Panasonic’s KX-TA624 has been an extremely popular residential and small business phone system, with a wealth of features, easy installation, high quality, and good value.

After seven years and dozens of improvements, Panasonic has replaced it with the new KX-TA824; with greater capacity, easier installation, more features, and — since the quality and price are the same – even greater value.

Like the KX-TA624, the KX-TA824 is a “hybrid” design allowing you to connect either Panasonic proprietary telephones, or single-line phones and gadgets (fax, TiVo, modem, etc.) to any phone jack in the system, without special hardware.

You can save money by using an ordinary $20 single-line phone in less important places like the garage or attic; or where you want to keep things simple, like the guest room (no need to explain all the buttons to grandma).

You can also take advantage of this flexibility to let a child or wife keep using a favorite “decorator” phone or novelty phone, when you upgrade from having just a bunch of phones to a real phone system. (With some other systems, if you want to use a $20 phone instead of a $200 phone, you need to get a $200 adapter. Goodbye savings.)

The KX-TA824 is the first Panasonic phone system to offer three voice mail options:
#1 Like the recently-discontinued Panasonic KX-TA308, you can use telephone company voice mail. Each outside line can have a voice mailbox, and calls can be answered by the telco’s robot even when your lines are busy.

When a message is waiting, a light will let you know; and you’ll hear a “stutter” dial tone when you access a phone line. You’ll probably pay $5 – $10 per line per month for this.

#2 If you want mailboxes for individual people rather than phone lines, and don’t feel like enriching SBC or Verizon any more than necessary, you can use Panasonic’s optional “in-skin” voice mail circuit card.

It provides up to 60 minutes of high quality recording time, and gives each phone a personal mailbox that can be customized to greet callers.

* When a message is waiting, the message light on a Panasonic proprietary telephone will be activated and the message can be played by tapping the message button. Single-line phone users are notified of waiting messages with a stutter dial tone.
* With this internal voicemail, installation takes just a few minutes and no phone ports are used, so you don’t lose any capacity.
* If you don’t want to have individual mailboxes, you can have one “master mailbox” for the whole family to share, like an ancient answering machine.
* You can’t transfer a call directly to someone else’s voice mailbox like you can with an external voice processor. As on Panasonic’s KX-TG4000 wireless system, you can transfer a call to a phone, and if it is busy or unanswered, it will then be forwarded to its mail box. If you are using the system in a business, and someone will be away, his or her phone should be programmed to FORWARD ALL CALLS to voice mail, to save time by not ringing the phone before the call goes to voice mail.
* Unlike Panasonic’s external voice processors, the built-in voice mail system does not provide vocal user prompts, but because it is so well integrated with the 824, it does provide information and instructions on the phone displays. If you call someone else’s mailbox to leave a message, for example, your screen will show “Please Wait” and then “Now Recording.”

If you require a more fully featured voice mail system with auto attendant, the KX-TA824 can be connected to a Panasonic voice processing system, such as the KX-TVS50 or new KX-TVA50.

A “VPS” provides many more features than the in-skin circuit, plus more mailboxes and more recording time. It also decreases the number of phones you can use, and costs more money; but it could be a much better choice than in-skin or telco voice mail, particularly if it serves both a business and a family.

Out of the box, the KX-TA824 supports three outside lines and eight phones (3X8 configuration). Up to two additional circuit boards can be installed, for a maximum system capacity of eight lines and 24 phones.

The 8 x 24 size has not previously been available in Panasonic KX-T systems, and makes the 824 particularly well-suited for serving your home and your business, if the business is at home.

The system is almost organic, in how it can evolve with your family’s needs. If you have young children, their phones could stop ringing at 7 or 8 pm. If you have college-age kids, you can allow their phones to ring at any time of night, but program the phones in the master bedroom to not ring after 11.

You can also program which lines ring where, so business calls don’t ring in the playroom, kids’ calls don’t ring in the office, and no calls ring in the home theater.

At proprietary phones where different kinds of calls ring, you can program different ringing patterns, such as a single ring for kids, a double ring for parents, and a triple ring for business. If you do this, no one will waste time running to answer a phone, only to find it’s for someone else when they see which light is flashing.

The door intercoms produce the same ringing patterns, but you can connect door chimes, bells or other signals, and they can be programmed to ring with different patterns. Phone displays will show “Door 1,” “Door 2,” etc.

