From the January 1998 issue of Startups

Basing purchasing decisions solely on price is rarely a good idea, but with fax machines it can be a particularly costly mistake. In fact, a cheap machine that sends faxes at a slower speed will cost you more over time than a faster, more expensive model. Here's why: Slower machines take longer to transmit faxes, hiking up your phone bill. Over the long run, any initial price savings will be more than eaten up by higher phone bills.

Accordingly, when looking for a fax machine, make sure it has the following two features: It can send a fax at 14,400 bps (or 14.4 KBps), and it uses MMR data compression. These two features greatly increase transmission speeds and, combined, help you minimize your monthly phone bills and therefore your overall fax costs.

Covering The Basics

After transmission speed, one of the first decisions you'll need to make concerns the method the fax machine uses to print incoming faxes. There are four choices in fax printing technology. Are they all worth considering for home office use? Let's take a look.

*Laser or LED fax machines tend to be the largest, costliest and most sophisticated models. These machines use laser-printing or related technology to print faxes. Although prices have dropped over the past few years, the cheapest 14.4 KBps MMR laser models still start at around $800. Unless you have a specific need for the highest-quality printing on your incoming faxes, you should probably stay away from these machines.

*Thermal fax machines are inexpensive but annoying. These machines print faxes on heat-sensitive, thermal paper rather than on plain paper. Though dominant in the infancy of fax technology, thermal machines play a much smaller role today. Thermal paper is waxy, hard to write on and stored on rolls, so the pages emerge as curly scrolls. Also, as people often regretfully discover, images printed on thermal paper tend to fade over time.

One advantage of thermal fax machines is their low maintenance costs. Although the paper is relatively expensive (about 3 to 4 cents per page), thermal machines have no other supply costs (unlike laser fax machines, for example, which require toner). However, very few thermal models offer efficient sending speeds, and those that do carry much higher price tags. You will probably find it worth your while to avoid thermal machines altogether unless you don't plan to send many faxes.

*Thermal transfer fax machines (also known as film imaging machines) are an older option, but their niche in the plain-paper-but-cheap fax market makes them a worthy contender, at least for some folks. These machines use heat-sensitive ribbons to imprint the incoming message onto plain paper, offering near-laser quality without laser-quality prices.

The downside of thermal transfer fax machines is that relatively few models are available with 14.4 KBps sending speeds. Unless you know that the majority of your faxes will go to slower machines (because the transmission always occurs at the lowest speed between the two fax machines), or your faxing volume will be pretty low, you are probably leaving some savings on the table.

*That leaves ink-jet fax machines. Taking all issues into consideration, ink-jets will likely be the best choice for your home office faxing needs. Ink-jet fax machines, which cost between $400 and $1,200, create images by spraying a fine pattern of ink dots directly on plain paper. The print quality is good but not great, and faxes have an ever-so-slightly smudgy look on all but the most costly grades of paper. But for a plain-paper fax, ink-jet machines are a terrific deal.

The primary disadvantage of an ink-jet fax machine is its print speed; though it sends at 14.4 KBps, the nature of its printing process limits its ability to keep up with incoming faxes. However, for a one- or two-person office with minimal incoming faxes, this speed should be more than adequate.

Favorite Features

All fax machines today incorporate certain must-have features, such as auto redial for busy numbers and speed dial, which allows you to preprogram the fax numbers you send to the most. Other features vary according to the model, and you'll need to analyze them to make sure the fax machine you buy is right for your needs.

Any fax machine you purchase should have an automatic feeder, freeing you to do other things once you place the document in the machine. Look for a machine that can hold at least 20 pages at a time. If you tend to send faxes that are larger than letter-sized, make sure the feeder will also smoothly feed different-sized paper. Keep in mind that most feeders will not be able to hold as many of these sheets as it can letter-sized ones. Adjust your capacity requirements accordingly.

Multiple paper trays that accommodate various sizes can be really handy if you expect to receive nonletter-sized sheets often. If you receive legal-sized faxes, a tray for legal-sized paper will allow the pages to be printed as they appear, without shrinking them to letter-size or spreading them over two pages. If you don't see a need for extra paper trays, an automatic reduction feature will reduce the size of incoming faxes to fit on available paper stock. The print may end up small, but all the information will be on one page.

More advanced features that utilize memory are also available. Fax memory is a big time-saver, allowing the machine to store a copy of your fax before it is sent or printed. A number of memory features can be particularly useful for a homebased entrepreneur:

*Quick scan allows you to scan your fax into memory before sending it. Once it's scanned, you can walk away with the document because the machine will no longer need it.

*Out-of-paper reception helps when you're not there. If you run out of paper, ink or toner, incoming faxes can be stored in memory, then printed when the problem is corrected.

