REVIEW: Uniden CLX475 Phone System

What: A multiple handset phone system from Uniden
Where: Many vendors (We bought it from Sam’s Club)
How Much: around $169 (see below for more information)

Uniden phonesLisa and I recently switched from a traditional phone service to voice over IP (VoIP) provider VoiceEclipse (see my review of the service here). One significant change with switching over to VoIP is that (for the most part), you’re stuck with a single phone jack – which is located on the back of the device the VoIP company sends you that connects to your router or cable modem. While it’s certainly possible to rewire your house for VoIP service, it’s simply a task that most folks don’t have the expertise or confidence to do. So the easy answer for this is a multi-headset phone. Although I was eager to volunteer my services, I don’t think that Lisa really wanted me monkeying around with the telephone cabling.

Now, multi-headset phones have (of course) been around for a while. But it’s only within the past year or so that they’ve actually become affordable in my opinion. But regardless of the model you choose, the phones all offer the same benefit: you can use multiple handsets from a single “base”, which means that you only need a single phone jack to use them anywhere throughout the house – which is prefect for VoIP.

We had just signed up for the VoiceEclipse service and I was deep into researching the various makes and models, when Lisa came home one day and announced that she needed to go to Sam’s Club. “No problem”, I thought. We could see what Sam’s had to offer. And although I really wanted phones with color LCD screens, it simply made more sense for us to go with the Uniden set (pictured above). Sure, phones with a lot of whiz-bang features would be cool – especially phones with a color screen! – but in our case it only made sense to pay around $157 for three decent handsets instead of paying $179 for two handsets with really neat features. After all, even though the Uniden set lacked the color screens, they did have the following neat-o features:

5.8 GHz Digital Expandable System (many cheaper phones use both 900mHz and 5.8GHz)
USB Connector w/Downloadable Software Included
Grayscale Handset LCD Screen
Digital Answering System
Caller ID with Call Waiting Deluxe support
100 Caller ID / 100 Phonebook Names / 400 Numbers (store 4 numbers per name)
Base Keypad with Backlit Display Screen
Hands-free Speakerphone at Handset & Base
Transfer/Intercom from Handset-to-Handset or Handset to Base
Recordable/Preset Ringer Tones
Downloadable/Preset Picture Displays
Soft-Key Menus w/ Joystick Navigation
Battery Level / Clock / Date / Animation Displays
Transfer Memory Settings from Handset to Handset
DirectLink™ Mode – 2-Way Radio Communication
Room / Baby Monitoring
Separate Ringer and Speaker Volume Controls
Ringer Record Cable (for recording ring tones from audio devices like computers, CD players, or any device with a headphone jack)

Plus, the phone’s made by Uniden. I don’t know about you, but I’ve bought a lot of crappy cordless phones over the years. Uniden and Panasonic have never let me down, although Uniden usually plays the BMW to Panasonic’s sexy Mercedes. Regardless of all that, Uniden is one of the few brand names that I actually trust instinctively. Would they come through with this set?

Setup

The basic setup of the Uniden system is dead simple and like any other cordless phone: insert the batteries into the handsets, place the handsets where you want them and plug them into AC outlets, then let them charge for 15 hours. When that’s done, just insert one end of the phone cord into the back of the base and the other end into your VoIP hardware or phone jack… and you’re done! (Typically you need to “register” the handsets with the base unit, but Uniden ships all of their “sets” as pre-registered from the factory, so that step’s not needed).

But what fun is a plain vanilla setup? Don’t you wanna customize it? Don’t you wanna play around with the settings? I sure do!

Once the phones were charged up, I installed the Uniden software on my PC. The included setup sheet had plenty of screenshots so just about anybody should be able to install the software; in my case, it was as straightforward as can be, most clicking “Next > Next > Next > Finish”. Here’s what the Uniden software looks like once you run the program and connect a phone via their standard USB cable:

Uniden USB

(Click to enlarge)

As you can see, you can set just about any option on the phone from this UI. The various tabs let you access certain feature sets on the phone, including ringtones, speaker volumes, and more. But while this is all well and good, it’s not the main reason I installed it. That reason would be for the fact that the Uniden software can import your contact information from most versions of Microsoft Outlook. And in trying to import that data I found the first flaws in the software:

Uniden USB

As you can see, there are several blank entries in the list of contacts on the left. This is because the Uniden software can only parse information contained in the FIRST NAME and LAST NAME fields of your Outlook contacts. If, like me, you keep contacts for businesses in the COMPANY field (i.e., you put “Pizza Hut” in the Company name of a new contact instead of “Pizza” as a first name and “Hut” as a last name), you’ll get blank entries for these contacts. So you’ll either have to enter these contacts on the phone manually or list them with first name\last name in Outlook, which is annoying because it means that Outlook will display the entry as “Hut, Pizza” instead of “Pizza Hut”. How annoying! You might also notice that the Uniden software has a limitation on the name field, and that “Caroline Shrewsberry” will appear on the phone as “Caroline Shrewsb”. This is also annoying – I mean, it’s 2006, people. Computers ship with gigabytes of memory on them… you mean to tell me that Uniden can’t fit another megabyte of RAM on the phone so we can fit people’s full names into our address books? Bleh!

You might also notice that the software has a mapping field similar to those used with Palm software. You choose the type of information under “type” (Home, Work, Mobile, etc) and then map it to the corresponding Outlook field. I guess that this is nice for some people, but it would be nice if the correct fields came up by default. Because although the phone system supposedly allows you to replicate any one address book across all handsets, I simply couldn’t get that feature to work. Which meant that I had to check each of the 100 contacts I wanted transferred to the phone, then map the information types to Outlook on three separate phones. To make matters worse, the software pulled the data from Outlook in random orders each time, so I had to pay careful attention to which of the 100 contacts I was importing on each phone! That’s crappy engineering, folks! Lastly, I’m somewhat peeved that the software lacks any kind of synchronization feature, so that if one friend gets a new number, I have to repeat this process again on all three handsets!

