Fax machine facts Paper: Sure, you can send and receive documents on your computer, but it's easier and quicker with a dedicated unit.


If you're setting up an office, you need a fax machine.

This advice sounds prehistoric to Web heads and Net nuts. They figure electronic mail is faster, cheaper and more powerful than fax. Even if forced to receive and reply to a fax from some Neanderthal - defined as a person without an e-mail address - they figure they'll stick to the fax-modem in their computer, which can send and receive faxes without ever involving paper.

But, in practice, I've rarely found any software more frustrating than fax programs. I try to attach my signature to an electronic documents, but the signature lands in the wrong place and then disappears. I try to broadcast a fax and discover that half the people received only a black smear across the bottom of the page. I'm waiting for an incoming fax and learn that it won't appear while I'm running some other program.

I end up fiddling with drivers and configurations and installs and other details I don't want to think about. In short, I've had so much trouble with computer faxing over the years that I don't believe it's practical.

Nor is it possible to rely on e-mail and the World Wide Web alone. That's because businesses don't just run on communication and ideas, they run on documents. There are contracts to initial and return, orders to sign off, and so on.

For now, only fax moves signed documents with ease. Sign the sheet, drop it in, punch the fax phone number, push "Send," and you're done. It arrives in seconds.

What should you look for in a fax machine? In two words: Plain-paper.

You can save $100 or more by choosing a "thermal paper" fax machine. And it will be smaller than a plain-paper machine. But thermal paper feels funny, smells badly, curls annoyingly and discolors over time. When plain-paper fax machines cost $300 more than plain paper - which was true way back in 1997 - and many faxes were of the "read-and-trash" variety, thermal made some sense. But now the price difference is only a third as much. If you're buying a fax machine to handle serious documents, plain paper is the only way to go.

Just to make life a little more confusing, there are also plain-paper machines that use a thermal print head and ribbon. I prefer the look of fax pages printed by the other technology available in low-priced plain-paper units: inkjet.

Besides, both thermal paper and thermal print head machines cost around seven cents per page to operate, where inkjet will cost five cents and laser as little as two to three cents per page.

If you do buy a thermal fax, make sure it has both an automatic cutter and an anti-curl device for received pages.

The next features to look for are a document feeder and output tray that are big enough for your needs. How long are the documents you typically send? Any fax machine will handle one page, most will handle five to ten at a time, but if you send longer stuff, you'll want a feeder that will hold them all and suck them in one at a time.

Most fax machines will also operate as "copiers" - you can feed a document into the machine and get immediate output. See if the one you're considering has an easy one-button "copy" feature. You might also want enlargement or reduction on those copies, which some faxes offer.

Next, insist on enough memory. This is generally measured in pages, with 256 kilobytes of memory enough to store about 30 pages. That's adequate for most people.

With smart built-in software and enough memory you can get a quick-feed feature. This sucks all the pages in through the document feeder at a hurried pace, so you can walk away with the document. The fax itself will then send from memory. Memory is also put to use when you store "broadcast" lists of multiple recipients.

A built-in phone handset is nice. You can use it for checking to see the fax line is working.

If you're on a very tight budget and have only one phone line, get a fax machine with a fax-telephone switch, so the machine automatically knows when the incoming call is a fax. I also count on speed dialing or auto dialing for one-punch faxing to favorite recipients.

In addition, I like to see a log of transmissions and receptions, displayed on a small LCD panel, as well as a message confirmation feature so I know when the fax has gone through.

Handy in theory, though I rarely use them in practice, are dual access, so you can set a fax to send even while another is coming in; polling, where you tell another fax machine to start sending; and broadcast, to send to a list of people.

Naturally, on top of all of that, you'll want a good warranty with toll-free tech support from a company you can rely upon for answers when something doesn't work.

With all of that in mind, my preference at the bottom of the budget scale - if you must go so low - is a thermal fax such as the UX-177 or UX-107A from Sharp (800-237-4277, www.sharp-usa.com) or the SFX100 from Sanyo (212-315-3232, www.sanyo.co.jp), for around $150.

In plain-paper, my current favorite is the $250 KXF-P200 from Panasonic (800-435-7329, www.panasonic.com). Brother (800-284-4329, www.brother.com), Canon (800-423-2366, www.usa.canon.com), Hewlett-Packard (800-752-0900, www.hp.com), Sanyo, Sharp and plenty of others have similar features at similar prices.

! Pub date: 5/18/98

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