Depending on your point of view, the fax machine is a breakthrough in telecommunications or a gadget from hell.
If you have to get a document across town right now, the fax is a godsend. But if your machine churns out junk faxes all day from people you don't know and never want to, it's the devil's tool.
For fax believers who own computers, there are hundreds of helpful hardware and software products. Some turn your computer into a fax machine. Others, like FaxBuilder (Unison World, $49.95) can turn you into the Rembrandt of the fax world.
FaxBuilder combines graphics tools from the company's Avagio desktop publishing program with elementary database and document management software to turn out faxes in every conceivable shape and form.
The program, for IBM-compatible computers, is primarily designed to produce printed documents for transmission on a fax machine.
However, you can "print" any fax page to a disk file which can be used with most internal PC fax boards. When the results come out on the other end, they prove that fax machines can produce far better quality than most people give them credit for.
Although it's graphics-based, FaxBuilder does not use the common interface of pull-down menus and drawing tools that most design programs have adopted.
But if you walk through the simple tutorial in the manual, it's easy enough to get the hang of the program. And FaxBuilder is one few graphics programs I've encountered that works smoothly without a mouse.
The program divides faxes into three parts -- the cover page, the message and a trailing page. You don't have to use all three, but it's obvious the authors think a catchy cover page is the key to getting someone to read what's behind it.
FaxBuilder comes with 20 "templates" for cover, body and trailing pages. The templates combine text, graphics, borders and information about the sender and receiver. The address information, stored in the program's database, is automatically inserted in the finished fax.
The database stores name, company, title and phone number information. The same database holds senders and receivers -- a nice touch which allows a secretary to support multiple senders.
The prefab templates include everything from sale notices to lunch orders, Christmas cards and (ghack!) "Have a Nice Day" messages.
If you don't like the templates, you can modify them or build your own from scratch using familiar desktop publishing tools.
FaxBuilder comes with five typefaces in a variety of sizes. These are true, high-resolution, desktop publishing fonts, available in standard, boldface and italic styles and in normal or reverse type.
The program also comes with 28 clip art pictures in Unison World's proprietary format. In addition, you can import any graphic stored in the industry-standard PCX format.
If you want to do your own artwork, basic line, circle and box-drawing tools are available.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, building a fax is slow. Even on my 80386 computer, FaxBuilder took its sweet time to redraw the screen (one of the major objections I had to Unison World's Avagio program).
The menus also occupy far too much space, which restricts the size of the working screen to an awkwardly small portion of the document. While you can zoom in and out of any part of a page, I found myself doing it far too often.
Once you've set up your templates (or if you're satisfied with the selection that comes with the program), you create a fax by choosing the cover, body and trailer templates you want.
Then you select the senders and receivers from your database and enter the text of your message. You can type the text yourself (slow and awkward for all but the briefest messages), or import a text file created with a word processor. If the message occupies more than a page, FaxBuilder automatically creates new pages with the same layout, a nice touch.
FaxBuilder supports a wide variety of printers. It produced striking results on my HP LaserJet and even did a credible job on my beat-up, 9-pin IBM ProPrinter. There's no question that people will look at the faxes this program creates.
Printing is slow at best. When I set up the program to use my LaserJet's highest, 300 dot-per-inch resolution, it took three to four minutes to print one-page document with several typefaces and a large graphic. Printing is likewise slow on dot-matrix printers because the program uses multiple passes of the print head to produce its dense, attractive images.
If you print the fax directly to a disk file and send with a fax modem, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise.
Most faxes look grainy because the scanner in the sender's fax machine does a rotten job of digitizing the original paper document. When you eliminate the paper and do everything electronically, you get all the power of the fax machine's sophisticated, 200 dot-per inch printer. Using FaxBuilder this way produced some of the best fax copy I've seen. Unfortunately, it's a slow, awkward process.