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STANDFIRST

Plain paper fax machines used to be a luxury but not any more, curly fading documents could soon be a dim distant memory. Rick Maybury assesses eight machines aimed at the home office and small business users

 

COPY

We tend to think of the fax machine as a fairly recent innovation but document transmission or facsimile systems have actually been around since the 1920s. The technology changed relatively little over the following 50 years and up until the late 1970s most office fax machines were bulky, expensive and used by a comparatively small number of business users. The cost of fax machines has fallen dramatically over the past 15 years, thanks largely to postal strikes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This prompted a big explosion in the UK fax machine population, allowing the economies of scale to kick in. Another reason they're so cheap is that most machines use a simple, low-cost thermal paper printing mechanism. It is a mixed blessing, whilst it has made fax ownership much more affordable, thermal fax paper is far from ideal for storing documents. It's difficult to handle the paper curls and soon or later the image fades.

 

Plain paper fax machines, where the image is printed onto ordinary copier paper have been around for several years, but until fairly recently they have been beyond the reach of most users. That's all changing now, the cost of plain paper faxes has plummeted with some models selling for less than 200, which is less than some thermal paper models.

 

The print quality on plain paper is a lot better than thermal paper, the document stays flat, and the image is practically permanent. Plain paper faxes look a lot crisper than thermal paper printouts, that's because copier paper is a lot whiter. All fax machines can double up as copiers but plain paper models do a much better job of it, some are good enough to replace a conventional desktop photocopier. However, it has to be said they're no substitute for a pukka office machine, the copy speed tends to be quite slow, and the cost per page can be significant.

 

There are three plain paper printing technologies in use at the moment. They are thermal ink, inkjet and laser. Laser printing is mostly used on high-demand business machines and specialised multi-function PC peripherals; as such they fall outside the scope of this roundup. Thermal ink printing on plain paper has had the biggest impact on prices because the print mechanisms are comparatively cheap to manufacture; in fact they're very similar in design to thermal paper printers. Inside the machine there is a roll of thin plastic film, coated with thermally sensitive ink. This is sandwiched between the paper and a print head, which is made up of a row of hundreds of tiny heating elements. When an element is activated it melts a tiny dot of ink, which is transferred to the paper, in this way an image can be built up, a line at a time. The system has two shortcomings. Firstly it is very wasteful; on text documents only a very small percentage of the ink on the film roll ends up on the paper. The other problem is a used ribbon contains a perfect copy, in negative, of every fax and copy. It's not going to worry home users, but in a business environment this cold raise security issues.

 

Ink or bubblejet printing on plain paper fax machines is a direct spin-off from PC printer technology, indeed, the mechanical guts of some inkjet fax machines are exactly the same as those used in printers. Inkjet printing is getting better all the time -- it's now close to laser print quality -- and it is reasonably economical. The downside is that it is a little slower than thermal ink printing and the mechanisms are more complicated which makes them slightly more expensive but this doesn't appear to have an impact on life-expectancy or long-term reliability.

 

Both printing methods lend themselves to PC connectivity, and this is becoming an increasingly common feature on mid-range models. This could be bonus in a small office, where the fax machine can double up as a printer; however, bear in mind that running costs are likely to be higher, compared with a conventional PC printer.

 

PERFORMANCE

The quality of a transmitted or received fax is dependent on a number of factors, some of which -- like the capabilities of the machine at the other end and the telephone line -- you have no control over. However, some machines cope better with noisy or crackly lines than others. If your phone line is noisy it's worth paying more for machines with advanced error correction facilities. As far as document legibility is concerned, the important things to look out for are greyscale -- a measure of contrast or how many levels of light and dark there are in the image -- and resolution, which determines the amount of fine detail there will be in a transmitted fax. The minimum greyscale for text and simple graphics is 16 levels. If you're likely to be sending a lot of pictures or halftones, as opposed to mostly text, then shortlist machines with 32 or 64 levels of greyscale and superfine or photo transmission modes. The resolution of received faxes is largely defined by the number of printing elements (pels) on the print head, and the number lines of print per inch (lpi) on a printout. Not all manufacturers give a figure but the ballpark numbers you should be looking out for is 200 pels and between 98 and 400 lpi, depending on the transmission mode.

 

There not a great deal to choose between thermal ink and inkjet print quality. Inkjet machines tend to loose out when used with coarse low-grade paper with high absorbency, the ink runs and fine text or detail can look a bit whiskery. Thermal ink film printing has a tendency to be heavy handed and halftones can end up looking quite dark. When buying a machine take a few samples with you, and ask for a demonstration of the copy mode, this will give you a good idea of what a fax print will look like, under ideal conditions. Enough theory, here's a selection of eight machines that ably illustrates what's available on the market at the moment.

