A matter of fax: the ultimate guide to affordable thermal and plain-paper fax machines – Hardware Review – Evaluation

Russell Letson

According to US News & World Report, the amount of material faxed today has increased 700 percent since 1987. You’ve most likely contributed to that growth. Except for a few holdouts still using a pneumatic tube, the question today isn’t whether to get a fax machine, but which one of the many makes and models will do the job with the least fuss and at the best price.

There are two great divides in current fax technology one between machines with or without page memory, and a more visible one between thermal and plain-paper printing. Until recently, inexpensive light-duty machines have been thermal based, and their modest cost, small footprint, and ease of maintenance have offset their primary undesirable quality: slick, curly paper with printing that eventually fades.

In the last year or so, however, prices for plain-paper alternatives based on ink-jet, laser, or LED (which is similar in quality to laser) printing mechanisms have dropped considerably, all of those reviewed here sell for $1,000 or less. Although these units are still more expensive than their thermal counterparts, they offer output that can be filed or handled without deterioration.

Other factors associated with the choice of print technology include overall size, ease add cost of maintenance, and simplicity of operation. Thermal machines can be quite compact, some no bigger than a good desk dictionary, whereas plain-paper machines, with their paper cassettes and bulkier print mechanisms, are considerably larger. In the group we examined, for example, the smallest plain-paper machine is nearly twice the size of the average thermal unit.

The care of thermal machines is also quite straight-forward. There is no ink cartridge or ribbon to replenish, and a fresh roll of paper can simply be dropped in. Installing a new ink cartridge in an ink jet is not much of a challenge either, but the cartridge itself can be pricey – about $28. (One alternative, refilling the cartridge, reduces the cost by about a third but requires some manual dexterity.) Laser and LED machines are relatively complex to set up, and when toner cartridges and eventually imaging drums need replacing, it can be an expensive-and-messy-proposition. In addition, unless they have a “green” standby mode, lasers can be both energy hogging and noisy.

Flush With Features Although important, the printing method is not necessarily the key factor when choosing a fax machine. Just as the prime question in buying a computer is, “What do you plan to run on it?” so you should think about how you would use a fax.

For light use, your prime concerns are clean output, ease of use, and reliable operation, in which case even the most basic machines will probably serve. Nor does adding photos or graphics to the mix present a problem, since you can count on fine or (more often) superfine resolution and grayscale or halftone capability wherever you look.

In fact, a number of performance features and conveniences have become all but standard on entry-level machines: automatic redial, one-touch and speed autodialing, document feeders and paper cutters, and printable activity logs, which should include the time and duration of incoming and outgoing faxes, numbers called, transmission successes or failures, and error codes. Limitations and exceptions to this rule are noted in the chart and reviews.

Ranking high on many fax wish lists is the ability to send and receive documents unattended, saving not only time but, frequently, money. If you’d like to pinch a few pennies by taking advantage of lower phone rates, look for delayed transmission. If you would like someone to be able to call in for a document that’s sitting on the feeder when you’re out, or if you would like to be able to fetch documents from remote machines without needing the sender to be there, then you want polling.

If you don’t have a dedicated fax line, think about how your fax machine will fit into your existing phone environment. Some kind of line sharing is available on all the models we tested. Minimally, a machine should be able to pick up after a specified number of rings, distinguish between fax and voice calls, and act accordingly. Most faxes now also accommodate answering machines by listening during the greeting message for incoming fax signals. Another near-necessity is a remote-activation code that lets you wake up the fax from an extension phone.

Thanks for the Memory Epitomizing the crossing of the great feature divide: added page memory for storing incoming and outgoing documents. An associated feature, quick scanning, reads in a document, gives it back to you, and lets the machine transmit while you go back to work.

Once a document is stored electronically, it can be broadcast – sent to as many people as the programming system will allow. With the addition of dialing groups, a couple of button presses can send an announcement or bid to multiple recipients. For people who find themselves away from the office, incoming faxes can be stored for forwarding or held for remote retrieval.

Ease of use and programming – which become increasingly important as we demand more functions – are the hardest factors to evaluate. The best guide remains hands-on experience. If possible, play with any model you’re interested in at the store and try to get a look at the manual.

In addition, the more sophisticated a machine’s functions, the more important the front-panel controls and readout become. A two-line LCD readout permits more detailed prompts and status messages than one with a single line. Also, a help button that prints out settings, instructions, and lists of menu choices, takes away some of the programming mystery and lets you operate the machine sans manual.

Thermal Fax Machines



Rating: ****

The IntelliFax-820MC straddles the line between high- and low-end machines by combining the economy of operation of a thermal fax with features that rival or surpass those of any of the plain-paper machines – and it even blurs the thermal/plain-paper line. Although the 820MC can use standard thermal paper, it comes with a roll of Brother’s ThermaPlus paper, which is heavier than standard stock (and, at $13, about twice as expensive) though it still feels pretty smooth.

