Fax, Scan, Copy, Print: They Do It All And Do It Well

Units that fax, scan, copy, and even print in color can be a boon to a small business

Printers, scanners, fax machines, and copiers have lots of functions in common. A copier, for example, is just a scanner plus a printer. So nothing could be more logical than combining several, or all, of these roles in a single box. Unfortunately, when the first generation of such multifunction devices came on the market a couple of years back, they were jacks-of-all-trades but masters of none, and old-fashioned single-purpose units continued to dominate the market.

Today, multifunction units have grown up and added top-quality color printing to a range of other complementary abilities. They can be very useful in business, especially in small offices where both space and money are often tight.

VERSATILE. Perhaps the most interesting of the new breed is the Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet Pro 1150C for Windows 3.1 or 95. This $999 unit, about the size and shape of a small copier, functions as a printer, scanner, and flatbed copier.

The print mechanism of the OfficeJet is taken from HP's DeskJet 870 series ink-jet printer. It turns out text at up to eight pages per minute (four pages per minute for near-laser quality) and color at up to three pages per minute. The copier works even when the computer it is attached to is turned off or busy doing other things, turning out black and white copies at seven pages per minute. It will enlarge by up to 400%, reduce by 50%, and it gives you a choice of black and white or color copies from color originals. While it lacks a sheet feeder, it should handle most small-office copy chores, with color as a bonus.

The scanning function also works well, sending data to the computer over the printer cable. While the OfficeJet can't send or receive faxes directly, anything it scans can be sent to a fax program, such as Windows 95's built-in fax service or Symantec's WinFax.

The only part of the OfficeJet that gave me trouble was optical character recognition--and for reasons that have more to do with the awful complexity of software than the device itself. During installation of the OfficeJet, my four-month-old HP Pavilion computer crashed and refused to reboot. After a couple of tech support calls to different HP divisions, I learned that the problem was a conflict between the Caere OmniPage OCR program supplied with the printer and software "drivers" used by the S3 ViRGE video adapter in the Pavilion. Downloading a new version of the ViRGE drivers fixed the problem, and the OCR software works fine. But consumers should not have to deal with complex problems such as this, especially when buying a computer and printer from the same manufacturer.

The 1150C's little brother, the $500 OfficeJet 500, looks more like a fax machine. It handles color printing (it's based on the DeskJet 690 series printers) and serves as a sheet-fed scanner and copier. It also can be used as a stand-alone fax machine when the computer is not available. While print speed is about half that of the 1150C (four pages per minute for black and white) and the quality is not quite as good, the OfficeJet 500 can be a versatile addition to many small offices.

Cannon Computer Systems offers the $500 Multipass C2500, which offers similar features to the OfficeJet 500 but prints at up to five pages per minute. And watch for additional models with added capabilities--and probably lower prices--to hit the market this summer and fall.

Multifunction devices still aren't for everyone. But the new machines are very good at what they do, and chances are that one of these combo units can save you both space and money.