Get Me out of Voice-Mail Hell!

Caller on line one. Call waiting on line two. Your voice mailbox has 52 messages. Sound familiar? Here are the top tools and tactics for taking control of your phone.

After President Rutherford B. Hayes had the first telephone installed in the White House in 1878, the first words he is said to have uttered into the new contraption were "Please speak more slowly." Today, more than a century later, we're still trying to master voice technology.

Phones, cell-phones, and pagers assail us from around the globe. A recent study by Pitney Bowes Inc. Found that corporate workers on average handle 52 phone calls, 22 voice mails, 4 pages, and 3 cell-phone calls per day. (Indeed, I've received two messages simultaneously, through triple-level voice mail, while leaving a message for someone else - an acute case of telephone tag ad infinitum.) People's feelings of being "overwhelmed," the Pitney Bowes report finds, "correlate directly with having to constantly . . . Keep up with the volume of messaging."

Mark Twain, an early adopter of the telephone, probably said it best: "If Bell had invented a muffler or a gag, he would have done a real service. Here we have been hollering 'Shut up' at our neighbors for centuries, and now you fellows come along and seek to complicate matters."

We're still waiting for the invention of a telephone "gag." In the meantime, there are some new devices on the market, as well as tricks you can use to regain control of your phone and the countless messages you receive. Read on to find out how to give and get good voice mail, how to stay connected when you're going mobile, and, above all, how to make the phone your ally instead of your enemy.

Call Screening for Road Warriors

Call screening gives you some power over your desktop phone by allowing you to choose whether to take an incoming call or to let voice mail handle it. But what do you do when you're on the road? The ideal solution would be call screening for your cell-phone - so you'll be sure to pick up when Alan Greenspan calls.

Enter SoloPoint's M-200 Mobile Phone Companion ($249.95). This small wedge-shaped device attaches to your office desk phone and automatically directs incoming calls to your cell-phone. It does require two phone lines, but the benefits can be great if you're often out of the office and you have to juggle scads of voice-mail messages.

The Mobile Phone Companion improves on traditional call-forwarding services by letting you screen calls remotely. And if you decline to take a call, the Companion automatically routes the messages back to your office phone.

Coordinates: M-200 Mobile Phone Companion, SoloPoint, 888-765-6225, www.Solopoint.Com

Multitasker's Rx

Face it: the telephone is not designed to let you talk and take notes simultaneously. Spend the day with the handset jammed between your chin and shoulder so you can scribble while taking calls, and by 5 p.m. You'll be heading to the chiropractor. But there is a solution: A headset equipped with a built-in microphone offers relief to those whose work demands long hours on the phone.

Some of the most reliable phone headsets come from Plantronics. The company's latest model, the DuoSet Convertible Headset ($76 to $144, depending on whether you opt for noise-suppression units on the mike), provides all the features you'll need. It can be worn either with a headband or over the ear, and it can be fitted for either ear. The basic model plugs into the headset jack on many office phones. (If your phone doesn't have such a jack, you'll have to pay another $120 to $150 for an adapter.)

One major drawback of headsets like the DuoSet, though, is that they tether you to your phone. If you frequently get out of your chair and move around, take a look at Plantronics's CT901 ($225), a cordless headset that operates like a standard 900 MHz cordless phone, letting you roam up to a full 100 feet from your desk. The headset delivers clear audio, free of interference and static.

Unfortunately, you pay a price for all of this mobility: The cordless headset comes with a large, rechargeable battery and a dialing pack that clips onto your belt. The dialing pack is about the size of a standard cordless home phone, and it can get in your way when you're sitting.

Coordinates: DuoSet Convertible Headset and CT901, both from Plantronics, 800-544-4660, www.Plantronics.Com

Take That (Conference) Call

A cheap speaker phone can quickly turn a long-distance teleconference into an especially hectic edition of "Crossfire": Everyone's talking, but no one can understand what the others are saying. The solution is a high-quality speaker phone designed for large work groups.

The standard-bearer in this category is Polycom's line of SoundStations. The triangle-shaped units automatically adapt to changing room and phone-line conditions, thereby ensuring that you'll have natural-sounding conversations instead of the clipped, distorted confabs that you have on typical speaker phones. The SoundStations also have a 360-degree pickup radius that allows anyone near the phone to participate in the conversation.

The basic SoundStation ($499) can reasonably accommodate as many people as you can cram into a 20- by 24-foot room. If you teleconference from a larger room, you can get one or more auxiliary, pod-like speaker phones that can be put on any table within 8 feet of the SoundStation, or you can consider the SoundStation Premier ($999). The Premier includes a 16-digit LCD screen for functions like Caller ID. More important, the Premier's highly sensitive microphones expand the size of the room that the system can handle to about 30 by 40 feet, without auxiliary pods.

For elaborate teleconferences featuring, say, a call to arms by the sales VP, the SoundStation Premier Satellite ($2,799) has it all - four auxiliary pods and a cordless 900 MHz microphone.

