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THE PLAIN FAX

 

STANDFIRST

Is this the end of the line for thin, curly, disappearing faxes? Rick Maybury casts his critical eye over six plain paper facsimile machines designed for small businesses and the SoHo market

 

COPY

Facsimile machines, capable of sending documents and images on paper from one place to another by telephone, have been around in one form or another since the 1920s. The modern office fax is a more recent phenomenon though, dating back to the early 1960’s when they were mostly used by businesses, and large well-heeled ones at that! Until the late seventies even the cheapest models cost several thousand pounds and took up as much floor space as a filing cabinet.

 

Fax machines really began to take off in the early 1980’s, spurred on in the UK by a series of postal disputes. The market grew quickly, microchips made them even cheaper and smaller, improvements in communications technology made them faster, the world-wide fax population reached a critical mass quickly once economies of scale kicked in, and the rest is history.

 

One of the main reasons that fax machines are now so cheap is due to the simple, low-cost, thermal paper printing system used by most machines. It’s cheap because there are no moving parts -- apart from the paper transport. Running costs are relatively small -- determined mainly by the price of fax paper -- it is very reliable and the quality is acceptable. The downside of thermal paper is that is curls easily, it is very thin, difficult to write on and images fade over time. They disappear even quicker if the paper is stored close to a source of heat.

 

Alternative printing systems using ordinary plain paper have been around for the past twenty years. Most of them are based on the ‘Xerography’ processes used in photocopiers, but they were and still are prohibitively expensive for small business or home users. Within the past five years that has begun to change and now there’s a new generation of plain paper fax machines, that use a variety of low-cost printing systems.

 

Most of the new plain paper fax machines use a thermal ink transfer system that is not dissimilar to the thermal paper printing. Printing ink is coated onto a thin plastic film, which is sandwiched between the paper and a static printer head. The head is a thin bar -- virtually identical to the ones used in ordinary fax machines -- made up of hundred of tiny heating elements. As they heat up the ink on the film melts and transfers across to the paper, as it passes across the head. The image is built up from a series of closely spaced dots. It works very well, though the system is rather wasteful. The film sheet can make only one pass, so most pages, which have very little printing on them, leave behind a lot of unused ink, that cannot be reused. Incidentally, if security is an issue, be aware that used ink film retains a negative image of received faxes and printouts.

 

Several plain paper machines use inkjet printing systems, the same technology that is on Inkjet and Bubblejet computer printers, in some cases the mechanisms are identical. There’s no waste, ink is only used to create the image but unlike thermal systems there are many more moving parts, though reliability is not, as far as we’re aware an issue. Ink cartridges can be quite expensive too, though most can be recycled using DIY refill kits.

 

A growing number of plain paper faxes have PC connectivity, usually in the form of a serial or parallel port, sometimes both. Depending on the type of connection there are a number of possibilities. The fax machine can be used as a PC printer, which represents a useful space saving in a small crowded office. Some inkjet and bubblejet models have a colour printing facility when used with suitable tri-colour ink cartridges.

 

A two-way serial connection means faxes can be sent and received on the computer. Outgoing faxes are created using normal word-processing software, and sent directly to the fax machine -- which acts as a modem -- for transmission.  Several fax machines can be used as simple black and white document scanners, converting images on paper into data that can be imported into the PC. Optical character recognition (OCR) software can convert clean typewritten documents into text files, that can be read by word processor applications. 

 

Fax print quality depends on a number of factors, including the capabilities of the transmitting machine and the quality of the telephone line, over which you have no control. However, in general terms quality can be expressed in two ways, namely greyscale, and resolution. In a nutshell greyscale is a measure of contrast, denoting the number of different levels of light and dark there is in the transmitted or received image. All machines have at least 16 levels, 32 and 64 greyscales produce better results, though normally at the expense of transmission times. Resolution in the horizontal plane is denoted by the number of printing elements (pels) or dots per inch or millimetre, and the number of lines per inch (lpi) or lines per millimetre, in the vertical plane. A typical resolution in the standard transmission mode would be 200 pels/98 lpi, rising to 200/390 in superfine transmission mode.

