Fax Forward

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.

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