The TRUTH about low-end fax machines and copiers

Scott Cullen

You can call this an expose if you want, but in reality it’s the way things are when it comes to low-end fax machines, MFPs, and copiers. What we’re looking to do here is separate the reality from the hype and identify some of the issues involved in shopping for equipment at your local office or computer superstore or online vs. purchasing equipment from a local office equipment dealer or office equipment manufacturer.

In office equipment industry circles, buying at retail or online is typically not the recommended source for equipment for corporate buyers. Purchasing low-end equipment through the superstore channel and online has its upsides and downsides, depending on your needs and how you plan on using the equipment.

Defining low volume

When we talk about low-end equipment, we’re talking about products that are designed for low-volume applications that are not sold through traditional office equipment channels, such as office equipment dealers or direct from the manufacturer. Rather, these products are sold online (sometimes by the manufacturer), via catalogs, and through office superstores, such as Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax.

One of the challenges in defining these products is that no hard, fast rules apply to the features and characteristics that make up those models sold at retail or online vs. an office equipment dealer. There are exceptions to every rule, and when it comes to technology, today’s rules may not apply to tomorrow’s equipment.

Generally speaking, however, these low-end fax machines, MFPs, and copiers typically print and copy at less than 20 cpm or 20 ppm–some much less. These devices might not always be as feature rich as dealer channel products, even compared to their entry-level models. For example, a retail channel copier might not include an automatic document feeder or reduction and enlargement, and would not include such common copier options as stapling and sorting. Fax machines might not offer the fastest transmission speeds, as many models sold outside the dealer channel still have 14.4-Kbps modems rather than 33.6-Kbps modems. Also, many fax machines and MFPs in this segment use ink jet technology rather than laser. Often, ink jet models also offer the added advantage of color copying and printing. However, color ink jets aren’t typically found in the dealer channel.

To confuse the issue even more, some manufacturers offer the exact same models at retail, online, and through dealers though the name for a model sold at retail may differ from that of the same model sold through the dealer channel. In some instances, the dealer channel model may offer more features and options than the retail model. Thus, the simplest way to identify these products focuses on the channels through which they’re sold.

The price is not always right

Perhaps the biggest advantage associated with buying equipment through the office superstore channel is price. Some low-end laser MFPs can be purchased for less than $400. But as Jon Bees, editor of the Better Buys for Business office equipment buying guides, notes, “Sometimes the best deals are not such a great deal after all.” That’s because consumable costs are often higher on models sold through retail channels.

Bees further explains that when purchasing office equipment, consumable costs (toner, ink, developer, etc.) will often dictate what kind of machine you want to buy. And by and large, you’re going to find better consumable prices on equipment sold through the dealer channel. However, the playing field has become a bit more level on the consumable side with new machines from Brother and Hewlett-Packard.

The other advantage of equipment purchased through the superstore channel is longer warranties. Generally, warranties offered through the dealer channel are much shorter–about 90 days. More than likely, products sold through the dealer channel also require service contracts, which isn’t so much a negative as a necessity. In contrast, most equipment sold through the service channel doesn’t require a service contract, but those that do may require you to ship the machine back to the manufacturer for repair-terribly inconvenient, especially if you don’t have a backup unit in your office.

Making comparisons

Comparisons are inevitable when shopping for office equipment. Look at a unit’s print or copy speed, memory (particularly fax memory), and paper capacity. Also, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. For example, you need to compare laser faxes and MFPs to laser faxes and MFPs, rather than ink jet faxes and MFPs to laser fax MFPs. You probably won’t find any ink jet machines sold through the dealer channel, although they now offer print quality on a par with laser. Still, consumable costs are much higher for ink jet machines.

The other thing to note when it comes to ink jet products is there’s a host of excellent color ink jet MFPs on the market. Many offer superior photo-quality printing as well as faxing and color copying capabilities. The caveat here is, because of the high consumable costs, they may not necessarily be a good choice for business applications unless you only occasionally copy and print in color.

What you’ll find when making comparisons, however, is that for low-volume office, department, or workgroup applications, a retail/online channel product maybe your best buy.