 

BETACOM PPF250

The PPF250 is a remarkably compact and attractively priced machine, and the fact that it has a digital answering machine built-in, makes it even better value for money, however, it does have one or two shortcomings. The one's we can live with include a small paper hopper and from the looks of it, if you leave it open it's going to get very dusty indeed. The film roll is quite fiddly to load and every so often a printed page emerging from the machine tries to curl back in, so you have keep an eye on it. Print quality is fairly average, text is okay but complicated graphics and halftones can end up a bit messy. Good value, but for light undemanding duties only.

 

Typical price                  300    

Consumables                80 metre print film 14

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       16-level greyscale, digital answering machine with 12 minutes recording time, auto TAM/fax switching, 50-number memory, 30-sheet paper tray

Dimensions                   328 x 100 x 263 mm

Contact             Betacom, telephone (01277) 228888

 

Print quality                   ***

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            ****

HO Verdict                    78%

 

BROTHER FAX 1020

The 1020 stays on as Brother's entry-level machine -- it first appeared last year -- and it remains one of the best-specified models on the market. It's a fair size -- make sure you've got the desk space to spare -- but that's offset by the large paper bin -- up to 200 sheets -- and the extensive list of additional features. That includes copy enlarge/reduction, a 20-page memory for out of paper document storage and an option for Caller ID. Print quality is very good, in fact it's one of the best thermal ink machines we've looked at with better than average contrast on halftones and crisp, solidly rendered text. Reasonable value and worth considering if space is not at a premium.

 

Typical price                  386    

Consumables                60 metre ink ribbon and cartridge 21.67

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       64-level greyscale, auto TAM/fax switching, 60-number memory, 20-page memory, 200-page paper holder, copy enlargement/reduction facility, 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                    83%

 

CANON FAX-B150

The B150 bears a clear family resemblance to Canon's family of PC Bubblejet printers; the black and white ink cartridge definitely has a familiar look to it. This is a stand-alone unit, though an optional handset can be added, it bolts to the side of the unit. In use it is quite noisy as the mechanism grinds away, it's fairly slow too, especially when the image contains a lot of dark areas. Our sample was not at all happy faxing or copying thicker coated paper -- the sort used for brochures, and once or twice it refused to load. Print quality is very good, text is sharp and there's a fair bit of detail in halftones, though they do seem to come out quite dark. Pricey but a capable workhorse machine for moderately busy offices.

 

Typical price                  470    

Consumables                bubblejet cartridge 29

System             inkjet

Features                       64-level greyscale, auto TAM/fax switching, 20-number memory, 100-sheet paper tray, PIN code security

Dimensions                   369 x 297 x 337mm

Contact             Canon UK, telephone (0990) 143 723

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            ***

HO Verdict                    85%

 

PANASONIC KX-F1830

At first glance the Panasonic KX-F1830 looks like a fairly conventional thermal ink plain paper fax/answering machine but it has hidden talents. On the side there's a PC printer port and it comes with a suite of Windows 3.1/95 software, so it can be used as a black and white scanner and fax modem. That means you can send documents directly from the PC screen, without having to create a paper copy. For the price it has a remarkable specification, the digital answering machine has an 18-minute memory, if the paper runs out it can store up to 28 pages of incoming faxes and it has a speakerphone facility. Print quality is very good, halftones are a notch up on most other thermal ink machines with better than average contrast and a lot of detail. Plain text is very sharp and it's fast! Great value and definitely worth considering as a one-box solution for small offices.

 

Typical price                  350    

Consumables                100 metre print film, 34 (for two)

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       64-level greyscale, digital answering machine with 18 minute capacity, 28 page memory, auto TAM/fax switching, speakerphone, 118-number memory, 150-sheet paper tray, PC printer/scanning/fax modem facility

Dimensions                   149 x 367 355mm

Contact             Panasonic UK, telephone (0990) 357357

 

Print quality                   *****

Features                       *****

Ease of use                   *****

Value for money            *****

HO Verdict                    88%

 

 

PHILIPS MAGIC

Following a fairly low key entry into SoHo end of the office machines market a couple of years ago Philips are steaming ahead with a range of well specified and affordably priced fax and answering machines. Magic is one of two new thermal ink plain paper machines; its stablemate, Magic Vox, has digital answering machine facilities and 64 levels of greyscale (this Magic has 16 level greyscale). Both models are unique is being compatible with GAP standard digital cordless phones. The styling is conventional and it's reasonably easy to set up and use though loading the ink film is a wee bit fiddly. The narrower contrast range shows up on halftones, which look a bit blotchy but text is sharp and well defined. Performance is generally very good, and the low price makes it well worth considering for general duties in the home or office. Highly commended, though the Magic Vox at 280 is an even better deal!

