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FACE THE FAX

 

STANDFIRST

The cost of plain paper faxes has plummeted over the past couple of years, if you've been holding off buying one now is a good time to have another look, and see what else some of them can do…

 

INTRO/COPY

Despite the phenomenal growth in popularity of email and computer networking the humble fax is far from becoming an endangered species. Faxes still have a lot going for them. The big plus point is that faxes are fast and reliable. A fax arrives at its destination within seconds of it being sent there's no chance of it hanging around in a mailbox inside a server computer on the other side of the world, waiting to be read. When you send a fax the machine at the other end tells your machine that it has arrived safely (or not, as the case may be), reducing the chances of it going astray. Faxes also tend to elicit a much faster response, it's very easy for people to claim to have missed an email but a fax printout has a physical presence, that's hard to ignore.

 

Although the mechanics of facsimile transmission has changed little in the past 25 years  -- the basic principles actually go back more than a century -- modern fax machines have benefited greatly from computer technology. The biggest change is the shift towards plain paper operation, where received faxes are printed out onto ordinary copier paper. Thermal fax paper is nasty stuff, it's thin with a 'gritty' feel, has a tendency to curl and the image fades quite rapidly – in a matter of weeks if its not stored properly. Plain paper printers – especially those that use inkjet or laser printing systems are a direct spin-off from their PC cousins.

 

Digital microchips originally developed for the PC industry feature strongly in the image processing and data transmission/receiving systems (modems) used in fax machines, and they're also turning up in the solid state answering machines featured on a number of fax machines.  However, one of the most interesting developments has been the 'multi-function' device or MFD, where PC meets fax head-on and the best bits of both technologies come together to create an entirely new species of office equipment.

 

Multi function devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with a wide range of functions but the basic concept is that instead of having a separate fax machine, printer and scanner, they're all together in one box? It makes a great deal of sense since it cuts down on duplication of key components (printer, scanner, modem etc.) and data processing circuitry. One desktop box is also clearly preferable to two or three, especially in today's crowded home and office environments.

 

Early concerns that so many different mechanical and electronic bits and bobs together in one box was a recipe for trouble have proved largely unfounded.  Multi-function devices have at least a good reliability record as any of the products they replace. The only minor criticism is that until fairly recently the printers and scanners in MFDs have tended to be geared towards the needs and performance limitations of the fax machine, rather than the PC. Consequently the image quality of some models has not been as good as dedicated PC printers and scanners. That is still the case with some MFDs but as we have discovered in this roundup the gap is closing fast, indeed in a handful of cases it has already disappeared!

 

THE TESTS

 

Brother FAX-930, £249

For such a relatively basic machine the FAX-930 takes up a fair amount of desk space but part of the reason for its apparent bulk is the heavy-duty paper handling and facilities. There’s no restriction on space so the control panel is quite large, with big well-spaced buttons. In contrast the LCD mode and status display is small and not that easy to read. Initialisation and set-up only take a few minutes and routine operation is easy. It copes well with text and simple graphics but on incoming faxes there’s a tendency to over-ink halftones, which come out dark and dense. Transmission speed is good and sent faxes are crisp with a fair amount of detail. The main selling point however is value for money, it might be a bit of a lump but you get a lot of bangs for your buck and it’s well up to a bit of office work

 

Features

Plain paper (ribbon), 64 level greyscale, digital answering machine, 100 sheet paper holder, 10 page document feeder, 8 one touch/48 speed dial number memory

88%

 

BT Image 370, £400

The Image 370’s upright design is a good way of ensuring a modest footprint but it’s not going to win it any beauty contests. In fact the scalloped sides and wacky control buttons -- one is shaped like a phone there’s also a big arrow and a tick – could be a bit of an acquired taste. Installation and set-up are reasonably straightforward, loading the ink ribbon is a bit fiddly though and some care has to be taken not to crease or tear it.  The film ribbon printer copes well with plain text but it makes heavy weather of halftones, which tend to look dark, with coarse detail. Sent faxes are clean but progress is quite leisurely, in fact it had one of the slowest transmission speeds of the machines tested. Routine operation is simple assuming you can live with the controls. Audio quality on the answering machine is okay though it has a mechanical ring to it. It is not especially good value and the features list is fairly brief but it’s well suited to domestic duties and light SoHo applications.

