Review: HomeManager makes the landline smarter

ATLANTA (AP) -- What if the humble old landline phone could be as interactive as the flashy iPhone?

A home phone that puts the latest information at your fingertips feels like an old sci-fi staple, but now AT&T Inc. has a $299 touch-screen gadget, called HomeManager, that brings the idea to fruition. It may be coming too late in the game to matter.

As if it were a cell phone, the HomeManager is a touch-screen device that taps into the Internet to monitor e-mail, dig up the latest news and sports scores and access other Web favorites. Yet HomeManager does all that while connected to a home phone line.

The result is a crisp device that's surprisingly easy to use and fairly handy. Indeed, it's like an iPhone for your landline. The problem, though, is that AT&T is introducing the gadget at a time when even basic cell phones allow users to access similar information on the go.

AT&T is offering HomeManager in nine markets from San Diego to Atlanta. Users must have a broadband Internet connection and home phone service - from AT&T or another company - or a Voice over Internet service with a telephone adapter.

It's actually three separate devices that, altogether, took me about 15 minutes to hook up. The base unit, which looks like a tiny black modem, plugs into a home phone line and a spare Ethernet port in your broadband modem. Then it sends wireless signals to a colorful 7-inch touch-screen "frame" made by Samsung Electronics Co. I set mine up across the house in the kitchen. The third part is a sleek cordless phone that can tap into the system's address book and call log.

The call quality is relatively crisp, and if you upload photos, the frame doubles as a nifty digital album. Like many of the latest cell phones, it allows you to plug in contacts, load a calendar and access "visual" voice mail, a service that lets you listen to messages in any order.

But the device is really meant to be an Internet portal, and engineers did a fine job designing handy touch-screen menus that allow easy access to Yellow Pages directories, news stories, sports scores and up-to-date weather. Each page took only a few seconds to open, about on par with my PC, and it was simple to navigate.

Among the handiest features was an online catalog of recipes, organized by meal, which practically begs you to put the device in the kitchen. The weather screen saver also kept us informed of the forecast and displayed big red alerts during hazardous conditions.

The Internet is also the device's biggest failing. Users are confined to the menu options built into the device, and there's no way to access a Web browser or other pages not already linked to the software. AT&T calls the system perfect for "Internet snacking" but I'd rather have the option for a full meal.

There are also more fundamental problems that have nothing to do with HomeManager's design.

I'd bet HomeManager would have been a hit a few years ago in many tech-friendly households, but many cell phones are now offering the same capabilities. And since the people who would buy HomeManager already have an Internet connection, they can use their computers to access the same information. After a week of using HomeManager, I was still pulling out my cell phone and heading to my desktop rather than bolting for the device.

While there's little doubt HomeManager is a strong effort at dragging landline phones into the Internet Age, the idea will need to be bolstered with better features before a generation of cell phone users returns to the landline fold.

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On the Net:

http://www.wireless.att.com/homemanager

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