What's the simplest and yet most important communication machine in your office, aside from your phone? If you're like most people, it's probably your fax machine.
While new technology has turned computers and other office equipment into sizzling performers for the 21st century, the biggest breakthrough in fax machines in the past five years was simply to come up with a plain paper version. Now, the humble and highly reliable fax machine at last sees its future: PC connectivity.
"PC or local area network [LAN] interfaces send and receive faxes, scan documents, and print through the PC or a LAN terminal," says Christian Herb of Sharp Electronics' Business Communication Systems Division in Mahwah, New Jersey. "The interface allows users to transmit directly to the computer when a hard copy is not required. In turn, documents created on the computer can be sent to the fax machine for transmission. An interface can reduce fax labor time and unnecessary supply expenditures."
The main benefit of sending documents through your fax machine via your PC instead of simply through the machine itself is the cost savings on long-distance charges since phone connections via your PC are usually based on local phone charges. Another advantage is speed. Most new fax machines transmit at a 14.4 baud rate; by hooking up to your PC with its 28.8 or faster modem, your fax machine will double its speed and thus reduce phone bills.
With a PC interface, fax machines are turning into multifunctional machines (though they should not be confused with multifunctional devices, which are printer-based). Prices for the new high-tech fax machines vary widely, ranging from the mid-$200s to the high $2,000s. The greater the number of features, the greater the price. If the PC interface is not a standard feature but an option, it can add as much as $300 to $750 to your purchase price.
"The rate at which multifunctional faxes are outstripping standalone plain-paper units indicates that customers wanting to BODY the water with connectivity and multifunctionality are choosing to do it, at least initially, with their fax machines rather than with their printers or copiers," says John C. Dupree of Muratec in Plano, Texas.
Today's fax machines rely on the tried-and-true printing methods of the past several years: laser, light-emitting diode (LED), thermal, thermal transfer and inkjet. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. Laser and LED are the crispest but the most expensive; thermal machines are more reasonably priced but usually require a specially coated paper roll (some machines have automatic built-in paper-cutters). Thermal transfer is closer in quality to a laser and has a lower price tag, but maintenance costs can be high. Inkjets are among the best value for the money but are slower and may require more frequent replacement of the ink cartridge.
Some manufacturers offer optional features such as additional paper trays for receiving letter- and legal-sized documents, extra-large document feeders for sending oversized graphics or spreadsheets, and telephone handsets.
In addition to PC interfaces, here are some features appearing on this year's fax machines:
Memory: This feature electronically stores incoming documents in a memory chip until you've refilled the paper tray; it also holds outgoing letters for later transmission. Most memory systems are measured in megabytes; the standard is 1MB. Many machines offer an upgrade option to expand memory by an additional 1MB or 2MB; this can be done for $150 to $300.
Scan and quick scan: With the scanning and the speedier quick scan options, your document is stored in the fax machine's memory in seconds so you don't need to leave it in the machine during transmission. This saves waiting time and increases privacy. With PC connectivity, you can scan faxes directly into your computer without retyping, making them ready for editing, distribution or storage.
Convenience copying and printing: Even older fax machines have a "copy" key to make copies of documents. It's provided as a con-venience, so don't expect top quality; same with convenience printing.
Dual access: A welcome feature for busy offices, dual access scans your documents and stores them in memory for sending while the machine is receiving. As soon as the incoming fax is received, the machine automatically sends your outgoing letter. With a PC interface, the dual-access feature receives documents into memory while you're printing from your PC.
Delayed transmission: This is not a new feature but still of value. It allows you to store documents in memory and program the fax machine to relay them at night, when phone charges are less expensive.
Broadcasting: If you regularly send sales reports or other documents, this is a time-saving feature. It stores a document in memory, then sends it to multiple pre-programmed locations. A similar feature, called "polling," allows your fax machine to call other machines and request pre-programmed documents to be sent at various times; this prevents several faxes coming in at the same time.
Junk mail block: If you're receiving unwanted messages, you can program the fax machine's memory to block specific phone numbers.
Reduction/enlargement: This helps cut down on the number of pages you need to send or enlarges small print.
Autodial: Like many phone systems, autodial provides pre-programming of frequently called phone numbers, so you can punch in one number instead of several. These are also referred to as speed-dial numbers.
Auto redial: A time-saver, this feature tells the fax machine to keep trying until the fax goes through.
Auto phone/fax switch: If you have only one phone line in your office, you can hook a fax machine up to it with this feature so it automatically switches over to the fax machine to receive documents. Some machines supply a distinctive ring so you know whether to pick up the handset to answer or not.
Remote retrieval: This feature allows you to dial in from another fax machine to receive faxes stored in memory. You can also use your laptop's modem to receive the faxes into your computer, or use a phone to instruct your office fax machine to send the faxes to a different fax machine.
Cover page: Once programmed with a company name, phone number and logo, this feature automatically prints and faxes a dated cover page with every document you send.
Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.