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Mom, you've got a call on line 2

Cordless, multi-line phones for the home offer freedom and flexibility previously only found in cell phones and office phones.

Exactly 125 years ago this month, Alexander Graham Bell said into the very first telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you." Nobody remembers what the inventor of the first cordless phone said, but it was probably, "Hey, has anyone seen the handset?"

There's no disputing that cordless phones offer a degree of freedom lacking in curly-cord phones; for one thing, a cordless phone ends the noisy humiliation of dragging your telephone off the desk while reaching for a pencil. Unfortunately, when a cordless conversation ends, so does the freedom _ sooner or later you must return the phone to its base station, which is tethered to a phone jack. As a result, typical cordless phones are really only slightly less tied down than corded ones.

A new era of phone freedom has dawned, thanks to a new breed of phone: the multihandset cordless. These systems let you park the base station anywhere in your home or small office, even someplace inaccessible. Then you can strategically position as many cordless handsets as you need _ up to eight or nine _ around the premises. The tiny recharging stand that comes with each handset requires a power outlet but no phone line, freeing you to stash phones in oddball corners that aren't anywhere near phone jacks.

That freedom of placement is only the first joy of multihandset phones; another huge advantage is their corporate-style communications features. For example, you can make intercom-style calls from handset to handset without tying up the phone line. You can transfer a call you've just answered to the base or to another handset without having to cover the mouthpiece and yell, "It's for you!" And most let you check for messages on the base station's answering machine from any handset in the house, conserving precious muscle energy.

As a bonus, these devices are the beneficiaries of trickle-down technology from cell phones. They have similarly sleek and rugged black bodies, long-life rechargeable batteries and crisp, backlighted screens that show several lines of text.

These phones aren't cheap. But even so, if you spend even an average amount of time on the phone in a multiperson, multiroom or multifloor home or office, the question isn't whether to invest in one of these systems, but which one. The four systems reviewed here offer a range of desirable features.

The AT&T 2440 and 2455, for example, are the most basic models as well as the least expensive. For $170 for the 2440, or $200 for the 2455, which has a three-mailbox answering function, you get a compact, unassuming base station with no visible antenna; each unit has a speakerphone, a dialing pad and a cradle for the single cordless handset that comes with it. Additional handsets are $100 each, although you qualify for a $40-per-handset rebate if you buy them with a base station before April 1.

So far, none of that breaks much new ground. The surprise is that with the push of a button, each handset turns into a crystal-clear, surprisingly high-quality speakerphone. Now you can slap your handset into the belt clip that comes with it; when the phone rings, you touch a button to answer and begin chatting.

Without question, the AT&T models are designed for simplicity lovers. The back-to-basics approach makes the phone's menu system and button layout far easier to comprehend than those of competitors. The messages on the handset screen are informative and helpful: They might say "extension in use" when someone's on the phone, or "5 new calls" if the base-station answering machine (only included with the 2455) has messages.

Unfortunately, what some people hail as simplicity may strike others as limitations. The 2455 can handle only one phone line, 15 minutes' worth of messages on the answering machine and only four handsets, half as many as most other models. Perhaps even more disappointing, you can't check the answering machine from another room using a handset.

The Siemens Gigaset 2420 is the next step up in complexity, ambition and price. For $330, you get a two-line base station with an answering machine and a standard corded phone. The price also includes one cordless handset, whose flat, futuristic shape conceals the antenna and makes it look more like a television remote control than a phone. Each base station can handle eight cordless handsets, which cost $100 each. (A single-line Gigaset costs $150, or $170 with answering machine.)

The Gigaset feels as though its creator had worked with a little angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Each of its features can be easily categorized as either ingenious or "What were they thinking?"

This is the only phone, for example, with the remarkable room monitor feature. When the sound near a designated handset reaches the level you have specified, the handset automatically calls you (at the base station, a handset or on all the other handsets) so you can listen in. The room-monitor handset is courteous enough to shut off its ringer, too, on the assumption that it's in a sleeping baby's room.