 

Features

Plain paper (ribbon), 64 level greyscale, digital answering machine, 50 sheet paper holder, 5 page document feeder, 10 one-touch/40 number memory

80%

 

BT Image 2000, £500

The styling of the Image 2000 is very similar to its stablemate the 370 – it also has shaped control keys and sloping sit-up-and-beg layout  -- but it's a lot bigger. That’s because it’s a multifunction device with full PC connectivity for sending faxes direct from the desktop, printing and scanning. The printer is an inkjet type, with colour capability; the ink tanks look like Hewlett Packard items, so it should be reasonably cheap to run. PC functions are easy to install and are controlled from a software utility called Unimessage Xlite. A full version with extra facilities (OCR, contact management, multiple phonebooks etc.) is an optional extra. The ergonomics are generally okay but it only takes a slight bump or tug on the cord to knock the telephone handset from its holder. Sent faxes are crisp and after the initial scan whizz through at a fair pace. Text on incoming faxes is sharp but halftones look dark and stripy. Competent though not especially exciting.

 

Features

Plain paper (inkjet), 64 level greyscale, PC colour print/fax/scan, 100-sheet paper holder, 20 page document feeder, 10 name/20 number one-touch dial, 20 name/40 number memory

82%

 

Canon FAX-B150, £399

In spite of its size it’s basically only a fax machine, albeit a plain paper one with a Bubblejet printer. Straight out of the box the B150 doesn’t look too bad; it’s a tall upright design but the footprint isn’t much larger than a sheet of A4 paper. However, by the time the paper tray and feed hopper have been fitted the depth has almost doubled. The phone handset was originally an option but now it is included as standard. Because the control panel is a good foot off the desk it’s not that easy to use, the LCD has a very narrow viewing angle making it difficult to read if you’re standing over it. Send and receive speeds are fairly average and outgoing faxes look fine. Image quality on text and graphics on received faxes are good but halftones look a wee bit coarse. A solid design, suitable for demanding office applications.

 

Features

Plain paper (Bubblejet), 64 level greyscale, 100 sheet paper holder, 20 page document feeder, 10 one touch/20 speed dial number memory,

83%

 

Canon Multipass C50, £549

The C50 is a classic multifunction device, combining a fax machine with a scanner and colour Bubblejet printer. As an added bonus it also makes colour copies, without being connected to a PC. The results are excellent but it is very slow indeed, taking between 7 to 9 minutes per page in the colour ‘fine’ mode. The C50 comes with a good assortment of bundled software, including PrintHouse Magic, for creating anything from birthday cards to banners, and TextBridge, one of the best OCR packages in the business. The faxing facilities are easy to use though it doesn’t come with a telephone handset as standard, which seems a bit mean. Installation and set-up are relatively painless, as is installing the PC software. Halftones in sent faxes contain a smidgen more detail than usual and received faxes are very clear indeed. Most MFDs are quite good at one or two things and not so good at others but this one does everything well. Recommended. 

 

Features

Plain paper (Bubblejet), 64-level greyscale, PC colour print/fax/scan, 100 sheet paper holder, 20 page document feeder, 6 one-touch/50 speed-dial number memory, 42-page memory

95%

 

Panasonic KX-F1830, £255

Panasonic has produced some cracking desktop fax-answering machines for SoHo users but they’re relatively recent converts to the multifunction machine market. The F1830 is a fair size but it looks reasonably businesslike. The printer is a ribbon type, which accounts for the shape and to some extent is its Achilles heel since it can only handle monochrome text and graphics. The scanner facility is also limited by the fact that it can only process in monochrome. Panasonic has bundled a suite of utility software with the machine but for some reason didn’t see fit to include a PC printer cable.  Nevertheless it is well specified for the price and the digital answering machine and telephone functions are suitable for office users. The initial set-up only takes a few minutes and routine operations are very simple. Outgoing faxes contain a lot of detail, and halftones look quite good. As far as incoming faxes are concerned, it copes well with text but halftones tend to be rather muddy. Worth considering if you don’t need colour scanning or printing.

