The One Man Band Of Home Offices

So you're setting up a home office. Whether you plan to launch a business or just want to be more productive in your day job, you're going to need a few basics. Besides the computer, you'll want a printer. A fax would be nice, one of those plain paper ones where the pages don't roll up. Then there's the copier, to save on late-night runs to Kinko's. (Hey, this office is beginning to look like Kinko's.) Oh, and don't forget a spare desk--to hold everything.

Overwhelmed? Then why not do what more and more work-at-homes are doing: save space and cash by buying an office-in-a-box. These are multifunction office machines that print, scan, copy, and fax, and you can pick one up for as little as $500. As you add features, such as PC fax software, a telephone handset, or software to control the whole works from your PC, these multipurpose gadgets get more expensive, but not much more. Better yet, they take up about the same space as a full-size laser printer, so they can sit on a corner of your desk.

A bare-bones unit such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OfficeJet gives you a monochrome inkjet printer and a plain paper fax. Together they serve as a convenience copier: Scan a single sheet into the fax, and a copy prints out. It sells for about $599, although HP is offering a $100 rebate through January. For $100 more, HP's OfficeJet LX includes software to scan in graphics or to program in fax numbers from your keyboard, rather than the OfficeJet's tiny keypad and display.

Similar systems are available from such companies as Canon, Brother, and Okidata. Earlier this year, Lexmark International Inc. introduced its $699 Medly 4c, the first multifunction machine that can print--but not copy--in color. Another new entry is Xerox Corp.'s Document WorkCenter 250. Unlike rivals' 200 dot-per-inch scanners, Xerox' 300 DPI version makes copies that come closer to the quality of big Xerox office copiers. The $699 machine also includes the company's TextBridge Pro optical character recognition software, so you can scan in a document and then edit it in your word processing or spreadsheet program.

Of course, there are downsides. While multifunction peripherals are cost-effective, they limit your flexibility. If you later need a faster printer or fax, say, you'll end up replacing the whole machine. But many buyers are willing to take that risk, given that all-in-ones cost less than half of what you'd spend outfitting an office with individual components. Now, if you could just find space for those vertical files....

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