Low-end players

Choices abound in the manufacturers marketing products at the mid to high ends of the fax, copier, and MFP markets. At the low end, choices are a bit more limited. That said, there are some manufacturers who are introducing products that compete favorably with dealer channel products. Key players in the retail channel include Brother, Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Sharp, and Lexmark. You might still find products from Xerox in this channel, even though Xerox has announced it’s exiting the channel. Expect Sharp to pick up the slack here as it made some of the low-end Xerox models.

Better Buys’ Bees, a guru of sorts when it comes to picking models to watch, identifies the new Brother laser MFPs and Hewlett-Packard’s OfficeJet G85, a color ink jet MFP, as products that merit a closer look. Although he notes that consumable costs are supposed to be competitive for these models, he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to evaluate those costs at press time.

Some of the latest Brother products include the MFC-6800, MFC-9700, and MFC-9800 (MFC = Multi-Fuction Center). Each unit offers plain-paper faxing, laser printing, digital copying, color scanning, and PC faxing. All the models have a flatbed design, which is critical for copying and scanning. According to Brother, the estimated street prices for the MFC-6800, MFC-9700, and MFC-9800 are $499, $599, and $799, respectively.

CAP Ventures’ senior consultant Virginia Higgins also sees value in the new Brother machines. She reports that Brother has brought cost per copy down to a reasonable level and is therefore attracting more buyers in Fortune 500 companies who are purchasing these devices at either the retail channel or online. Although only the MFC-9800 has a 33.6- Kbps modem, Higgins also notes that these machines offer exceptional value for the price. “Price is tempting…and more buyers in corporate America are willing to try.” She notes it’s especially tempting for corporate buyers to purchase two of these machines, which together are half to a third as expensive as a single dealer channel model.

On the color ink jet MFP front, Higgins sees more retail channel products, such as HP’s OfficeJet G85, penetrating corporate America thanks to attractive prices and added functionality. She maintains it’s become much easier for buyers to justify the purchase of one of these devices, even with their high consumable costs, because they’re also getting a fax machine and possibly a low-volume color and black-and-white copier. “Because of functionality, these devices are finding their way into offices where there may have been roadblocks before,” she said.

Your best options

The products that arguably represent the best buys for low-volume applications, available outside of the dealer and direct channels include the following:

* laser fax machines and laser MFPs with 33.6-Kbps modems, 2MB of fax memory, 250-sheet or larger paper capacities, and print speeds of 10 ppm or higher

* color ink jet MFPs that copy, print, fax, and scan at print speeds of 10 ppm or higher with 2MB of fax memory and 250-sheet or larger paper capacities

* flatbed MFPs that allow you to copy, scan, or fax directly off the glass at speeds of 10 ppm or higher with 2MB of fax memory and 250-sheet or larger paper capacities

You can probably find a viable laser fax machine with a 14.4-Kbps modem at retail or online that would be more than adequate for extreme low-volume usage. You may also find that fax memory on many models sold at retail isn’t upgradable. This can be a limitation when sending documents from memory or receiving documents into memory. You can also find a number of low-volume stand-alone copiers that would also be adequate, although an MFP might be a wiser choice. Unless you already have a copier in your office, avoid MFPs that aren’t flatbed models.

Buyer beware

As you shop online or peruse the advertisements in your Sunday paper, beware low-end fax machines, MFPs, and copiers at prices that claim to be huge discounts off of the suggested retail price. These devices actually may be discontinued models that the retailer is looking to unload. You might be able to find a good deal on a low-end copier this way, but be cautious of fax machines and MFPs that have 9,600-bps modems, which are slow and inefficient even for occasional faxing. Also, before you buy, make sure it’s easy to find consumables for these devices. Otherwise, that bargain piece of office equipment isn’t a bargain. Also, make sure the original warranties still apply to a discontinued model and that you can still find someone to service the device should problems arise. Ultimately, devices sold at bargain prices are disposable. So, service and warranties may not even be an issue if the device breaks down after a year or two of use.

The bottom line

While there’s a host of products available online or via the retail channel, there’s still no substitute for service and support when it comes to many of the full-featured copiers and fax machines marketed through the dealer channel or direct from a manufacturer. Indeed, for most corporate buyers, the dealer and direct channels remain, and should remain, the channels of choice. However, if your volumes are low enough to warrant the higher consumable costs or you need a backup copier, fax, or MFP, or even an ink jet color MFP, buying these products at retail or online is a viable alternative.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Quality Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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