When electronic mail burst on the scene as a mainstream business tool a few years back, many computer pundits declared that faxing was doomed. E-mail was easier, faster, and, especially, much cheaper. Today, it's clear that at most, E-mail slowed the growth of fax a bit. What's more, manufacturers continue to turn out gear designed to make faxing easier and more efficient.
One of the most intriguing of these products is the new LaserJet 3100 from Hewlett-Packard Co. The $699 machine, based on the $400 LaserJet 6L printer, can handle all the printing chores of your Windows 95 or NT computer with 600-dot-per-inch black-only output at six pages per minute. It adds scanning, copying, and a sophisticated fax machine, combining to make for an inexpensive and compact multifunction machine that does several things very well.
The 3100 could easily justify itself as a stand-alone fax. Until recently, laser faxes have been designed for heavy-duty work and cost well over $1,000. The cheapest faxes use miserable thermal paper that curls up, fades quickly into illegibility, and costs roughly 5 cents a sheet. Slightly more expensive units use inkjet printers, which are noisy and use relatively expensive ink cartridges. Lasers offer the best and fastest printing, quiet operation, and the lowest per-page cost of supplies.
Unlike many earlier multifunction machines, the 3100 does not scrimp on fax capabilities. It can hold 150 pages in memory, save 175 numbers for speed dialing, distribute faxes to up to 25 group lists, and poll remote fax machines to fetch transmissions.
While all of these functions can be controlled via the 3100's push buttons, the unit really shines when you operate it through your PC using the very capable JetSuite software from JetFax. JetSuite lets you control the 3100's scanner, copier, and fax functions from your computer. Drop a document to be faxed or scanned into the input slot, and a menu pops up on your screen asking if you want to fax, copy, or scan the document. Choosing "fax" allows you to fill in a cover page form, dial the phone, and send the document to one or more recipients. As with other fax software, you can create documents in a word processor or other application, then dispatch them by "printing" to the fax machine.
If you send a lot of faxes--enough so that your fax machine is busy most of the time--you might want to move up to the JetFax M900 series, starting at $2,495. The M910 offers the same general features as the HP and the same JetFax software. But it is designed for more rugged use--faster printing, bigger paper bins, more memory, and other features consistent with a heavy-duty cycle. Other models in the family add dual-line faxing so that you can send and receive simultaneously. The ultimate in fax capability is software--such as RightFAX, starting at $1,495--that runs on a Windows NT server and allows faxes to be sent and received from any PC on a network.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can equip your computer for faxing at very little cost. Just about every modem sold today has the ability to send and receive faxes. Windows 95 (but not NT) includes fax software. If you want something more capable, Symantec Corp.'s $95 WinFax PRO adds more sophisticated features such as distribution lists. An inexpensive sheet-fed scanner, such as a $99 Visioneer PaperPort VX, lets you fax any page that can be scanned.
Fax may not be the coolest form of communication, but it still wins for reliability and ubiquity. With a good PC-based setup, it can be among the easiest and most efficient, too.