It's day one in your new career as a home-office worker, and your first assignment is at hand: choosing the high-tech gear you'll need. You already own a decent personal computer. But as with most other computers, yours contains a fax modem that, absent a separate scanning device, can only zip off files that originate on the PC. At the same time, you're wondering what kind of printer to buy. A spiffy laser model that can spit out high-quality documents at breakneck speed? Or a less-expensive inkjet printer that has the chief advantage of producing pages in color?
WORKHORSES. Luckily, several manufacturers are rolling out so-called multifunction machines, single devices that can be a godsend for the home-office worker. That's because these all-in-one workhorses can handle printing, faxing, copying, and sometimes scanning. Hewlett-Packard's $799 HP OfficeJet combines a plain-paper fax with 65 speed-dial numbers and a 20-page automatic document feeder, along with a monochrome inkjet printer and a simple copier. Canon's $800 Multipass 1000, due out in May, is billed as a 6-in-1 machine, complete with plain-paper fax, PC fax, monochrome Bubble Jet printer, scanner, copier, and telephone. Brother, Okidata, Panasonic, and Xerox are among the other companies that are producing the helpful hybrids.
These desktop multifunction machines still comprise a relatively small market, but it's growing fast. According to Dataquest, a San Jose (Calif.) market researcher, some 350,000 multipurpose devices will be sold in the U.S. and Canada this year, up from 140,000 in 1994. By the end of the decade, the total should reach about 750,000.
The devices provide a terrific solution for people just starting up a home business. The cost is lower than equipping your office with a separate copier, fax machine, and printer. And multifunction machines are nice space-savers: They are generally larger than laser printers but smaller than fax machines or inkjet printers.
Still, the devices exact trade-offs. Some businesses require the speed and superb resolution of a laser printer, but most multifunction machines come with slower, less crisp inkjets. One exception: the new Brother MFC-4500ML, with a laser printer. Moreover, the "convenience copiers" included in these machines won't suffice for high-volume copying. Document quality may not be good enough to share with clients and customers. And you would have to rip out the pages of a book to copy them using one of these all-in-one wonders, which can only handle cut sheets.
Until recently, the machines didn't offer color printing. But Lexmark just unveiled Medley, the first printer/fax multimedia device with a color inkjet printer. It should be in stores in May at street prices from $849 to $899. (As with any color inkjet, you might want to use color sparingly. A monochrome ink cartridge will yield about 1,000 pages, vs. 200 for a color one. Color cartridges cost a bit more, too.) Medley is a capable machine in other areas. It can scan at a resolution of 300 dots per inch (DPI), faster than the 200 DPI most of its multifunction rivals provide, and has a fax-transmission speed of 14,400 bits per second vs. 9,600 BPS for the other machines.
All-in-one convenience does raise a nagging worry: If one part of your multifunction device needs fixing, is your business going to be crippled because you're without all of its other capabilities? HP and Lexmark are tackling the issue through their warranties: Should the machines need repair during the first year, both companies will dispatch refurbished units to your office the next business day. At any rate, "I think the risk [of a breakdown] is infinitesimally low," says John McIntyre, director of electronic printer services at BIS Strategic Decisions, a market researcher in Norwell, Mass.
SLOW COLOR. There are plenty of other options if you don't want to travel the one-machine-fits-all route. If you're already satisfied with your PC fax-modem and printer but still would like to be able to fax documents produced on paper, a sheet-fed scanner may make sense. ScanFX, a $500 hybrid from Plustek, works in conjunction with your existing fax modem and printer. When you scan pages into ScanFX, your fax modem or printer takes it from there. ScanFX also lets you send color faxes, provided the recipient is running special Plustek software. (The software can be copied and distributed at no charge.) If the recipient wants a hard copy of the fax, he or she will need a color printer. Color faxing is slow, however--a single page takes about 10 minutes.
"STICKY NOTES." Although not a color machine, PaperPort from Visioneer provides another nice solution. The small $399 scanner fits in the dead space between your keyboard and monitor and connects to a serial port on your PC. It can scan business cards, newspapers, and photos in about six seconds. Once a document has been scanned, PaperPort software lets you fax it; store and retrieve it in folders; search by key words, annotations, and titles; or drag and drop the scanned images into your word-processor program. You can add onscreen "sticky notes" to highlight certain points. Another nifty feature: Unlike many other scanners, you need not install a board inside your computer.
That's also the case with the new WinFax Scanner from Delrina and Fujitsu. The sheet-fed scanner, due in May at a cost of $299, including Delrina's popular WinFax Pro fax software, connects to your PC through its parallel port. WinFax software lets you annotate or add notes to the paper document you've scanned. You can also use the WinFax scanner to turn your printer into a copier.
People who already own a scanner can buy PaperMaster from DocuMagix, an excellent software solution for managing documents inside your computer. The $99 program lets you store the scanned images, plus E-mail, faxes, or other PC files, in a limitless number of drawers and folders. The program can detect certain types of documents that it has seen before--checks, bank statements--and prompt you to store them in the same place as before. Now, if you could just buy a multifunction office machine that cleans the office, too.