Instant transmission of documents, for the cost of a phone call, is a competitive necessity in the 1990s.
If American business needed fast delivery of documents, it got that in the 1980s from overnight express companies deploying armies of trucks and planes to deliver letters for about $10 apiece. Today another solution is offered by telecommunications technology: Facsimile machines deliver documents instantaneously for the price of a phone call.
The wonder of facsimile is that the technology is simple and accessible to anyone with a telephone line. Any image that can be placed on paper -- typed text, handwritten notes, graphics, and photographs -- can be sent by fax.
An exotic and expensive technology only five years ago, fax machines of substantial quality can be bought today for as little as $500. Sales of fax machines reached 1.6 million units last year, according to BIS Strategic Decisions, a Norwell, Mass., market research and consulting firm. Many of those sales are coming from small companies, which understand the major advantages that accrue from fast business communications.
In the mid-1980s, when fax machines first caught the attention of small companies, many buyers chose stripped-down machines because that was all they could afford. Fax machines that did little more than perform basic functions cost $2,500 to $3,000. With prices now dramatically lower -- the same low-end machines sell for $500 to $600 -- buyers can choose among dozens of options that promise greater convenience and efficiency. But with a broader menu of choices has come more confusion, too. What features does a small company really need?
Assessing your needs
If your company is growing rapidly, a low-end unit with few features is a bad investment. You will eventually be unhappy with its limitations. To make the wisest purchase, spend some time assessing what your needs are now and how they are likely to change.
One of the most important considerations is the volume of material you are likely to send and receive. Fax machines are rated on volume, and an estimate of your company's future volume is likely to define the minimum level of machine you should buy. Estimating volume is difficult, but start with the material you send out now for overnight delivery. How much of it would be better served by fax? Poll your employees on how much correspondence they foresee sending by fax. Add liberally to their estimate because it is likely to be too low. Ask yourself, How fast is my company and mail volume growing? Who will use the machine? The more people using the machine, the more likely it is that volume will grow.
It is common for a company purchasing its first fax machine to underestimate volume. Often, a business finds itself using the machine in ways never considered. Expect to receive more transmissions if you print your fax number on business cards or letterhead or if it is published in a fax directory -- a telephone book of fax numbers.
Consider also what type of material you will be transmitting. Will it be standard 81/2-by-11-inch documents, or will it also include larger sizes? Will it include graphics, photographs, or detailed drawings? Depending on the size of the pages you will be sending, you may need a system that accepts documents up to 11 inches wide instead of just 81/2-inch-wide sheets.
If you work with materials that require detail and clarity in transmission, you will need a machine with enhanced-resolution settings or a mode for sending photos or illustrations. Although prices are steep, you may even want to consider the new generation of machines that print crisp images on plain paper rather than the inferior coated stock that curls up.
With the exception of an automatic paper cutter and automatic document feeder, there are few features essential for every user. Knowing about these and other features will make the difference between getting a machine that grows with you and one that you outgrow.
Automatic paper cutter: This shears each page of a document as it leaves the fax machine. Without it, documents will print out in a continuous sheet, and someone will have to trim each page manually -- not a great boost to productivity. This is the easiest decision of all: Don't leave your fax dealer without it.
Automatic paper feeder: This feature is another must unless you want to see employees spend 10 minutes at a time feeding long documents into the machine page by page. With an automatic feeder, users can place the pages in the machine, dial the phone number, and walk away. Capacities vary, but most document feeders hold between 5 and 30 sheets. Unless you frequently send multipage documents of more than 30 pages, a low-capacity feeder is sufficient.
Speed dialing: Most machines allow users to program telephone numbers into memory for 1- or 2-digit access, eliminating the need to dial 7 or 11 digits. Get this feature if you frequently send documents to the same locations.
Redial: What if the fax number you call is busy? Without a redial feature, you must keep returning to the machine to try and try again. A machine with redial will automatically call back a busy number up to about 15 times at specific intervals. Some of the low-end systems offer manual redialing -- a user presses a redial key after receiving a busy signal. Redial is a good feature to have and can be found in some configuration on all but the least expensive systems.
