What to look for in a facsimile machine

Quick, easy, and relatively cheap, facsimile is probably the fastest-growing form of mail today. Like some electronic mail between computers, facsimiles travel over phone lines, but unlike computer electronic mail, the process is far from paperless. It's rather like using a remote photocopying machine: a paper original is fed into a facsimile machine at one location, and a copy appears nearly instantaneously at a facsimile machine somewhere else. With facsimile, you are sending pictures of pages by telephone.

It's not surprising, then, that facsimile, or fax, has grown most quickly in Japan, where business messages are still handwritten. Indeed, most of the world's fax machines are installed in Japan, and nearly all of them are made there. In the United States today, roughly one in 10 offices has a fax machine, and in three years, about half of all businesses will. So for all practical purposes, if you're in business, you need fax.

An ordinary fax machine is a self-contained unit comprising a scanner to "read" the paper originals, a modem to transmit and receive images, and a printer to print them. The sending machine scans the original page and breaks what it "sees" into dots called picture elements (pixels), which are then converted into audio signals that travel over the phone line. The receiving machine re-creates and prints the image on paper, dot by dot. No computer is involved, although computers can also generate and receive facsimiles.

Compared with other forms of mail, fax has several advantages. Unlike regular or overnight mail, facsimiles -- complete with text and graphics -- arrive immediately, and unless you are sending more than 50 pages, you'll pay less than the price of overnight delivery. A 2-page facsimile sent across the country is cheaper than 2 pages transmitted over most public electronic-mail services; if sent during the night when phone rates are lowest, it is even cheaper than first-class mail. But perhaps most important, facsimile, unlike electronic mail, is universal. Virtually every fax machine can talk to every other fax machine; all you need is the receiving machine's phone number.

All modern fax machines follow what is known as the Group 3 fax protocol, set by international agreement. This protocol defines two page-image resolutions: "standard," which has 200 dots per inch (DPI) horizontally and 100 DPI vertically, and "fine," with 200 DPI in both directions. At these resolutions, a page is legible but hardly attractive. Straight lines in the original come out a little jagged at the receiving end, and artifacts in the scanning process scatter stray dots on the copy. Reading text from a facsimile is a little like reading it under water.

The quality of fax images is better with Group 4 protocol, which offers resolutions of up to 400 DPI vertically and horizontally. But Group 4 requires a digital phone line, a rarity today, so few of us will see its benefits until the next decade.

Fax features
Fax machines from the major Japanese manufacturers are nearly all well made and reliable, and within a given price and feature range, they are pretty much equivalent. Even the cheapest fully functional fax machine on the U.S. market, the Murata M-1200 (about $900 list), does the basics -- scan, send, receive, and print -- as well as any fax machine; it simply lacks any extras.

Some of these extras make it easier to send and receive facsimiles on your machine; their usefulness is independent of the features on the fax machines that you communicate with. Such conveniences include document feeders, which can take a small stack of original pages and automatically feed them through your fax machine one at a time, and paper cutters, which cut up received facsimiles into pages (most fax machines print on a continuous roll of paper). If you frequently need to send photographs or other artwork by fax, choose a machine with a scanner that can process grays. Some machines offer a single-document "broadcast" function that lets you send the same document to two or more fax machines in a single operation. An autodialer lets you store frequently called fax numbers for quick retrieval.

Other features work only if both sending and receiving fax machines share them. Polling, in which one fax machine can ask another to send back a document, is one of these. With this feature, a fax machine in the home office can poll fax machines in branch offices, requesting a document that has been loaded, ready for transmission; the central-office fax machine could pull in all the daily sales reports, for example. Another feature in this category is error correction, which ensures that an incoming image is received without glitches. To do this, the receiving fax machine calculates a number based on the pattern of incoming pixels and compares the result with an independent calculation made by the sending machine; if there is a discrepancy, the pixels are sent again.

A third type of feature works only if sending and receiving machines are made by the same manufacturer. These are mainly useful for intracompany fax, in which case all the machines are likely to be the same. This category includes superfine mode (200 DPI horizontally by 400 DPI vertically), Brother's two-color fax, special data-compression schemes that shorten transmission time, and password protection. With the latter, only someone with a password can print a sensitive document; anyone can read an unprotected message as it is printed out.

One major nuisance shared by virtually all fax machines priced at less than $3,000 is the flimsy thermal paper they use. This thin, smooth paper is hard to write on and will discolor or fade if exposed to strong light or some kinds of plastics and organic solvents; it can be stored for many years in paper file folders, however. Many people immediately photocopy any fax they receive and discard the original, thus consuming even more paper. Some fax machines priced at $4,000 and more print by a thermal-transfer process on a heavier, smooth paper. The paper and ribbons for such machines are expensive -- about 15¢ a page, compared with 2¢ or 3¢ a page for thermal paper. Xerox has a more flexible thermal-transfer printer that can print on some plain papers. If you want to print on a wider range of ordinary papers, however, you will need a fax machine with a laser printer -- but these cost more than $5,000.

For the best survey of fax machines on the market now, see the fax issue of What to Buy for Business, which contains a comparison chart and picks best buys within several price ranges. It also lists models that are sold under more than one brand name, which helps to identify the overpriced units. Avoid the many expensive guides to fax machines that merely list features extracted from the manufacturers' promotional literature.

Some models should be avoided altogether. Avoid slow fax machines that take 40 seconds or more to send a typical page (that is, machines with a maximum speed of less than 9,600 bits per second). You should also avoid "memo fax" machines, recently launched as low-cost products in Japan. These machines process only paper that is 4¼ inches wide by 5½ inches; their inability to handle standard letter or legal sheets makes them useless for business. And don't be taken in by ads touting fax machines as convenience copiers. To be sure, a fax machine can be made to work as a copying machine if it scans a page and prints it immediately, but any conventional copying machine gives you much better quality.