 

The print method also has a bearing on quality. Theoretically there’s little to choose between thermal paper and thermal ink,. However, blacks tend to be a little more solid with thermal ink. Plain paper can be a lot whiter than thermal paper so subjectively they do look a little crisper. Inkjet and bubblejet printouts have the potential to look a lot better though on faxed documents they’re constrained by the technical limitations of the system and the absorbency of the paper. Cheap paper tends to be quite fibrous and the ink can run, making sharp edges look ragged. Some slow-drying refill inks can also make fine print look hairy, so it’s a good idea to use specially formulated inkjet paper when quality is an issue. When used as PC printers, with appropriate software they can produce excellent results, especially in colour.

 

All fax machines have a photocopier facility. The quality varies, generally in accordance with levels of greyscale and the capabilities of the machine. None are as fast or as cheap to run as a conventional photocopier though.  

 

REVIEWS

 

BETACOM PPF700

This reasonably compact desktop fax machine uses a thermal ink printing system. The specification is very straightforward, the only extras -- over and above basic faxing facilities -- are connected with the phone, which has a second keypad on the handset, 10-number one-touch dialling, and a 40-number autodialler. It is very simple to operate; receive print quality is satisfactory though the limited greyscale means it’s more at home handling text and simple graphics, than detailed images or photographs. No frills, just a solid workaday fax machine. The price is fair, for those prepared to pay a little more for plain paper operation.

 

Typical price                  £350    

Consumables                400 page print film £14

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       16-level greyscale, 10 page document feeder, auto TAM/fax switching, 10 one-touch number memory, 40 number autodialler, integrated handset hands-free dialling, integrated handset Mercury compatible

Dimensions                   408 x 300 x 123mm

Contact             Betacom plc, telephone 0181-344 6200              

 

Print quality                   ***

Features                       ***

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            ****

HO Verdict                    75%

 

BROTHER FAX 1020

The 1020 is a fairly chunky piece of kit but just look at the list of features. The paper handling features, out of paper/multiple location transmission memory, caller display and copy enlarge/reduction facilities are simply not the kind of thing you expect to find on a sub £400 machine. Print quality is remarkably good too -- nothing like as heavy-handed as the other thermal ink machines we’ve looked at. Excellent value for money and a good all-round performer. Recommended.

 

Typical price                  £370    

Consumables                200-page ink ribbon and cartridge £20, ink ribbons only,  two for £35

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       64-level greyscale, 60-number autodialler, 20-page memory for multiple location transmission and out of paper recording, 200-page paper holder, copy enlargement/reduction facility, auto TAM/fax switching, integrated handset with keypad, Mercury compatible, on-hook dialling, auto reduction paper/ink saving feature, Caller ID facility, optional PC connectivity   

Dimensions                   394 x 385 x 213mm

Contact             Brother International, telephone (0345) 535100

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   ***

Value for money            ****

HO Verdict                    85%

 

 

PANASONIC KXF1100

The KXF1100 looks every inch the serious business machine and the price puts it well within reach of SoHo users. The integrated answering machine saves a little more desk space, and it has a number of advanced features, like the voice mailbox facility.  It feels very solid and built to take the punishment of a busy office. The 300 metre the ink ribbon cuts down on routine maintenance and the cost per copy works out a little cheaper than most of its rivals. Print quality is better than average for an ink ribbon machine. Well worth considering.

 

Typical price                  £587    

Consumables                300 metre print film £23.50

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       64-level greyscale, digital answering machine with 3 voice mailboxes, pager call, auto TAM/fax switching,  hands-free speakerphone, integrated handset, 84-number memory, Mercury compatible, , 250-sheet paper tray, junk fax filter, paper save (image reduction) facility

Dimensions                   228 x 396 x 366mm

Contact             Panasonic UK, telephone (0990) 357357

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   ***

Value for money            ***

HO Verdict                    80%

 

 

PHILIPS PPF 35

With a footprint only a little larger than a sheet of A4 paper, this has to be one of the smallest plain-paper fax machines on the market. One of the ways they’ve saved space is to use an external, brick-shaped mains power supply. In spite of its size it has a remarkably long list of features, including a built-in digital answering machine and microchip memories for recording incoming faxes -- when the paper runs out -- and outgoing faxes, for multiple location transmission. It can also be used as a backup PC printer, with an optional connector kit. It is rather noisy in use; print quality is adequate for text and graphics. The paper feed can be temperamental. However, it is remarkably compact and just the job for SoHo users, with light faxing requirements and limited desk space.