Paper roll size: Paper capacity is an important consideration if you expect to receive a large number of fax transmissions. Rolls of paper come in 98-foot, 164-foot, and 328-foot sizes. Since machines are designed around the paper, a 328-foot roll will not fit in a machine built for a 98-foot roll. Select a system with a paper capacity that meets current and future requirements. Avoid the 98-footers if your receiving volume will be high or if you frequently receive multipage documents. Though changing the paper roll is a simple procedure, it can be annoying if it must be done often.
Running out of paper may delay reception of documents for hours if no one notices that the machine is down. Paper costs $7 to $12 for a 98-foot roll, $10 to $12 for a 164-foot roll, and $16 to $20 for a 328-foot roll.
Resolution: The print quality of a document is the result of the machine's resolution. This is determined by the number of dots of ink per inch, or DPI. Resolution usually starts at 98-by-98 dots and increases, at finer resolutions, to 400-by-400 dots. Some machines offer a choice of standard, fine, and superfine resolutions. Standard resolution, which has 200 DPI horizontally and 100 DPI vertically, is suitable for documents that contain only text, but higher resolution (up to 400 DPI in both directions) is necessary to enhance the readability of small print, photos, and drawings. If your company will routinely fax these materials, get a machine capable of superfine resolution.
Keep in mind that compatibility may be a factor. While most machines with standard and fine resolutions are compatible, those with even more advanced settings may work only when communicating with like units.
Gray scales: If many of the documents you fax include photos and graphics, consider the machine's ability to reproduce shades of gray, also known as halftones. Most units with this feature provide 8, 16, 32, or 64 shades of gray. The greater the number, the more detailed the reproduction.
Gray scale mode can be activated only at the transmitting unit. If your machine has this feature, the receiving unit will produce gray-scale images whether it has the gray-scale feature or not. But if your machine does not have this feature, documents you transmit will print at standard resolution, no matter how advanced the receiving fax is.
If photographs or illustrations play a major role in your business, then you'll need this feature.
Fax/telephone switch: A machine with a fax/telephone switch detects the type of call and routes it to either your fax unit or your telephone. The switch obviates the need for a dedicated phone line for the fax machine, which could save an installation charge plus $25 or so each month in line charges. But its major drawback is you can't use the telephone while receiving or sending a fax, or vice versa.
This feature is valuable only for home-based businesses, and even then only for those that don't have high phone usage. But you won't pay extra for a fax/tel switch because it is standard on many low-end machines.
Memory: The ability to store documents represents a major leap in the usefulness of fax machines. Units that can store up to 16 pages can be bought for less than $1,500, carrying about a $200 premium over machines without this feature. High-end machines may have a capacity of 100 pages or more.
Memory machines are usually found in what are known as receive-only and programmable configurations. Systems with receive-only memory store documents if the machine runs out of paper or if you wish to print them out at another time. More expensive are the programmable machines, which enable users to perform such varied tasks as confidential fax reception and delayed transmission, described below.
Most small companies would probably find memory an expensive frill. But if the functions that follow would be valuable to your operations, then buying a machine with memory may be a cost-effective decision.
Confidential Reception: Incoming faxes containing sensitive information may be seen by anyone with access to the machine -- unless your fax offers confidential reception. These units store incoming documents in memory until someone with a preassigned code or password logs on.
Delayed Transmission: No one will be in the office to send a fax when telephone rates reach their lowest levels after 11:00 p.m., but a machine with the delayed-transmission feature will do it for you. Just load documents into the automatic document feeder or into memory and set them for transmission at whatever time you'd like. Many vendors admit that this feature is seldom used, but it nonetheless could provide significant savings if used often.
Broadcasting: This feature is a must for companies that send the same document to multiple locations. Broadcasting works in any of three ways. With sequential broadcasting, a central office can transmit the same document to each of its sales offices or customers across the country from a preprogrammed list, thereby eliminating the need to keep feeding a document into the machine and dialing each office separately. Delayed broadcasting functions are similar, but transmit documents at off-peak times, providing the same benefits as delayed transmission.
Finally, relay broadcasting offers further savings by allowing a central office in, say, Philadelphia to transmit a document to a branch office in Arizona, where it is then retransmitted to other fax machines in that area. In this way the company can take advantage of local phone rates.
Batching files: Rather than sending separate documents to the same location at different times throughout the day, documents can be stored in a memory file and then transmitted together on one telephone call. Although this may save a small amount of money, it isn't nearly as cost-effective as delayed transmission.