The angel also was responsible for the choice of answering-machine voice-prompt languages (Spanish, French or English), the ability to merge the speed-dial lists from your various handsets and the use of standard AA rechargeable NiCad batteries in the handsets. And you would be hard-pressed to find a phone with more privacy features. For example, you can set up each phone so other people in the house can't listen in by picking up extensions.

The devil's influence, however, no doubt explains the placement of the Line 1 button below the Line 2 button on the base station, the maddeningly complex menu system and the requirement to use those menus to adjust the handset volume.

If range is what you want, the new two-line Panasonic KX-TG2000B or four-line KX-TG4000B have it in spades, about two blocks, in my wintry suburban tests. You pay a steep premium for these models, however: The two-line system costs $450, and the four-line is $550. The price includes a speakerphone base station with a corded handset and one cordless handset. Extra handsets are $130 each.

Panasonic thinks it can justify those prices by packing this system with functions, and without a doubt, this is the phone for technophiles. A list of these features would fill a 106-page manual and does. Perusing the user guide is an activity you'll enjoy again and again, thanks to this system's power and complexity.

The Panasonic models are all about call management; to your multiple lines and multiple handsets, each model adds multiple voice mailboxes. Each handset can have, in effect, its own private answering machine. There's an automatic receptionist feature that greets incoming calls (on all lines or on ones that you specify) with your recorded voice saying, for example, "To leave a message for Robin, press 1," and then routes the call to the appropriate box.

A mailbox owner can transfer a message to another mailbox or record messages directly into a mailbox, which is a great feature for leaving a voice memo on the way out the door. ("Have a good day, honey. Don't forget to pay the next installment on our new phone.")

The answering machine is superb. It holds 50 minutes' worth of messages, or twice that if you're willing to sacrifice sound quality. You can program the base station to call your pager whenever a message comes in. Best of all, the voice prompts you hear when dialing in for your messages are full-sentence recordings of a living human being rather than halting, computer-generated snippets.

Next to the bustling, button-filled Panasonic base station, the EnGenius SN-920 looks simple. Its base station is a plain black single-line box, without an answering machine, a handset or a dialing pad. Its $300 price includes only one cordless handset; extra handsets, up to a total of nine, cost $140 each. (The system can handle up to four lines, but you must buy a base station for each.)

You might wonder how EnGenius has the gall to charge so much for such a one-trick pony, and the answer is simple: The system's handsets are six times as powerful as those found with standard cordless systems. If there are no obstructions, the signal can reach the base station, or another handset, from 5 miles away.

Of course, your mileage may vary. But even in the suburbs, these phones have a range of several blocks. In an office building, you can keep your call going from about 10 floors away. That superior range makes the EnGenius system something like a short-range cell phone with no monthly fees.

Even better, these EnGenius phones can make handset-to-handset calls without the base station. You can pack handsets on your trip to, say, the Australian outback, and they'll behave just as though they're two-way radios (which they are). (EnGenius promises that the extra power won't harm you. The phone passes the Federal Communications Commission's safety tests and, like all of the phones reviewed here, comes with a belt clip and a headset jack if you're especially worried.)

Even these cordless phones don't always fit flawlessly into the modern home or home office; they can sometimes interfere with wireless home networks. You should hang onto at least one of your old-fashioned, curly-cord phone sets for use in a blackout because most cordless phones are useless if the power goes out.

But if you're otherwise sold on cordless, these phones offer spectacular sound quality and convenience. It's just a shame that no phone combines the range of the EnGenius system with the speakerphone handsets of the AT&T, the room-monitor feature of the Siemens and the multi-mailbox smarts of the Panasonics. The AT&T system is the best value and easiest to use, the Siemens is the best midprice bet for families, and the Panasonic system is ideal for small businesses, gadget lovers and anyone with multiple-line households. (And if you're a candidate for the ultralong-range EnGenius phone, you know who you are.)