The new system can handle ordinary analog phone lines, as well as VoIP. It will also work with phone company distinctive ringing service; but since it does not have ring decoding built-in, you will need a “ring detector” ahead of the 824.

The 824 has a built-in three-level auto attendant, making it easer to find a person, with pre-recorded menus like “Press one for Sally, press three for Steve.” A business, such as a car dealership, could offer departmental choices such as “Press one for sales, press two for service, press three for parts, press four for information.

The three levels allows you to structure a menu offering more specific choices as callers get “deeper.”

For example, at the car dealership, if a caller pressed one for sales, the next level might allow a choice of cars, trucks, minivans or SUVs.

The third level, within each vehicle type, could allow a choice of new or used vehicles.

Voice quality is as good as a big-buck corporate system, so you won’t be misunderstood or be embarrassed; and since the feature is on the motherboard, installation time is zero minutes and the cost to you is zilch. A less-useful DISA module for the old 624 usually cost $200-$400. The built-in auto-attendant can handle one call at a time (“one port”) and has three minutes of recording time. An add-on circuit card will give you another port, and three more minutes. A home can probably get by with just the built-in. If you have a business, get the extra card.

The internal auto-attendant function is part of a feature package that Panasonic calls “DISA” (Direct Inward System Access), which provides a number of additional functions (but they may not be particularly useful to you):


Fax detection — If you get relatively little fax traffic, a phone line can be shared by human beings and your fax machine. When a call comes in, the DISA robot answers; and if she hears a “CNG” tone that identifies an incoming fax, the call is directed to your fax machine. If she doesn’t hear a CNG tone, DISAbot assumes that the call is coming from a human being, and the caller will hear a menu, and tap buttons to reach a person or department. This works fine in a business where automated attendants are common and most people stay at their desks, but can be a PITA in a home where people move around. If you don’t want to use auto attendant, but do want a line to be shared by fax and people, get an automatic fax/voice switch.

U-Turn phone call — Designated employees or family members can call in on one of your lines and call out on another, to take advantage of low-cost long distance service you may have. This is less important than it used to be, because many people have unlimited nearly free long distance service, particularly on cell phones. If you set up this feature, be sure to protect it with a password, or you may find an expensive surprise on your phone bill.

In addition to displaying Caller ID name and number on a Panasonic proprietary telephone, the KX-TA824 can also send Caller ID to single-line telephones, PCs, or Caller ID display accessories.

Other Panasonic systems either couldn’t do this at all, or could do it for just one phone, or required an extra-cost circuit board to do it. With the 824, the feature costs you nada.

The 824 has sockets for up to three miniature 3-line Caller ID cards. The first card is a freebie, pre-installed at the factory, saving you over a hundred bucks. As Elvis used to say, “Thank you very much.”

You also get Caller ID on Call Waiting (“Type 2”), which was not available on the more expensive KX-TD systems.

The Caller ID log works like recent versions of the KX-TA624, and better than on KX-TD or KX-TDA or KX-TAW systems. You can program the 824 to log all calls into a common log that can be viewed at any display phone, and it can log both answered and unanswered calls.

You can also plug in a Caller ID display box (often free from your phone company), or connect a PC for a detailed record of all calls, in and out (“SMDR”).

The KX-TA824 is extremely easy to install, with simple modular jacks for dialtone and phones. I recommend a 2′ x 4′ piece of 5/8″ plywood mounted horizontally, at eye level, to hold the 824 and add-ons.

Don’t forget surge protection, for both phone lines and AC power. ITW Linx has recently taken over the PanaMax phone system product line, and their stuff is very good.

Unlike some TVs, the KX-TA824 will work right out of the box with no programming at all. However, you’ll probably prefer that the displays show the correct time and date; and you have four programming options:

1. You can program the 824 with a proprietary display phone. The KX-T7736 or older 7735 are the best choices, because of their big displays, but you can also use other models, like a KX-T7030.
2. Use a PC through the DB9 serial port.
3. Use a PC through the USB port.
4. Use a PC remotely by PC through the system’s built-in remote programming modem.

With other Panasonic systems, a programming modem costs hundreds of bucks. With the 824, the modem is on the motherboard; so again, installation time is zero minutes, and the cost to you is gornicht.

And if that’s not enough free stuff to get you salivating, you also get terrific Windows software, for nutten, honey. Panasonic software for the KX-TD816 and 1232 costs nearly $300.