Polling: A company with a central office that needs to access reports from each of its branch offices may find this feature useful. Documents are stored in memory or placed in the automatic document feeder at each of the branch offices. The central office fax then dials each location and receives their transmissions, eliminating the possibility of these units calling your machine and getting a busy signal. Polling would be a frill for all but a few small companies.
If you've already purchased office equipment from an office products dealer, you may want to start there, especially if you are shopping for a mid- or high-volume machine and service is a priority. Most office equipment dealers carry a wide selection of one vendor's machines. If all you need is a basic, low-end machine, try the discounters.
As with most office equipment, list prices for fax machines tend to be fictional. Russ Jacketti, vice-president of sales at WJS Enterprises, a copier and fax dealer in Metairie, La., says a bit of haggling with a dealer can get most buyers a break of 20% to 25% off list price. If you buy at an office or electronic superstore, you will pay less, but your choices will probably be narrowed to low-end machines. You'll probably pay the least through a warehouse club. Here discounts can be as much as 50%, but choices may be limited and sales support nonexistent. Warehouse clubs often sell discontinued models; while prices are low, check that replacement parts will be available for the next three to five years.
How much will it cost to operate the machine? If you use a dedicated telephone line rather than sharing the line with your telephone, you will pay monthly line charges plus the cost of each fax call. Telephone and fax calls cost the same, and should you share a line, the phone bill will not distinguish between the two. Expect to pay at least 20¢ to 30¢ a page for a long-distance transmission. In addition, you'll pay 5¢ to 7¢ a page for thermal paper and 3¢ a page for plain paper.
Now that fax has penetrated nearly every company with 100 or more employees and is rapidly becoming common in smaller businesses, those without it are missing out on a valuable tool. The essence of business is communication and facsimile is the new medium for delivering the message. By avoiding a shortsighted approach when buying, you're more likely to get a machine that delivers now and in the future.
Scott W. Cullen is an associate editor of The Office , in Stamford, Conn.
SMART TIP . . .
Don't try to save money by skimping on automatic paper cutters and feeders, speed dialing, and redial. Without these, using the fax will be so time-consuming the machine will rival the water cooler as a gathering place.
If you send documents throughout the day to the same location, you'll accumulate multiple phone charges. Batching enables you to store documents in memory and then send them all at once.
If your accountant sends a sensitive memo by fax, anybody who passes by the fax machine can read it. But this feature stores documents in memory until someone with a password logs on.
You can send documents at 11:00 p.m., after phone rates go down. Delayed transmission enables you to load the fax machine and program it for transmission later.
Advanced fax machines can store documents. Models with receive-only memory store incoming documents if your machine runs out of paper. Those with programmable memory perform sophisticated tasks such as broadcasting and delayed transmission.
Do you send the same document to numerous branch offices? Instead of feeding the document into the machine each time, broadcasting enables you to load it once and let the machine do the rest.
Great reproduction of photos and graphics depends in large part on the number of shades of gray, or gray scales, that a fax machine is capable of printing. More gray scales produce greater contrast in the documents you receive. Most fax machines with this feature provide 8, 16, 32, or 64 shades of gray.
Speed dial and redial
The speed dial feature allows you to program a frequently called number into memory and subsequently dial it by punching just one or two digits. Redial enables the fax machine to automatically call a number again if it encounters a busy signal.
Automatic document feeder
If your employees have a lot of time on their hands, they can stand by the fax machine for 10 minutes feeding in long documents one page at a time. Or...you can buy an automatic document feeder.
Automatic paper cutter
When documents are received, employees can snip away with scissors at the continuous roll of paper that emerges. Or...you can buy an automatic paper cutter.
Most fax machines print documents on thermal paper, a medium universally disliked by all who make its acquaintance. Thermal paper curls, is difficult to write on, and fades. A new generation of more expensive machines uses plain paper; as the price declines over the next few years, plain- paper faxes are sure to dominate the market.
FAX PRICES AND FEATURES
Typical price range* Features
Begin at $500 Built-in handset, redial, small document feeder.
$700 to $1,200 10-p. document feeder; 7-15-p. memory; auto paper cutter; 98-ft. paper roll; speed-dialing; autofax/tel switch;16 gray scales; super-fine mode.