Coordinates: SoundStation and Sound-Station Premier, both from Polycom, 800-765-9266, www.Polycom.Com

Talk Nation

In the United States, there are more mobile-phone choices than there are brands of breakfast cereal. In Atlanta alone, there are at least a half-dozen wireless phone options to choose from. Figuring out which digital service to select and which phone to buy can feel like an IRS audit.

Wireless digital-phone service is not available everywhere in the country. So unless you make all your calls from your home-town, you'll need a phone that can both take advantage of the most recent digital technology and work on the older analog systems that reign supreme in some regions.

The best choice for a cell-phone that works in all service areas is Nokia's 6160 ($199) from AT&T Wireless. The Nokia lets you use text messages, Caller ID, and paging services that are available in areas serviced by digital systems. It also enables you to place and receive phone calls when you're in Nowheresville, Idaho, on an analog system.

The 6160 weighs less than six ounces and fits comfortably in a jacket pocket. Its features include a calculator, a calendar, and an alarm to remind you of your top client's birthday. But perhaps most important, the Nokia provides extended talk time in digital areas - more than three hours on the standard battery. Serious motormouths can purchase an Ultra Extended Battery ($76.99) That provides more than five hours of talk time and up to 13 days of standby time.

In most parts of the country, AT&T requires that you sign a one-year contract before you receive wireless service. Dubbed Digital One Rate, the minimum fee is $89.99 Per month for 600 minutes of air time. The benefit: There are no additional long-distance charges when you make calls from outside your home calling area, within the United States. The drawback: You're charged 25 cents per minute after you exceed your allotted time.

If you want a flexible price plan, stick with analog service. AT&T Wireless offers an analog-service program for as low as $20 a month - and for some areas, you don't have to sign a contract. An added benefit: Analog cell-phones often have the coolest designs. The Motorola StarTAC is still the hippest wireless phone on the market. I recommend the StarTAC 6000e ($149). Its battery yields about an hour of talk time, and it weighs just 3.6 Ounces.

For those who want a digital wireless-calling service without having to sign a contract, Sprint PCS's Home Rate USA offers nationwide coverage. For $24.99 Per month, you can have a digital program that includes Caller ID, text messages, and voice mail. Sprint has agreements with most analog-cellular providers, so you can get connected even in places where Sprint hasn't set up digital service - provided that you're using a dual-band phone (which works on both analog and digital systems).

Sprint offers two dual-band phones. I recommend Sony's CM-B1201SPR ($179.99). It delivers up to four hours of talk time in digital PCS service areas. At 7.6 Ounces, though, it's heavier than many other models. And if you travel to a region that doesn't use Sprint's cellular system, you might pay as much as 69 cents per minute, plus long-distance charges. So read the fine print.

Coordinates: Nokia's 6160, Nokia's Ultra Extended Battery, Digital One Rate, and Motorola's StarTAC 6000e, all from AT&T Wireless, 888-290-4613, www.Attws.Com; Home Rate USA and Sony's CM-B1201SPR, both from Sprint PCS, 800-480-4727, www.Sprintpcs.Com

The Global Communicator

On trips outside the united states and Canada, cell-phones have traditionally been of little use - until now. Iridium is scheduled to launch this fall.

Backed by Motorola, Iridium will use a constellation of 66 satellites orbiting 485 miles above the Earth to deliver wireless communications around the planet. Teaming with phone-service providers in countries around the globe, Iridium will enable you to place or receive a call from virtually anywhere in the world.

Even if you're traveling in a country that doesn't have cell-phone service, a hand-held Iridium phone will let you place calls by connecting you to an orbiting satellite. The Iridium phones, which will be available from Kyocera and Motorola, look like ordinary cell-phones, with fat antennae. And they'll deliver all the fancy services you're used to, such as call waiting, call forwarding, and voice mail.

One catch: The service is expensive. The phones themselves cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Moreover, calling rates range from about $1.50 To $7 per minute, depending on where you're calling from. Then again, if you're leading your company's charge into Eastern Europe, where phone service is patchy at best, Iridium may be a bargain at any price.

Coordinates: Iridium, Iridium North America, 888-474-3486, www.Iridium.Com

In Your Ear

Those people you see on the street apparently talking to themselves might be members of the Secret Service - or they could just be using Jabra's EarSet for Cellular ($39.95). This device combines a speaker and a directional microphone into a single unit that fits comfortably in your ear. A wire runs from the EarSet into the 2.5 Mm jack that's available on most newer cell-phones (with an adapter for an older phone, the price is $79.95).

If you have to make calls while driving, the EarSet lets you keep both hands on the wheel. Unlike other "hands-free" phone headsets, there's no boom microphone that sticks out in front of your face, nor a headband to muss your hair.

Coordinates: EarSet for Cellular, Jabra Corp., 800-327-2230, Www.Jabra.Com

Contributing Editor John R. Quain www.j-q.com appears regularly on CBS News's "Up to the Minute."

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