Fax machines almost seem quaint in this era of graphical e-mails and multimedia Web sites. As an underappreciated office essential, the fax machine tends to get ignored until it breaks, so there are plenty of fax machines from the 1990s still in use today. If you’re ready to replace that aging fax machine, or if you need a new one for the office, there are a lot of features and operating costs to keep in mind. Pronto’s Fax Machine Buying Guide can help you make the best choice for your home or office.
While dedicated fax machines are still available and ideal for home users, more advanced models produce crisper images and add functions, such as printing, scanning, and copying.
Thermal fax machines are cheaper and easier to use, but you’ll get more flexibility, better documents, and longer-lasting hard copies with a plain-paper fax machine.
Occasional users will be fine with a basic model that stores 20 pages and a few frequently dialed numbers. Those who use fax machines to broadcast press releases or other materials should choose a model with more memory for storing pages and phone numbers.
Both types of fax machines can produce clear, sharp images. Look for the resolution in lines per inch (the more the better) to determine print quality. Laser fax machines cost more up front, but can be less expensive in the long run than inkjet models.
Toner, ink, and paper will add significantly to the lifetime cost of a fax machine. Be sure to include these items when comparing. Assume a five-year lifespan and divide the capacity of ink or toner cartridges by their price to figure out the per-page cost.
A fax machine that also includes a printer, a scanner, and a photocopier, designed to be a single solution for business printing needs.
A function that allows a fax machine to send a document to multiple recipients stored in its memory.
A fax machine without scanning and printing capabilities. Dedicated fax machines may include a copying function along with telephone functions, such as an answering machine and Caller ID.
A fax machine transmission technology that stores a document as digital data, allowing for faster transmission speed.
A fax machine that uses black, red, green, and blue ink cartridges to create a document.
A fax machine that uses a laser or light emitting diode (LED) and powdered toner to create a document.
Pages Per Minute measures the speed at which a fax machine can print. PPM speeds are usually lower for color documents.
A fax machine that can print on the same paper used in copiers and desktop printers. Some papers are optimized for laser or inkjet use.
A measurement of the horizontal lines per inch in a printed document. Fax machines supporting 400-line resolution create much clearer documents than faxes with 100 lines of resolution.
A fax machine that uses heat to create a document on specially coated paper. Thermal faxes are less expensive than laser and some inkjet models, but they have lower resolution and the printed documents are more fragile than plain paper faxes.
The amount of time it taxes a fax machine to send a single page. These speeds are based on a single page of black text. Color pages and pages with graphics may transmit more slowly.
A modern fax machine bears little resemblance to its predecessors. Fax machines are basically optical scanners and printers that turn a document into analog or digital data that is then transmitted to another fax machine via telephone lines.
Until the mid 1990s, fax machines still used thermal paper or dot-matrix printing to create black and white documents with varying degrees of legibility. If you need a very basic fax machine, you’ll find thermal print models still available. These are inexpensive to buy, but you will need specialized thermal paper for them, which can fade, discolor, and curl over time.
Newer fax machines offer plain-paper printing using ink ribbons, inkjets, or lasers and toner. Fax machines can now provide full-color faxes and copies, and some inkjet and laserjet fax machines offer high-resolution printing that produces faxes as crisp and clear as pages printed from your computer.
If you plan to receive graphical faxes, make sure to 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 scan lines allow a fax machine to produce clearer images.
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. Fax modem technology has improved the speed of fax machines, although it 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. Of course, your other option is to have a second dedicated fax line installed.
Some of the most basic 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 fax machines include printers and scanners. These are a good solution for a startup or small business, but they may be more than home users need. If you are considering an all in one solution, check out Pronto’s Multi Function Printer Buying Guide.
Fax machine makers like to boast about the number of pages their machines can hold. Most consumers don’t need a fax machine that can store 600 pages, but if you frequently send out the same forms, contracts, or letters, you’ll find this memory valuable. Built-in memory allows the fax machine to scan a document once and send it at the push of a button. Some fax machines even include document-editing features, but these are far more complicated to learn and use than your computer.
Fax machines can also store frequently dialed numbers, and the amount of storage increases with price. Most users can get by with a fax machine that holds 10 numbers or fewer, but if you’re using the fax machine to broadcast press releases or marketing materials, a fax with a healthy amount of document and phone number storage is a necessity.
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 plain paper fax that supports this size.
Inkjet, ink ribbon, and laserjet faxes all require additional ink or toner, and there is a wide variation of pricing, and fax machine consumption, of these consumable inks. Inkjet cartridges are cheaper than laser toner cartridges, but they print fewer pages before they need to be replaced. To figure out the price per page, divide the capacity of the cartridge by its cost.
If you’re choosing a full-color fax machine, a laserjet model is typically less expensive to operate over five years than an inkjet model, but you’ll pay more up front for a laser fax machine. If you choose an inkjet fax machine, look for one with separate color cartridges rather than an all-in one color cartridge, which will need to be replaced frequently. When comparing fax machine costs, assume a lifespan of five years and include the cost of paper and ink replacements.
Like most electronics, 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 send or receive a lot of faxes, you’ll want to consider the size of the document tray on plain paper fax machines. Basic machines hold between 20 and 60 pages, while business-grade fax machines can hold up to 400 pages. One useful feature on advanced models is overrun memory, which allows the fax machine to store pages if it runs out of paper.
Lastly, many manufacturers offer a fax model that comes with a cordless phone. Since your fax machine needs to be plugged into a telephone, it makes sense to have a unit that comes with this integrated feature. If space is a consideration for you, consider buying a fax model with the cordless phone feature.