In this digital phone age, most people regard the answering machine as a 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 us screen our 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. Whether you’re buying an answering machine for your home or small business, there are a few things you should know before buying. Pronto’s Answering Machine Buying Guide takes the guesswork out of choosing for you so that you wind up with the answering machine that meets your needs.
Standalone answering machines offer more message storage and additional features than built-in phones and are the best choice for homes where the telephone is constantly in use.
Look for machines that allow you to determine the message length callers can leave or set no limit if regular callers need to leave long, detailed messages. For the ultimate in convenience, look for answering machines that can record calls—great when you can’t jot a note but need to take down important information.
Most answering machines today record up to 15 minutes of messages, which is about right for personal use. Large families or small businesses should invest in high-end machines that can hold up to 45 minutes of messages and offer individual mailboxes for family members or employees.
Look for answering machines that allow you to call in remotely for messages, change greetings and turn the machine off. If you travel often and use calling cards, toll savers indicate new messages by the number of rings. Don’t want to memorize keypad commands to get your messages? Purchase an answering machine that features voice prompts instead.
Make sure your answering machine offers either a battery backup, or recording on flash media, to prevent the loss of your messages in the event of a power outage. Options on time and date stamps, and Caller-ID announcement, can very from machine to machine. Check auto-disconnect functionality to ensure that you will be able to intercept calls as needed.
An answering machine with auto-disconnect will allow you to pick up the phone during answering machine operation and intercept the phone call. Some answering machines will allow you to pick up at any point in the process, while other answering machines will only allow you to pickup while the greeting is playing, before recording has begun.
This function allows you to call in from an outside location and access your answering machine. Remote access may be as simple as checking messages, to as advanced as deleting messages, changing greetings, and turning the answering machine on or off.
This feature will change the number of rings depending on whether there are new messages waiting on your answering machine. Typically, if there are no messages, the answering machine will pick up a call after 4 rings, while if there are messages, the answering machine will pick up after 2 rings. With this option, if the phone rings more than twice, you know there are no messages and can hang up without incurring long-distance charges or having to go through a series of menus to check messages.
A time and date stamp will announce the time and/or date that the call was received. Different answering machines offer different time/date options, so look for one that meets your needs.
Caller-ID announcement will record the phone number of your caller and announce it when you check messages. This is a useful function if your caller forgets to leave a number, especially in a small business setting.
The mailbox refers to the message storage box. Some answering machines offer only one mailbox, while some machines offer up to 4. Multiple mailboxes may be useful in a busy family or small business, so each person has private access to their messages and they cannot be accidentally erased.
Both stand-alone 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 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.
Digital recording has replaced the tape-recording technology and delivers greater audio clarity on playback. Whether you’re considering an in-phone or standalone answering machine, look for answering machines that allow you to determine the length of recorded messages at a variety of increments (usually one minute, four minutes or no-limit). Setting message length determines the overall number of messages your answering machine can record as well as dictates how long each caller can speak. If you’re purchasing the answering machine for a business, you’ll want the one you choose to let you set the message length to no limit so customers and vendors are able to leave as much or as little information as they need to.
Higher-end answering machines may also feature the ability to record your actual telephone conversations which may prove invaluable in small business applications. 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. It’s handy at home too, if you’re speaking with the pharmacy about medications or are getting directions and don’t a pen or paper to jot down notes.
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 look for higher-end machine that record up to 45 minutes. You’ll pay significantly more for the convenience, but if means the difference between landing or losing a new account, you’ll be glad you made it.
Busy households, home-based and small business will also want to choose answering machines that organize messages by mailbox. If each family member or employee has its own mailbox with security access, the only one who can accidentally erase a message for you is you. Of course, tapeless recording means you’ll never lose important messages when the machine ‘eats’ your tape.
Remote access is a key feature of answering machine technology. You’ll want your machine to allow you to call in from elsewhere to listen to, save or erase messages as well turn your machine on and off. You’ll also want to consider how the answering machine you’re looking at asks you to do to retrieve your messages. Some message retrieval systems require that you press # or * or various combinations of number keys to navigate its menus. If keeping track of details isn’t your strong suit choose an answering machine that features voice prompts instead. 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 your answering machine to have the “toll saver” option. The toll saver sets your answering machine to pick after four rings when there are no 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 if you don’t and not be charged for the call.
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 the caveat is that it’s up to you make sure the batteries are working. Either method works to save your messages, but if you don’t want the hassle of checking and replacing batteries, choose a machine with a flash media storage option.
When it comes to additional features, there are a few that we think are worth investing in. 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.