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Is the Cordless Phone On a Leash of Static? Try a 900-MHz

MAYBE you've had this experience: As you walk outside to do some yard work, the cordless phone you're carrying rings. You answer, expecting to hear from a friend. All you get is static.

It's hard to enjoy cordless freedom when the phone you're using goes kaput before you reach the backyard hedge. With conventional cordless phones, I can only wander 60 feet before the static starts. Another 30 feet and the phones are inoperable.

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Fortunately, several manufacturers are offering a new technology - the 900-MHz cordless telephone - that solves that problem. It's more powerful and has greater range than the standard models. After more than a week with two such phones, I've come away pleasantly surprised.

These phones allow me to make calls from the end of the block, instead of getting stuck in the backyard. Now that's cordless freedom!

The new phones have their drawbacks. Their sound quality is slightly poorer than that of traditional cordless models. When Consumer Reports rated the first generation of 900-MHz phones last December, it found faint echoing with one of the models by Uniden. My tests with the two 900-MHz phones - an AT&T 9300 and a Panasonic KX-T9550 - didn't reveal the echoing, but callers did notice a slight hollowness and muffled quality.

The AT&T seemed a little clearer-sounding than the Panasonic. But neither could quite match the quality of our traditional $46 cordless. The companies say they are working on the problem.

There's another trade-off. The new cordless phones achieve their impressive range because they're six times more powerful than traditional cordless models. They need the extra power because they operate in a higher range of the radio spectrum than standard cordless phones. But it also means they're heavier than normal.

They're also more expensive to manufacture. The AT&T I tested - a comfortable, simple-to-use model - sells for about $280. The Panasonic - which came with a built-in digital answering machine and several nice features - goes for $330 or so. That's a high price when a regular cordless can be had for $65.

While manufacturers expect prices to fall, they still predict a wide price margin to prevail for the next two to three years. Many people buy AT&T's 900-MHz models only after they've had a regular cordless, says Gloria Givens, cordless product manager for AT&T. So traditional cordless phones are far from doomed.

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But they probably have the future on their side, because some models have one other important advantage. They're fully digital, which makes conversations much more secure. If you're concerned about security, make sure you buy a fully digital phone.

Even regular cordless telephones advertise what they call ''digital security,'' which makes it very hard for telephone pirates to use your line to make their calls. But thieves can still listen in. Only fully digital models will foil them.

Be careful. Not all 900-MHz phones are fully digital. The AT&T model tested was; the Panasonic was not.

''Digital requires an awful lot of power,'' says Bill Kopp, vice president of communications and home-office electronics for Panasonic's parent company, Matsushita Consumer Electronics. To keep its phone light and compact, Matsushita decided against making its 900-MHz phone fully digital. In the next few years, however, Mr. Kopp expects the technology will improve so that fully digital phones will become much more popular.

If you want your conversations secret - or want to smell the neighbor's flowers without missing an important call - a digital 900-MHz phone probably looms large on your horizon.

* Let me know what consumer electronics you'd like reviewed; send comments via Internet ( to CompuServe (70541,3654) , or America Online (LBELSIE)

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