 

Typical price                  £430    

Consumables                200-page print film £16

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       combined TAM/fax, 16-greyscales, 10-page document feeder, 30-page paper holder, 40-number autodialler, out of paper memory, 20-page transmission memory, digital answering machine with remote access, Mercury compatible, clock/alarm, optional PC connectivity

Dimensions                   260 x 220 x 90mm

Contact             Philips (0645) 282828

 

Print quality                   **

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   ***

Value for money            ****

HO Verdict                    80%

 

SAMSUNG SF4200

The SF4200 or ‘Multijet’ is an imposing beast, it looks like a serious piece of office equipment. In fact the range of fax functions isn’t that extensive, though it does have a transmission memory, that stores documents for sending to multiple locations.  The inkjet printer mechanism and ink cartridges are very similar to a Hewlett Packard Deskjet designs. Fax and PC print quality from are both excellent, colour is particularly good, some patterning is evident on copy prints though. A big, chunky, no-nonsense machine with a useful dual personality, that PC owners should find useful. 

 

Typical price                  £750    

Consumables                Black inkjet cartridge £XX, colour £XX

System             colour/black and white inkjet

Features                       32-level greyscale, parallel & serial PC port for printing scanning and faxing (Winfax lite, Windows and DOS driver software included),  99 page copier, 50-number auto dialler, integrated handset, transmission memory Mercury compatible         

Dimensions                   263 x 323 x 454mm

Contact             Samsung UK Ltd., telephone 0181-391 0168

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   ***

Value for money            ****

HO Verdict                    78%

 

 

SANYO SFX-P500

The P500 is based on a Canon colour Bubblejet printer mechanism, it has both parallel and serial ports, for full PC connectivity. Unlike the others models in this round-up it doesn’t have an integrated telephone handset, which saves a little space; a two-into-one phone socket adaptor is supplied, so it can be used with a phone on a single line. It has a fairly routine set of fax facilities -- sufficient for moderate throughput in a small office. Image quality is good, using high grade paper. The printer/copy facility is fairly slow though, a colour page can take several  minutes to emerge, but its fine for low demand applications. A convenient, space-saving solution for PC users. 

 

Typical price                  £600    

Consumables                ink cartridges £15 black, £25 colour

System             colour/black and white Bubblejet

Features                       64 greyscales, parallel & serial interface for PC printing, scanner and modem applications, (Winfax and driver software supplied), multiple copy, 100-sheet paper holder, 20-page document feeder, 30-page transmission memory, 48-number autodialler, auto TAM/fax switching

Dimensions                   365 x 188 x 290mm   

Contact             Sanyo Electric UK, telephone (01923) 246363

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ***

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            ***

HO Verdict                    80%

 

 

SHARP FO-1450

Sharp have opted for a thermal ink transfer system, this time using a 660-page capacity film roll. It’s quite large too, and with the 300 sheet paper holder in place, it takes up a fair amount of desk space. Nevertheless, it is very well specified and with the kind of features needed to handle a demanding fax workload. Print quality is a little better than average for an ink transfer machine, with a good contrast range and resolution. Worth considering for small busy offices, expecting to send and receive a lot of faxes.

 

Typical price                  £500    

Consumables                660-page print film £27

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       64-level greyscale, 300 sheet paper holder, integrated handset, Mercury compatible, auto TAM/fax switching, on-hook dialling, 2-in-1 print (two pages per sheet), 33-page out of paper memory, 99-number auto-dialler, anti-junk filter

Dimensions                   363 x 488 x 188mm

Contact             Sharp Electronics UK, telephone 0161-205 2333

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ***

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            ***

HO Verdict                    78%

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1997 1607

 


 

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