With most of the business world communicating by fax today, it isn't surprising that dozens of products have sprung up to let PC owners turn their computers into fax machines, or reasonable facsimiles thereof.
The truth of the matter is that PC faxing can be taxing on your time, pocketbook and patience. On the other hand, it does offer some real advantages, particularly if you want to deliver high-quality documents that regular fax machines can't produce.
To turn your PC into a fax, you have to buy a gadget called a fax modem. These usually combine standard communications capabilities with special software that can send and receive Group 3 facsimiles.
As with other types of modems, you can buy external units that connect to your computer's serial port with a cable, or internal units that plug into an expansion slot on your main circuit board. External fax modems are obviously easier to install, but most don't have the capabilities of the plug-in variety.
The Intel Corp., which designed the chips that power IBM-compatible computers, is also the best known manufacturer of fax modems. The company recently introduced four new SatisFaxtion models ranging from $129 to $549. That's list price -- you can probably find them for less if you shop around.
More money buys you more sophisticated fax hardware with a coprocessor that can still fax while you and your computer do something else. A lot more money buys you more in the way of standard communications capability, including speed, state-of-the-art data compression and error checking for non-fax applications.
The key to making any of these gadgets work is the software that comes with them -- or software you buy from a third party. That software somehow has to convert information stored on your computer's disk drive -- such as word processing or graphics files -- and turn it into fax-compatible data.
Likewise, it has to be able to convert incoming fax data into a format that your computer can display and print.
Most fax modems come bundled with software. At the very minimum, these programs will allow you to set up a dialing directory of other fax machines for transmission, and to set up your modem to automatically receive incoming faxes.
Some programs will operate in the background and capture faxes while you do something else, although you'll probably need a 386 computer running Microsoft Windows and a fax board with a coprocessor to do that successfully.
Low-end fax programs will convert a standard text file or graphics file, or perhaps files created with popular programs such as WordPerfect.
But don't expect much in the way of quality. What comes out on the other end looks like the product of a cheap dot matrix printer, although some programs will allow you to attach a graphic logo to the top of each document.
Other fax programs, such as Faxit, WinFax Pro and Faxability Plus, give you much more. Essentially, they make your fax look like a printer to your software, and what comes out on the other end -- including fonts and graphics -- looks pretty much like what your own printer would produce.
In fact, this is the one arena in which PC faxing beats using a fax machine. Most faxes look coarse and grainy because fax machines have cheap scanners that can't record images with enough resolution to make them look good.
On the other hand, the 200 dot-per-inch printers in most fax machines can produce decent-looking documents. A PC fax program that treats the fax as a printer eliminates the paper and scanner as middleman, with salutary results on the receiving end.
Another advantage of using a PC for faxing is that with optical character recognition (OCR) software, you can convert a fax image you've received into text that can be imported into a word processor or even a spreadsheet. Depending on how much of this you do, you can save a lot of time spent retyping. But be aware that even the best OCR software produces a lot of errors.
The big question remains: if you don't have a fax machine but need fax capability, should you buy a fax or use your PC?
If I had to choose one or the other, I'd still go for the fax machine, for several reasons. First, installing and using fax hardware and software takes time and patience. It's something else to do -- and something you may have to train others to do.
By way of comparison, the standard office fax machine is a no-brainer. Just keep it filled with paper and and anyone can operate it. In fact, on the receiving end, it operates itself.
If you have a couple of people in your office who send and receive faxes, you'll have to equip all their PCs with fax modems, or else sentence the poor guy who has the fax modem to a life of constant interruptions. A fax machine does nothing but fax; no one is trying to use it to calculate the payroll, get the invoices out or prepare the monthly sales report.
Finally, there's a question of what happens if you need to send a document that hasn't been created on your PC. With a fax modem, you're out of luck -- unless you decide to buy a separate scanner. That's another whole mess of hardware and software to manage. Unless you need the scanner for something else, it's not worth the expense and effort merely for faxing.
If you already have a standard fax machine and want the convenience of a PC fax modem, it's certainly a worthwhile investment. In fact, if I were buying a modem today, I'd choose one with fax capabilities just to have the option available. For basic fax capabilities you won't pay much more than you would for a non-fax modem.
And if you're traveling with a laptop computer, a fax modem is a sure winner. With the right software, it can save you plenty of time, trouble and money.