The idea of having a computer double as a fax machine is appealing.
Why send a report to your printer and then run the print through a fax machine so that you can transmit it? And why have yet another piece of equipment in your already crowded office?
Substantial cost savings are possible as well.
A stand-alone fax machine has three components. There is a scanner that converts printed pages into image data. There is a fax modem that sends and receives image data over a telephone line. And there is a printer to convert received image data back on to pages.
You only have to add one of those components to your computer -- a fax modem -- to allow it to send and receive faxes. Software can take the place of the scanner, converting your word processing, spreadsheet, database or graphics files into the image data required for fax transmission. And the printer attached to your computer can print faxes you receive.
If the fax modem you buy can also double as a data modem for communication with other computers, you save the cost of a data modem and the extra expansion slot it would consume in your computer.
I've recently tested two fax-data modems.
The Intel SatisFAXtion ($499) is a full-size internal expansion board for IBM XT, AT and compatible computers. It's manufactured by Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., (800) 538-3373.
The Zoltrix ZoFAX 96/24P pocket fax-modem ($350) is a portable external unit ideal for laptop computers. Measuring a mere 5 inches by 3 inches by 1 inch, and powered with a 9-volt battery, it is available from Zoltrix Inc., Fremont, Calif., (415) 657-1188.
There are other fax-data modems with similar features and similar constraints which I have not tested.
Both the Intel and Zoltrix products provide standard Group III fax communications at 9600 baud and Hayes-compatible data communications at 2400 baud. The Intel board includes the latest MNP5 error correction protocol with its 2400-baud modem.
They both require a graphics monitor plus substantial hard-disk storage space for software and fax image files. Intel recommends 10 megabytes of free disk storage space and Zoltrix suggests 5 megabytes.
Both units work well, but they are not as easy to use as a fax machine.
If you use Microsoft Windows, you have added difficulties. The Zoltrix fax software cannot be used from within Windows. Instead, you have to save Windows files either as graphics (.TIF) files or as text, whichever is appropriate, and then run the Zoltrix software outside of Windows, from the DOS prompt.
Intel's SatisFAXtion can be used quite nicely from inside Windows, but not until you obtain additional software, called FAXit for Windows. It's free, if you don't throw away the coupon included in the packaging, but you'll wait four to six weeks for it. (While you're at it, there's another coupon for a free copy of PC Tools utility software.)
What comes in the SatisFAXtion box is Intel's FAXPOP software for use with non-Windows files. You send faxes the same way you would print a file, using an imaginary printer created by the program. FAXPOP will automatically convert Microsoft Word 5.0, WordPerfect 5.1, Q&A; 3.0, Multimate 4.0, Lotus 1-2-3 and Symphony files into fax format.