Your system’s custom programming can be saved on a PC for backup and restore. The USB and serial ports can be live at the same time, permitting simultaneous programming, and logging for call accounting.

The new system supports up to four door lock controls (or remote gate openers) and four door intercom speakers.

Panasonic has two new families of door intercom speakers: audio only with optional brass or silvery metal finishes and a sexy blue “find me” LED; and audio plus video, to let you see if the person at the door is kindly Aunt Edna or the Boston Strangler.

Of course, you also get phone-to-phone intercom, and you can make an announcement (“Supper’s ready!”) through the speakers in all of the phones if your press Intercom, 330 or press a pre-programmed button.

If you want to have a conversation, say “(name) call 43.” When the other person picks up the phone and dials 43, the two of you will be connected in a private conversation, and all of the speakers in the other phones will be shut off.

On a new KX-TA824 installation, you’ll probably use Panasonic’s excellent KX-T7700 series proprietary phones. On an upgrade, you can also use older phones, particularly the KX-T7000 series models. The new 7700s are nicer, can have displays that show three lines of text, and have money-saving, space-saving built-in 2.5mm headset jacks. Unfortunately, their output level is a bit low, but AbleComm has high-output monaural and binaural headsets to solve the problem.

Even if you are not going to use Caller ID, you will miss a lot of convenience if you don’t get display phones. They’re very important for use with the built-in voice mail, system speed dialing, and for programming features in individual phones. In any location where you want to see Caller ID, the KX-T7736 is a better choice than the KX-T7731, because the bigger display can show both name and number at the same time. In places where you don’t need displays, you can save money by getting the KX-T7720. Don’t bother considering the KX-T7750 “monitor” phone. It’s a lot less convenient than the other models because it lacks a microphone, but the dollar savings are insignificant, unless you need hundreds of phones.

The feature list is endless, and we don’t have endless space, so here are a few more items to entice and excite you: music-on-hold input, built-in on-hold reminder tone, paging output, account codes, automatic redial of busy numbers, conference calls, DSS console, electronic phone lock, exclusive hold, room monitor (great for checking on babies or spying on employees), power failure transfer, class of service, timed reminder (wake up at six or take a pill at ten), away from phone text messages, background music, flexible buttons, “this-extension” number display, extension groups (press one button to ring a group of people).

The 824 is supplied with four paper manuals and a CD-ROM. The FEATURE MANUAL is the most important, because it tells you what the system can do, and refers you to pages and sections in the other books. The OPERATING MANUAL is the second most important, because it tells you how to do the things that are listed in the Feature Manual.

The printed books may be more convenient to use than the CD-ROM, but the CD-ROM may be more up-to-date.

The CD-ROM gives you a much bigger image to read on a PC screen, than the small printed books; so you may want to print some pages on 8-1/2 x 11 paper. If you want to work from the CD-ROM, copy it onto your hard drive. You’ll be able to access the PDF files much faster than if you have to keep reading from the CD-ROM.

LOOK CAREFULLY: It can be hard to find things. If you want info on telephone company voicemail, you don’t look under V or T or P or C in the index. It’s in the L section, for “local carrier-based voice mail service.” When you find important pages, bookmark them with little plastic Post-It Notes. You may want to add some of your own notes, too, as you make discoveries. For example, the programming manual skips over some “secret programs,” such as #113 and 114, which set auto-busy-redial.

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE: When the manuals talk about a “pager,” they don’t mean a beeper you clip to your belt. They mean a paging system (“public address” system). Panasonic has kept this bit of stupidity through many generations of manuals, and will probably never fix it.

IN CONCLUSION: Despite a few lapses in documentation language and organization, the KX-TA824 is an extremely good phone system, and a fine choice for just about any home, and many businesses.

Since the value of the FREE auto attendant, FREE Caller ID circuit, FREE Caller ID on single-line phones circuit, FREE remote programming modem, and FREE software, is more than twice the price of the 824, it’s like getting the 824 for FREE… and that’s hard to beat.

I don’t know of any other system that gives you so much, for such a low price; and many other systems do less and cost more. Panasonic has set a new standard for phone systems in the 824 size range, and it will be very difficult for other manufacturers to catch up.

Michael N. Marcus is president of AbleComm, Inc. (“the telecom department store”), and a writer who specializes in telecommunications and consumer electronics. He was the telecom guru on CompuServe, the audio/video editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and has written about electronic products for scores of other publications ranging from Esquire to Country Music.