaker volume on your TAD is too high, you're apt to get feedback.

    Other TADs auto disconnect only when the phone directly attached to the TAD is picked up; it won't work with a n extension. Salespeople may not know whether each TAD in the shop has this feature. Check the manual if this feature is important to you.

  • Beeperless remote: The term "beeperless" is a holdover from the days when TouchTone service was less popular. Remote-controlled TADs were packed with a pocket-sized beeper that emitted a tone when held to a handset. The tone then activated the TAD's remote features.

    With TouchTone service, any phone became a remote control — that is, a beeperless remote. Most TADs accept various commands from a TouchTone phone keypad. These include recording a new outgoing message, skipping past unwanted messages, repeating important ones, or rewinding and resetting the unit.

  • Variable OGM: Many TADs allow you to vary the length of your outgoing announcement, rather than having to record one of (or less than) a predetermined length (say 20 seconds). If your OGM is less than the predetermined length, the caller gets that annoying dead air time between the end of your OGM and the record "beep."

  • Multiple OGM: In addition, more advanced TADs allow you to record more than one outgoing announcement. Other TADs allow you to leave a special message for particular individuals, accessed when the intended recipient pushes a particular key on his or her TouchTone phone.

  • Message alert: All TADs have an alert mechanism to let you know you have messages waiting. Some emit an intermittent tone; other machines flash an LED. Most have an LED or an LCD counter that lists the number of messages received. Some TADs have just a single LED that flashes according to the number of messages waiting; for example, three flashes in sequence indicate three messages.

  • Time/date stamp: Most TADs indicate what time and day a call was received. On some TADs, this information is left on the chip or tape by the machine's synthesized voice chip, either before or after the message. On others, the time and date of the call is displayed in the LCD.

  • Memo record: A TAD can be used to record entire phone conversations or to leave messages for someone else in the household. The message can then be played back as if left by a caller. Remember, as we have learned from Linda Tripp, it is not nice — and often illegal — to record a phone conversation without first informing the other party.

  • Announce only: A TAD doesn't necessarily have to record incoming messages. Many TADs can be used to only play an outgoing announcement, such as one indicating when you will be available or giving hours of operation.

  • Automatic reset: Many TADs will allow you to save or erase certain messages. Because the TAD recording chip doesn't record linearly — that is, in sequence — old messages can be saved without affecting the capability of a TAD to record new messages. Many digital TADs allow you to play either all waiting messages or simply the new ones.

  • Toll saver: You can set your phone to answer on the fourth ring for the first call and on the second ring for additional calls. Then, when you call your machine to retrieve your messages, you'll know that you have no new ones if your unit doesn't answer by the third ring. This way, you don't unnecessarily incur long-distance charges.

Be sure to check out our selection of answering machines

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