With its streamlined and stylish design, Motorola's MD681 5.8GHz expandable cordless phone/digital answering machine system makes a great first impression. Add to that a boatload of useful features, and its $179.99 price tag seems to be a great value. You can add up to six extensions (compared to just four on systems that cost the same or more) for $79.99 each, and you also get three distinct voice mailboxes. And while its 15 minutes of incoming-message recording time may seem skimpy, it's not bad when you consider other, pricier systems come with only one in-box and less recording time. Despite these benefits, you'll discover that, after some use, this system has its quirks.
First, let's talk about the positives, such as the MD681's sleek but functional design. Thankfully, Motorola hasn't tried to squeeze a thousand functions into a few square inches or attempted to mimic tiny cell phone ergonomics. Both the base and the handset have plenty of real estate to make the numeric keypads and the menu navigation buttons easy to identify and manipulate without a magnifying glass, yet the unit still doesn't require a dinosaur-size desktop footprint. We also liked the baby-blue-backlit LCDs on the base (1 by 1.75 inches) and handset (.75 by 1.5 inches), which are easy to read, even in bright light. The 7-inch-tall handset isn't much heavier than smaller handsets found on other models, although we'd prefer it if the bulging battery cover on the back of the phone were at the top (where the speaker is currently placed) to make the handset easier to balance on your shoulder.
There are a few other features on the MD681 that we found strange. For instance, when an extension is in use, the base speaker flashes blue. That's right, the speaker is backlit. We also found it rather odd that the time is displayed only on the handsets but not on the base. And instead of a large flashing LED or a display to let you know there are messages waiting, only the tiny, dimly backlit mailbox number flashes. Plus, the MD681 features On and Off keys on the handset rather than the familiar Talk and End keys. These aren't necessarily bad things, just a bit peculiar.
Along with being expandable and offering a three-mailbox answering system, the MD681 functions as an intercom and features caller ID capability (for subscribers), eight selectable ring tones, and Motorola's VibraCall vibrating alert. As with most expansion systems, the handsets can be used as an intercom or as walkie-talkies, but there's no room monitoring function on this unit. The base and up to two extensions can be combined into a conference call. As per usual, the 50-entry phone books are unique to the base and the individual handsets.
In our performance tests, the MD681's 5.8GHz frequency provided the usual 300-foot line-of-sight range, and reception was quite clear throughout. Sound quality was solid via the earpiece, if a bit on the hollow side. Ironically, the sound quality of the full-duplex speakerphones on both the base and the handsets was actually an improvement over the earpiece's in a quiet room, and the volume was plenty loud.
Unfortunately, even with a nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable battery, the handset lasted less than a week in standby mode. If you're obsessive about returning the handset to its cradle after every call, however, this shouldn't be a problem.