 

Typical price                  250    

Consumables                90 metre print film 15

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       16-level greyscale, auto TAM/fax switching, cordless phone interface, day/night mode, 50-number memory, 50-sheet paper tray, junk fax filter, paper save (image reduction) facility

Dimensions                   357 x 253 x 100mm

Contact             Philips Consumer Electronics, telephone (0645) 282828

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            *****

HO Verdict                    88%

 

SAGEM FAX-305

No, that's not a misprint, the Sagem FAX-305 thermal ink plain paper fax machine costs just 180, so what's the catch? Providing you're not expecting it to be a fully featured office machine, there's isn't one. It's small too, with a footprint only a little wider than a sheet of A4 paper. Part of the reason for that is the external mains adaptor, and the fact that it's a stand-alone unit, without a telephone handset. Nevertheless it has all of the fax and copy functions a home user is likely to need, including a useful reduction/paper save mode which compresses two images on one page. The small size means it has limited capacity but for the occasional user it's ideal. Despite only having 16 greyscales halftones look quite good, though printing is on the light side and text can look a bit wispy, especially if it's not very sharp to begin with. A good budget buy for light home and SoHo applications.

 

Typical price                  180    

Consumables                69 metre print film 18.80

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       16-level greyscale, auto TAM/fax switching, 40-number memory, 30-sheet paper tray, copy enlarge/reduce, paper save (image reduction) facility

Dimensions                   365 x 353 x 193mm

Contact             Sagem UK, telephone 0181-240 4455

 

Print quality                   ***

Features                       ***

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            *****

HO Verdict                    85%

 

 

SAMSUNG SF-4000

If fax machines were sold by size or weight the SF-4000 would have be the deal of the decade! It's a real lump and not the sort of thing you'd want to share a small desk with. Most of the innards are taken up with an inkjet printer, other models in the range include extra facilities, like an answering machine, colour printing and scanning, which goes some way to explaining its bulk. However, the feature list for SF-4000 is quite brief, hence the very reasonable price. It can only manage 16 levels of greyscale but the paper hopper can hold up to 100 sheets and it has a useful assortment of dialling facilities. Print quality is fair to middling, good for text and simple graphics but on halftones it tends to leave lines in dark areas. It looks and feels very solid, and appears capable of sustaining a fairly heavy throughput so it should be suitable for busy offices, where multi-functionality is less important.

 

Typical price                  350    

Consumables                inkjet cartridge 35

System             inkjet

Features                       16-level greyscale, auto TAM/fax switching, 69-number memory, Mercury compatible, 100-sheet paper tray

Dimensions                   222 x 454 x 332mm

Contact             Samsung UK Ltd., telephone 0181-391 0168X

 

Print quality                   ***

Features                       ***

Ease of use                   ****

Value for money            ****

HO Verdict                    82%

 

 

SHARP FO-1460

Sharp's credentials in the office machine market are impeccable and clear to see on the FO-1460 thermal ink plain paper fax machine. The design is precisely targeted at small and medium sized businesses with a busy fax line. The paper hopper holds up to 200 sheets, and when that runs out it has an internal memory cache, capable of storing another 30 pages. The ink film is longer than average and should be sufficient for more than 400 pages; the consumables are cheaper too, making it one of the most economical machines on the market to run. Other useful extras include a junk fax filter that ignores incoming faxes from selected numbers, and an auto cover-sheet mode. Contrast is very good; blacks are very solid, which helps on plain text printouts, though halftones could do with being a little lighter. Well featured and sensibly priced, recommended.  

 

Typical price                  300    

Consumables                140 metre print film 16.40

System             thermal ink transfer

Features                       64-level greyscale, auto TAM/fax switching, speakerphone, 99-number memory, 30 page memory, 20-sheet paper tray, junk fax filter copy enlarge/reduce, paper save (image reduction) facility

Dimensions                   365 x 353 x 193mm

Contact             Sharp Electronics UK, telephone 0161-205 2333

 

Print quality                   ****

Features                       ****

Ease of use                   *****

Value for money            *****

HO Verdict                    88%

 

---end---

R. Maybury 1998 0307

 


 

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