*Dual access essentially allows the machine to receive and send faxes at the same time.

And by all means, do yourself a favor and buy a fax machine that outputs pages face down, not face up. Otherwise you'll be eternally frustrated having to reshuffle the pages of every fax you receive into the proper order.

These features tend to greatly increase the price, however, so be reasonably sure of your need for them.

Is It A Fax Machine? A Copier? A Printer?

Fax machines that double as copiers, printers and even scanners have become extremely popular with people who work at home. Not only do they save space, but they also provide a viable cost-saving alternative to buying four different machines. However, multifunctional machines can also suffer from perpetual mediocrity--while their overall performance is adequate, no one function is top-rate. Make sure you're comfortable with all of the trade-offs. Also, since most of the functions work off the same technology, if one segment of the machine breaks down, you're out of luck all around.

A fax machine can also double as a telephone. If you plan to use one line for both your phone and fax, models that offer distinctive ring detection might be useful. This feature distinguishes incoming faxes from phone calls and will ring differently depending on what kind of call it is. This way, you'll know if the call coming in is the conference call you're expecting or the signed contract from your newest client. Before investing in such a model, however, make sure your local phone company supports this feature.

High-end fax machines offer an even larger menu of advanced features, but most are best suited for a larger, corporate environment. For most home offices, the cost of buying a model equipped with these features will outweigh any benefits.

Buying Time

You should have a good idea of the kind of machine you want to buy before you walk into the store or pick up the phone. If you're confident about the model you need, you may want to consider mail order. Salespeople may not be knowledgable or may try to talk you into a more expensive model, so be prepared to stick to your choice. But before you buy, confirm that the fax is new, not refurbished, and that it's covered under warranty.

Office superstores offer competitive prices (although the selection can be quite limited). These stores tend to cater to customers with problems or returns, so don't expect to get expert advice. Since the salespeople deal with so many other products, their level of specialized knowledge is often low.

Before taking a machine home, get some hands-on experience. Check its noise level, the space it takes up, and how the paper is loaded and output. You may never pick up the user manual, so it had better be easy to operate.

Should you purchase a service contract? Probably not. Fax machines are among the least likely of all office equipment to break or malfunction. And among the malfunctions, the most common cause is user error. As long as you use it properly and teach anyone else who might operate it to do the same, you should have few problems with your machine.

Quick Tips

Learn now, relax later. Make sure you learn upfront how to do things like change the ink cartridges, reload the paper or replace the roll of thermal film. Your fax will, of course, stop working when you need it most, so knowing how to keep it running smoothly without having to dig out the manual will save you time and headaches at critical moments.

Don't underestimate your needs. If you're buying a fax machine for the first time, try to assess what your fax volume might be. Once you arrive at a figure, increase it by 10 percent--the curiosity factor of having a new machine in the office is guaranteed to drive up your usage.

Be cautious when using mail order. Always order with a credit card, and be sure to inquire about shipping charges before you agree to buy. Often the cost of shipping offsets any equipment cost savings.

Concerned about confidentiality? If confidentiality is an issue for you, stay away from thermal transfer fax machines. "Negatives" of incoming pages remain embedded on the film, so the contents can be read even if the fax itself is safely filed.

Editor's Choice

Here are a few models to consider when buying a fax machine:

Hewlett Packard OfficeJet 500 ink-jet, $499, 14.4 KBps, MMR, 20-sheet document feeder, 150-sheet paper capacity, 35-page memory, dual access, copier/PCfax/printer/scanner

Canon MultiPass C3000 ink-jet, $549, 14.4 KBps, MMR, 20-sheet document feeder, 100-sheet paper capacity, 42-page memory, dual access, PCfax/printer/scanner

If you plan to send very few long-distance faxes, we recommend:

Brother MFC-1950MC+ thermal transfer, $449, 14.4 KBps, no MMR, 20-sheet document feeder, 200-sheet paper capacity, 20-page memory, copier/PCfax/printer/scanner

Canon FaxPhone B640 ink-jet, $299, 14.4 KBps, MMR, 20-sheet document feeder, 100-sheet paper capacity, 21-page memory

Hewlett Packard OfficeJet 300 ink-jet, $399, 9.6 KBps, MMR, 20-sheet document feeder, 150-sheet paper capacity, 24-page memory, copier/printer

Note: The low-end fax market has been moving toward multifunctionality. Therefore, most of the recommended models have multifunctional capability.

Brother, (800) 8-BROTHER, http://www.brother.com

Canon, (800) 848-4123, http://www.ccsi.canon.com

Hewlett Packard Co., (800) 752-0900, http://www.hp.com