$1,200 to $1,600 Heavier construction; 20-30-p. document feeder; 15-30-p. memory, 164-ft. paper roll; broadcasting; batching; 16-32 gray scales; delayed transmission.
*The "typical price" is the range of what most customers will pay; it is lower than the suggested retail price and higher than the lowest street price. Source: What to Buy for Business
THERMAL VS. PLAIN-PAPER FAX
The output from a typical fax machine won't win any awards for printing quality. Documents are produced by a thermal printer and arrive on coated stock that curls, fades, and is difficult to write on. Because of this, many users run their fax output through a photocopier before working on it.
The answer to this problem is at hand -- well, almost at hand. Vendors are offering fax machines that use plain paper and produce output of a quality comparable with that of a computer printer. The problem is the price tag. Today a low-end plain-paper system can be purchased for as little as $2,000, down from about $5,000 a few years ago. A plain-paper system sells for up to $1,500 more than a thermal unit with comparable features.
You have several choices in plain-paper fax machines. Those that utilize laser printing technology offer the best output and consequently are the most expensive. Lower-cost units use the same ink-jet technology as desktop ink-jet printers. While it is the least expensive way to make use of plain paper technology, some users say resolutions aren't as high and halftones are prone to a plaidlike appearance. But with some of these units selling for well under $2,000, it's an excellent option for companies that want plain-paper output.
Plain-paper fax will eventually dominate the business market and is the better investment for companies requiring the highest-quality printing. But the standard thermal fax machine is still the best choice for most small companies, which can wait for the price of plain-paper faxes to fall further.
FAX BOARDS FOR PERSONAL COMPUTERS
If your office is typical, many of the documents you send out by fax machine will have been originally created on personal computers. But even if you print out the documents on the best laser printer, sending them by fax will compromise the quality on the receiving end.
Now, however, you can buy a device called a fax board to bypass your fax machine when you produce documents on computers. Fax boards fit in the expansion slot of computers. They enable users to transmit and receive documents from their computer to or from a computer or fax machine in another office.
A fax board can boost productivity by eliminating two steps: printing out a document from a computer file and then feeding it into a fax machine. It also improves print quality.
Prices range from $150 to $1,000, with some low-end units offering only transmission capability. If all your computers are linked together in a network and you want them to enjoy this capability, consider installing one fax server for the entire network. It costs about $80 a person on a 25-person network, a better buy than installing single fax boards on a handful of machines individually.
A BUYER'S WORKSHEET FOR FAX MACHINES
Automatic paper cutter You don't want employees spending the time trimming each page manually. A must buy.
Automatic document feeder Ten minutes feeding pages into the fax? Buy an auto feeder.
Speed dialing A great feature if you frequently send documents to the same location.
Redial A worthwhile feature: If the number you call is busy, the machine will keep calling back.
Paper roll size Fax machines come with either a 98-, 164-, or 328-foot roll of paper. You'll need at least 164 feet to avoid frequent downtime and interruptions in reception of documents.
Resolution Resolution is measured in dots per inch (DPI). 200-by-100 DPI is standard and adequate for sending text. For small print, photos, and graphics, go with fine resolution, 400-by-400 DPI.
Gray scales You may have a choice of 8, 16, 32, or 64 shades of gray. If you will be faxing photos or illustrations, go for 32 or 64 shades.
Fax/telephone switch This is good for sole proprietors working out of their home, but other companies should dedicate a separate phone line to the fax. So the fax/tel switch isn't needed.
Memory Receive-only memory stores documents if the machine runs out of paper. Faxes with this feature cost about $1,500, a $200 premium over machines without it. Most small companies won't miss it.
Fax machines with programmable memory give you the features outlined below.
Confidential reception If you receive sensitive documents over your fax lines and want to restrict access, get this feature.
Delayed transmission Sending documents late at night can save a lot of money. It's worthwhile -- if you organize people to use it.
Broadcasting If you often send the same document to multiple locations, consider this feature. You load the fax machine once and avoid feeding the document into the machine each time.
Batching files This may be useful if you have a high volume of transmissions to the same destination. Probably not worth paying for, but may be included among other memory functions.
Polling This memory feature may have some utility for companies that have many branch offices. Otherwise, it's a frill.