The Home Phone Gets Pumped Up

New services and devices seek to reinvent conventional handsets.


The traditional home phone has suffered indignities in recent years as consumers cut the line, rely more on cellphones, and otherwise usurp the onetime king of communications. In fact, more U.S. homes today rely exclusively on cellphones than rely solely on landlines, federal researchers reported this spring.

Still, there is much to be said for the ease and convenience of a traditional handset. Now devices are emerging that seek to reinvent or boost the home phone. Here's how these innovative products all seek to change how we dial:

Hub master. The Verizon Hub creates an electronic focal point for families. It combines Internet and cellphone service to connect, inform, and entertain parents and children. The Hub ($150 with two-year service contract) replaces the landline for voice calls and the refrigerator for notes. It's essentially a super-simple computer with a 7-inch touch-screen that connects to broadband service. It includes a cordless handset and phone number for making and receiving voice calls over the Internet. The voice-over-Internet service costs $35 monthly for unlimited local and domestic calls.

The Hub can organize notes and a family calendar and display weather and traffic data from the Web. It serves as a digital photo frame as well (snapshots can be uploaded to a special Verizon Web account.) It also links to Verizon Wireless services, including television shows, from the VCast service. In addition, the Hub makes it possible to exchange photos and text messages with Verizon cellphones, offering a nifty view of text messages that turn them into Post-it-like notes.

It's a promising alternative to the small "net-top" PCs that are taking aim at kitchens, but the Hube initially suffers from a lack of flexibility. It can exchange address books with Outlook but doesn't keep them in sync, and the calendar data can't yet be exchanged with other calendar programs. Future software updates could correct those shortcomings.

[See how PC makers want to make their net-top PCs the family hub.]

Home boss. This is another 7-inch touch-screen that functions in many ways like the Verizon Hub, except the AT&T HomeManager will also connect to a conventional phone line. That's not surprising with AT&T, which still services millions of traditional landlines. And unlike the Verizon service, AT&T wireless customers can sync their handset address book with the HomeManager's.

The device can also connect to an Internet voice line through AT&T's U-Verse service. Consumers can then get "visual voice mail" that enables them to more easily choose which messages to replay—much like the system first made popular for wireless users on the iPhone offered by AT&T.

Like the Verizon Hub, the HomeManager also displays weather, movie times and reviews, and other data pulled from the Internet. And like the Hub, it feels awkward as an initial version with no syncing calendar information with Web accounts or Outlook. The HomeManager, meanwhile, has no VCast-like service to bring cablelike shows to its little screen and can't text-message like the Hub.

The HomeManager sells for $100 to AT&T broadband customers. Others can buy it to hook the HomeManager to a non-AT&T landline and broadband providers. But they pay a steep $300 for the HomeManager. Adding a second frame at $50 is reasonable, as are additional handsets at $40 each.

[Read about Internet-powered options for lowering phone bills.]

Cell slave. Dropping the landline service to save money, many consumers find themselves longing for the bigger handsets and multiple extensions they enjoyed with traditional wiring. The XLink Cellular Bluetooth Gateway offers a wireless link to send wireless calls to conventional phones. The gateway is a small black box that uses Bluetooth to connect to as many as three cellphones and then connects those cellphones to a home's phone wiring.

Calls coming into the cellphone ring the handsets connected to the phone wiring. Likewise, calls made from the handsets are made through the cellphone service. If more than one cellphone is connected to the XLink, outgoing callers can choose which wireless account they want to use for each call. The XLink can even speed-dial through numbers stored on the cellphones.