Computer fax
If you have a document in your computer that you want to send by fax, you don't need to print it first and then scan it into a fax machine. With a fax modem and supporting software, you can send the document directly from your computer. Computer fax produces much better-looking images than a fax machine can. The software always puts every pixel in exactly the right place, and straight lines in the computer file are always perfectly straight on the copy. (Of course, you could also scan a paper original with a scanner hooked up to your computer and transmit that via fax, but, despite what the ads say, you'd be better off simply using an ordinary fax machine.)

Computers are clumsy for receiving facsimiles because you can't read messages until you print them (the resolution of computer screens is not high enough for fax images to be legible). The dots on most of the common dot-matrix printers for computers are too large to give a clear printout of a fax message. Laser printers have small enough dots, but they are designed to print at 300 DPI, not 200 DPI, so the image usually comes out a different size from the original, if you can print it at all. Many laser printers sold for IBM PCs, for instance, cannot print full-page graphics.

Computer fax modems can send images to ordinary fax machines and to other fax modems. They can also transmit computer files, but because there is no standard data format, a fax modem can exchange data only with an identical fax modem run by the same controlling software. An industry group has begun to define such a standard, which will enable any fax modem to exchange computer data with any other fax modem.

Given these drawbacks, you should not buy a fax modem until after you have a fax machine. Once you have both, you can use the fax modem for sending documents you have stored in your computer and use the fax machine for receiving all incoming facsimiles and for sending documents that exist only as paper originals.

From a technical -- or even practical -- point of view, it's ironic that fax machines are so popular. To begin with, fax technology is quite ordinary. It was originally developed for sending graphics; yet most facsimiles in North America consist only of text. Since most of this text is probably generated on computers in the first place, electronic mail would almost always be more effective than fax. Because fax sends pictures of characters, not the computer codes for those characters, you can send a page of text faster through a standard modem at 1,200 bits per second than you can fax the same page at 9,600 BPS.

And, unlike electronic mail, you can't edit text received via facsimile without having to retype it into your computer. (Some companies are promising to "read" facsimiles into computers with optical character recognition, but no one has yet done this convincingly.)

So why the appeal of fax? Because fax is fast, easy, and cheap -- and, probably most important, because people are better at getting the picture if they can see it on paper. Any technology that makes getting the picture easier as well as faster will be with us for a long time to come.


Should you give your machine a line of its own?

In the long run, the most expensive part of owning and operating a fax machine is the telephone line it is connected to. As long as you can afford it, the best way to run a fax machine is to connect it to its own phone line. The fax machine can then answer all calls automatically, incoming messages can arrive at any time, and no one has to be present to receive them.

If you really want to try saving money, you can use one phone line for both voice calls and fax, but you will have to put up with a few hassles. Sending fax messages on the same line you use for voice calls is no problem, as long as you remember not to pick up the telephone during a transmission. Receiving messages is another story. You cannot simply attach the fax machine to the line and let it answer the phone automatically because all callers will be greeted with the shrill beee of an answering modem. So to receive a fax, you must answer the phone yourself and then manually start the fax machine. This means that the fax machine must be next to your phone and that you or someone else must be present to turn it on -- two major inconveniences.

What about a switch that could route incoming calls either to a voice phone or to a fax machine? A standard international CNG (CalliNG) tone (beep-[pause]- beep-[pause]- beep) does exist that identifies nonvoice calls such as those from a fax machine or computer modem. An electronic switch can easily detect the CNG tone and route a call accordingly. But not every fax machine sends these tones; some send it only when dialing automatically, and some don't send it at all. Without a CNG tone, there is no completely automatic way to determine that a call is coming from a fax machine.

The solution is semiautomation. All calls need to be answered by voice, either in person or with an answering machine; if the incoming call is a fax message without a CNG tone, either the sender or the receiver can dial a code (typically by pressing the * or # button), which will signal a switch to route the call to a fax machine. If an answering machine is responding and fax senders know which buttons to press when the answering-machine message begins, no one need be present to receive fax messages. And for automated sending, the sender's fax machine can be programmed to dial, pause for your answering machine, and then dial the correct code (as long as the required pause is always the same length).

You can add a voice/fax switch externally to any fax machine. Vada Systems' $300 Faxswitch II can detect CNG tones and * or # signals. (This is the same as The Switch, model F/M/A, available from High-Tech Resources for $350.) These switches also prevent you from disturbing a fax transmission even if you accidentally pick up the phone. Some manufacturers are starting to build such switches into their machines. Sharp's model 300 and 420 fax machines feature switching, but they do not detect CNG tones; the new model 550 will.


Where to get more information

If you want to find out more, here are the addresses of sources mentioned in this column:

Brother International Corp., 8 Corporate Place, Piscataway, NJ 08855; (201) 981-0300, (800) 284-4357

High-Tech Resources Inc., 4225 W. Glendale Ave., Suite 102, Phoenix, AZ 85051; (602) 931-0793, (800) 422-2832

Murata Business Systems Inc., 4801 Spring Valley Rd., Suite 108B, Dallas, TX 75244; (214) 392-1622, (800) 543-4636 or 4637

Sharp Electronics Corp., Sharp Plaza, Mahwah, NJ 07430; (201) 529-8200, (800) 526-0264

Vada Systems Inc., 9329 Douglas Drive, Riverside, CA 92503; (714) 687-2492, (800) 999-8232

What to Buy for Business, 350 Theodore Fremd Rd., Rye, NY 10580; (914) 921-0085, (800) 247-2185. $18 for fax issue, including updates.