In short, the only nice thing I can say about the Outlook synchronization feature is that it does indeed work, even if its features are limited and inconsistent. Given how often BitPim crashed when I tried doing the same thing with my old Sanyo phone, I guess I can’t complain. But still, it’d be nice if this portion of the software was a tad more robust. Oh, and the Uniden software can also import your address book from Outlook Express, so if you’re one of the three people in the world still using it, you’re covered too.

Thankfully, the process for importing wallpapers is pretty easy:

Unicden USB

(Click to enlarge)

All you’ve gotta do is click “View Images” and select the location of the picture you want to use. Although the software will convert it as necessary, I’ve found that you’ll get better results if you crop the pictures and convert them to greyscale using Photoshop than Uniden’s software. Full-size images might be compressed oddly or cropped weirdly by the Uniden software, so using Photoshop gives you complete control. For example, I originally uploaded a full-size picture of Lisa and me standing in front of Tower Bridge; the Uniden software converted it and cropped it so that our heads were way off center, almost as if a baby had taken the original picture. Tsk, tsk. Oh well – it’s not a deal-breaker, but it would be nice if not so much extra work was needed.

Let me ding the Uniden software for two more things. First of all, the Windows software doesn’t have any capability to import sound files as ring tones on the handsets. You can certainly create your own by connecting the handset via the included cable to your computer’s headphone jack or a portable CD player, but you can’t just drag and drop MP3 or WAV files on the Uniden interface and have the sound uploaded to the phone. Whether the engineers simply never thought about it or were worried about “piracy” claims I don’t know. What I do know is that you have to create ringtones on each phone manually, and that’s a pain. Secondly, the Uniden software cannot create a single “image” of a handset that can be pumped out to each phone. You can save the settings of each handset to your computer as a backup, but you cannot create a single “image” with one handset and copy it to your remaining handsets. That seems stupid to me. But Uniden didn’t call and ask me before the went into production… so here we are.

Using the CLX475

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of either the monochrome LCDs or the Uniden software. I’m also not a fan of each handset’s “joystick”, which the manual assures me “makes using the phone fun and easy!” You see, you access the several features of the phone by either moving the joystick in a certain direction or by pressing down on it. For example, to review Caller ID information, you move the joystick to the left. To see your address book, you move the joystick to the right. To review the (multiple) redial options, you move the joystick down. It’s slightly annoying (since you probably don’t use these features every single day) and it takes a week or two to remember which direction does what. About the only thing you can easily memorize is that pressing on the joystick gets you into the phone’s options, like changing the contrast of the LCD screen or the ringtone. The joystick is not a long-term deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination… it just could have been made easier to use, perhaps by a “basic mode” on the phone that shows a map of which press does what, or by screen printing the same on the phone itself. It’s easy to be hypercritical when you’re not the one designing something, no?

Having said all that, the phones sound great, have excellent range, and seem to be built well. Of course, I’ve come to expect that from Uniden, and this set doesn’t let me down at all. I’m even impressed with the base’s speakerphone – it sounds as good as speaking directly into a handset! Ooooo, and speaking of “sound”, you should know that the headsets have a “voice altering feature”. No, it won’t make you sound like a whistle-blower or mafia guy on 60 Minutes, but the various settings can make your voice sound more pleasant on the phone. The handset in my room is set to “low voice”, which takes out some of the highs of my voice and makes me sound better… I like it!

I haven’t really used the “baby monitor” feature yet, but I have tested it out and it’s easy to use. And I did want to comment about the bewildering DirectLink feature on the handsets. You see, the handsets can work as two-way radios independent of the base. Which means that you can take two of the headsets to the mall and use them like walkie talkies. Which is a cool feature, sure… but why? Don’t most people have cell phones now? Maybe this is for kids that are too old to be constantly supervised but too young for a cell phone? So you and Little Johnny can take a pair of these to the mall and communicate? OK, but the otherwise flawless product manual makes no mention of the range for these puppies, so I have no idea if they’d work in the mall or just my house. And the phones have an intercom option (which works nicely, BTW), so why not just use that instead of DirectLink?

Another inexplicable feature is “transferring calls”, which allows you to ring another handset and transfer the call to them. I suppose that this would allow you to free up your handset to use the intercom or DirectLink features to call the third handset, but (as you might guess) this simply hasn’t come up in our house. We use the time honored method of shouting “Hey Honey! Kim’s on the phone!” up the staircase like normal people.

The Verdict

All in all, the CLV475 is a nice set of phones, especially for those people that are converting over to VoIP and need to switch their entire telephone infrastructure to a multi-handset system. There are certainly more capable phone systems out there, but you’ll have to pay the big bucks to get what you get for this Uniden system at a reasonable price. Sure, color LCDs are great… but I’d rather have three handsets with monochrome ones than two with color ones! Lastly, let me add that our system was apparently one of those special “Sam’s Club packages”, as it also included a backup battery for the base which allows you to use the phone during a power outage. This is apparently NOT included with most retail versions of the system.

What I Like

– Reasonable Price
– Easy setup
– Good sound quality
– Nice battery life

What I Don’t Like

– Uniden software is “just OK”
– No color LCDs
– Some features make no sense (DirectLink)
– Features are unintuitive at first

MY RATING: B+

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