 

Features

Plain paper (ribbon), 64 level greyscale, PC print/fax/scan, digital answering machine, 150 sheet paper holder, 15 page document feeder, 18 one-touch/100 speed-dial number memory

85%

 

Samsung SF-5800, £600

Not so long ago laser printers were something of a luxury to be found only in the very best equipped offices. Now the technology has found its way onto plain paper fax machines, though the question in this instance has to be why? The SF-5800 is a cut-down version of a proper multi-function machine (SF-5800P, circa £800), which makes good use of the laser printer’s high quality output, but it’s sorely wasted just printing faxes. Nevertheless it is a formidable machine and well equipped for sending and receiving a lot of faxes, it’s also a fast document copier as well – as quick as some desktop photocopiers – though halftones tend to be rather dark, with relatively little fine detail or shading. Outgoing faxes look quite good too though again it works best with text. Text on incoming faxes is pin-sharp but pictures are very contrasty. One other point to bear in mind, it has an internal fan that runs all the time, it’s not especially noisy but it could prove irritating. It works well, but we’d be happier with the MFD version, which stands a better chance of earning its keep. 

 

Features

Plain paper (laser) 256 level greyscale, PC print/fax/scan, 150 sheet paper holder, 30 page document feeder, 160 page out of paper memory, 20 one-touch/80-speed dial number memory

82%

 

Sharp UX-370, £189

If all you need are basic plain paper faxing facilities the UX-370 looks like a very good deal indeed. The printer is a film ribbon type and the paper and document feed capacities are sufficient for the average SoHo user. The footprint is only a little larger than a sheet of A4 and it is easy to set up and use. The ergonomics are generally good, if not very adventurous, the big buttons are ideal for those with poor eyesight, though even those with 20:20 vision will have difficulty with the LCD display, and you need to be right over it to see it properly.  Outgoing faxes look fine, text is crisp and it has a stab at halftones, there’s a greater than average contrast range but comparatively little detail. Incoming faxes and copies are moderately clean, it works well with text but in common with other film type printers the greyscale is limited to black, nearly black and white… Provided you are mostly concerned with sending and receiving documents, and have no need of an answering machine then the 370 is good value and worth thinking about. 

 

Features

Plain paper (ribbon), 64 level greyscale, 50 sheet paper holder, 10 page document feeder, 5 one touch/45 speed dial number memory

88%

 

Sharp F0-2150, £329

The FO-1250 is a colour multi-function device for little more than the cost of some quite ordinary plain paper faxes. Inside the tall upright box there’s an inkjet printer using HP-style colour and black ink cartridges, they’re loaded from the front, after which the machine goes through a cleaning cycle. In fact this has to be one of the cleanest machines on the market, judging by the number of times it preens itself… The CD-ROM disc contains some useful software including TextBridge OCR and Sierra Print Artist, for making colourful greetings cards and calendars. In addition to PC scanning, printing, and creating faxes it can also send a fax to an email address, should you feel so inclined… Installation is fast, it takes only a few minutes and the core functions are all very easy to master. Control layout is not very convenient if the unit is on a desktop – the display and buttons are horizontal and close to head height. Send faxes have above average detail though lighter areas in halftones suffer from a fair amount of texturing. Incoming faxes are also better than usual, especially on pictures, which have a fair to middling contrast range. Performance is good, and the price is very fair indeed. Recommended.

 

Features

Plain paper (inkjet), 64 level greyscale, PC colour print/fax/scan, 200 sheet paper holder, 20 page document feeder, 42 page memory, 99 number memory

92%

 

Toshiba TF-471, £395

When the lid is down the Toshiba TF-471 has a slightly old-fashioned look to it. The lid gives a trim and tidy appearance but it’s really not a good idea since there’s a big temptation to put things on it, making it impossible to get at the fax feeder. The paper tray slots into the front of the machine and sticks out quite a way, which isn’t very convenient. The paper feed on our sample was a bit temperamental and jammed for no apparent reason on several occasions. The manual and PC software are supplied on CD-ROM. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but it means you will need a PC on standby to find out how to set up and install the machine. The controls and the top panel layout are all fairly easy to live with though the top flap can be a quite stiff – watch those fingernails! Sent faxes have a good contrast range, revealing highlights in halftones that most of the others missed. Incoming text looks very good but halftones have a tendency to look quite dense. The TF-471 is another decent multi function machine for those who have no need for colour printing.

 

Features

Plain paper (ribbon), 64 level greyscale, digital telephone answering machine, PC print/fax/scan 100 sheet paper holder, 20 page document feeder, 10 one touch/50 speed dial number memory

88%

 

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ã R. Maybury 1999 1607

 


 

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