With the advent of fax/data modems priced under $150 for personal computers, it's reasonable to consider equipping your computer as a supplemental fax machine for your office.
The truth is that neither a stand-alone fax machine, with its ease-of-use and flexibility, nor a computer fax system, offering superior clarity, is perfect for all uses. But one or the other will be ideal in any given situation, so it makes sense to have both.
Sending a fax directly from your computer is best when the material was created in that computer: a word processing document or a spreadsheet table, or a complex report that mixes text and tables and graphics. The quality at the receiving end will be better, too, no matter what kind of machine receives it.
But when you want to fax a newspaper clipping, a few pages from a book, a copy of an invoice or a printed report, it's probably easier to use a stand-alone fax machine. It's certainly faster.
You'll often need a copier to prepare such materials for faxing, however.
Sometimes, you shouldn't even send a fax, but send a text file instead. An example is when the recipient needs to incorporate the information into something he or she is writing.
That's when a service like MCI Mail is the best means of communication. It allows you to send electronic mail to other MCI Mail customers.
Some people find that the ideal combination is to send faxes from a PC and receive them on a stand-alone fax machine.
The starting place for any of this is the modem, such as Practical Peripherals' Practical Modem 2400FX96, which is commonly discounted below its $139 suggested price. It is an internal board for standard PC/AT-compatible computers that combines a normal 2400-baud data modem with a 9600-baud fax modem.
The fax modem is compatible with all Group III fax machines, the most common system used worldwide. An external modemis also available for $149.
The system includes Quick Link II fax software capable of sending and receiving fax as well as standard data communications. It works quickly and easily for text documents.
You'll have to convert word processor files into plain text first, however.
If you use Windows, you'll probably want to preserve the combination of graphics and multiple type styles in your documents when you fax them.
That's a good reason to own Winfax Pro 2.0., $119 from Delrina Technology Inc. It works with most fax modems and is the fanciest, and probably easiest, way to send and receive faxes from inside Windows.
Winfax Pro 2.0 pretends to be a printer available to all of your Windows applications.
When you want to send a fax from one of those applications, you "print" it to the printer named Winfax Pro instead of to your normal printer.
Winfax Pro gives you three views to look at faxes: full-size, which is too big to fit within the screen boundaries, and 50 percent or 25 percent of full size.
Just be sure you have the 100 percent view selected when you print or it won't come out right.
Being able to print out on regular paper, especially at laser printer quality, is one of the big advantages of receiving faxes in your computer.
If you also have software that performs optical character recognition, such as FAXGrabber, $149 from Calera Recognition Systems, you can convert text contained in received faxes back into the kind of text file that you can work with in the computer.
FAXGrabber is a Windows program that interacts directly to most fax modems, including the Practical Modem. That means you don't need other software to receive faxes when you use FAXGrabber. But it doesn't send faxes. You'll still need the other software for that task.
It took about a minute a page for FAXGrabber to do the conversion on my medium-speed computer. When you're done, the resulting text files occupy a lot less disk storage space than the image files that other fax software store.
* Practical Modem 2400FX96, $139, manufactured by Practical Peripherals Inc., 31245 La Baya Drive, Westlake Village, Calif. 91362, (800) 442-4774.
* Winfax Pro 2.0, $119, published by Delrina Technology Inc., 15495 Los Gatos Blvd., Suite 8, Los Gatos, Calif. 95032, (800) 268-6082.
* FAXGrabber, $149, published by Calera Recognition Systems Inc., 475 Potrero Ave., Sunnyvale, Calif. 94086, (800) 544-7051.