Choosing a Fax Machine

In the days before e-mail, fax machines were the fastest, cheapest way to get documents from point A to point B. E-mail, online fax and scanners can do many of the same jobs as a fax, but these devices still have their uses, and an all-in-one printer and fax machine is a must for small business and most homes.

Building a Clearer Fax
At their most basic, fax machines are combination optical scanners and printers that turn a document into analog or digital data that is then transmitted to another fax machine via telephone lines. You might remember the blocky, hard-to read faxes of the 1990s produced by thermal fax machines. Those faxes are still available, but tracking down thermal paper can be a chore, and your faxes will fade and discolor over time.

A better choice is a modern printer fax machine that uses inkjet or laser-printing technology. At the high end, you can get full-color faxes and copies. Budget models only print in black and white, but they offer a range of print settings and can, depending on the source, produce faxes as clear as regular pages printed from your computer. Since these faxes use standard office paper, you won't need to worry about the fax fading over time.

If you send and receive faxes that include graphics or artwork, choose a fax machine that supports 64 shades of gray to get the best image quality. Another important specification is image resolution, which scales from 100 horizontal lines per inch in lower-end fax machines to 400 lines per inch in more expensive models. As with HDTV, those extra horizontal scan lines mean a clearer, sharper image, though you're more likely to see the improved image quality on printed pages rather than faxes.

Features to Look for
Fax machines still use telephone lines to send and receive faxes. This can be a problem if you don't have a DSL or cable telephone hookup, since you can't make phone calls while the fax is working. Faxes are faster than they used to be, although their speed still tops out at about 33 kbps. If you'll be sending a lot of faxes, or if the fax and telephone are sharing a single phone line, look for a fax machine with greater speed. A built-in answering machine will take care of any calls that come in while you're faxing.

Most small fax machines include a photocopier function. These copies are slower and, typically, lower quality than what you'd get from a printer or photocopier, but they can be handy if you need a couple of copies of a form or document. As prices rise, so do the functions a fax machine can perform. All-in-one printer fax machines include a scanner and can print, copy, scan and fax from a small, single unit. These machines are the best choice for a small business, since you'll get a lot of functionality from a small investment.

For home users, there's not much difference in pricing between a standalone printer and an all-in-one that includes a fax and scanner. Print quality does improve if you spend more, so you'll need to decide whether you want the flexibility of a printer fax machine or the higher resolution of a dedicated printer.

Business users should consider how much memory a fax machine offers. If you frequently send out the same forms, contracts or letters, built-in memory lets you scan a document once and send it at the push of a button. Editing functions are less worthwhile, because you'll find it much harder to edit a stored document on a fax machine than it is to create a new one on your computer.

All fax machines will store frequently dialed numbers, and the amount of storage increases with price. A small fax machine will hold 10 numbers or less, which is good for homes and small businesses unless you need to fax broadcast releases or information for clients. In that case, look for a fax with enough memory to store several hundred phone numbers.

A fax machine can be connected to your computer, allowing you to send and receive faxes over the Internet. Fax machines typically connect via an Ethernet port, and advanced models will double as a printer. If you receive a lot of faxes, look for a high-capacity document tray. A small fax machine can hold between 20 and 60 pages, while business faxes can hold up to 400 pages. Overrun memory found on commercial fax machines will store pages if the fax runs out of paper. This comes in handy if the office is empty over the weekend.

Lifetime Costs
The base price of fax machines has dropped dramatically in recent years. Budget models start at around $70, but the fax machine itself is just part of the overall expense.

Fax machines need paper, and a plain paper fax will save money by giving you flexibility over the paper you choose. While thermal faxes don't need additional ink and toner, the thermal paper they require is becoming less common and more expensive. If you send and receive legal-sized documents, you'll need a fax machine that supports this size.

Inkjet and laser fax machines require additional ink or toner, and there is a wide variation of pricing-and capacity-of these consumables. When you're shopping, compare the cost of replacement ink or toner to figure out the lifetime cost of the fax machine. You can figure out the price to print each page by dividing the capacity of an ink or toner cartridge (the number of pages it prints) by its cost. Use a time line of three to five years to compare costs, which is the average lifespan of most fax machines.

As a general rule, you'll pay more up front for laser fax machines than inkjet faxes, but a laser fax is cheaper to own over time, because laser toner prints far more pages than ink cartridges.

Related Life123 Articles

Whether you have a large or small business, there are several items you need to ensure that your business runs smoothly. One of these products is a fax machine. However, there are many different types of fax machines on the market, so the question is, which ones are worth your money?

Is this something you've always wanted to do and get accomplished? It used to be just sending out one fax at a time but it is actually possible to send multiple faxes out online. Think of it almost like sending out emails to multiple users like a chain letter.

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