The 820MC’s main strengths are indicated by the “MC” in its name, which stands for message center. This machine boasts a built-in digital answering machine and an extensive set of remote-control and page-memory functions. When you’re away from your office, you can forward and retrieve your faxes as well as have access to all of the usual answering-machine functions. The message center will hold a combination of up to 50 fax pages and 99 voice messages or 18 minutes of voice data.

The memory-based fax functions and programming choices are close enough for both the 820MC and its plain-paper cousin, the 2400ML (reviewed below), that one description can serve for both. There is the familiar set of high-end functions including broadcasting and polling. In addition, multitransmission permits sending two different documents to several different locations in a single operation.

What sets both these models apart is the way they let your faxes follow you. Either machine will forward incoming faxes to a preset fax number or dial a pager to notify you that a fax has been received. And through remote operation, you can get a report of what is stored in memory, change the forwarding mode, and change the forwarding number.

The 820MC is the features champ of the thermal machines tested. More important, those features meet real needs and can be managed without a Ph.D. in cryptoanalysis. If you want the quiet and low per-page costs of thermal, but need advanced functionality, put this machine on your A list.

Muratec M920

Rating: **1/2

Muratec’s M920 uses what might be called a semi-no-frills approach: It has some advanced features, but they tend to be partial efforts. For example, the M920 has line sharing and answering machine support, but there’s no remote-activation code to use to alert the fax to pick up when you’re on an extension that’s not connected to the fax. Also, there is no timer function to allow after-hours polling or unattended sending.

Probably the M920’s biggest weakness is its human interface. It is the hardest machine in the group to set up, especially getting names into the dialing list.

There is nothing substandard about the Muratec’s essential faxing functions, though, which include both superfine resolution and a 16-level grayscale setting. Output quality and speed are quite good, and there are some decent touches for an entry-level machine, such as a large, 164-foot paper-roll capacity and a paper cutter.

Despite its high list price, the MS920 is heavily discounted so that it could be an attractive proposition if your fax needs don’t require much automation and if you can adjust to the programming interface.

Panasonic KX-F500

Rating: ***1/2

If you want razor-sharp faxes but don’t care about memory-based features or don’t require a built-in answering machine, the KX-F500 offers the best output of the thermal machines examined. And even though its features are basic, it’s not exactly stripped – there’s a 15-page document feeder, good line sharing, and answering-machine support. Controls are well laid out, with dual functions marked.

Text faxes and copies both come through extremely clear and readable, and for photos, the halftone results are unsurpassed, probably due to the 64-level grayscale.

Midlevel fax features are limited to polling and delayed transmission. On the telephone side, there’s a speakerphone with 10 one-touch and 22 speed-dial entries. The Panasonic KX-F500 will respond to a remote-activation code from extension phones and will also cooperate with an external answering machine by allowing a caller to leave a message and then signal for a fax transmission.

This machine may not sport bells and whistles, but no basic unit did the simplest functions with more polish or produced better-looking output.

Samsung FX800


Samsung’s FX800 takes an all-in-one approach, integrating a fax with a speakerphone and a digital answering machine in a single compact unit. Fax features include superfine resolution, a 16-level grayscale mode, polled sending and receiving, and delayed transmission. Although output quality is good in both normal and grayscale modes, the lack of an automatic paper cutter seems strange when there are so many other good design points.

What sets the FX800 apart from others with similar fax functions is its answering machine and remote capabilities. The tapeless answering machine will accept up to 60 incoming messages (about 15 minutes total) and can respond with two different outgoing messages, depending on whether the unit is set to accept both faxes and voice messages or faxes only.

The manual is well laid out and generously illustrated (though not indexed), and there are two wallet-size cards summarizing remote-operation commands. In general, the FX800 offers a good mix of features for anyone with routine fax needs who must also stay in touch when out of the office.

Sanyo SFX-30

Rating: **1/2

The Sanyo SFX-30 is another machine with a mixture of basic and limited midlevel features. Its output quality is good, most likely due to superfine resolution, 16-level grayscale, and the combination of an anticurl system and high-quality, fade-resistant paper that is easy to handle and store. The midlevel features include timed transmission (up to a 24-hour delay) and polled reception (but not transmission).

The SFX-30 has the familiar automatic and manual receiving modes (rather unhandily controlled by a slide switch on the side of the unit) but with an interesting wrinkle: Two optional built-in voice messages respond to incoming calls. When the SFX-30 picks up after a programmed number of rings, a digital voice says, “Please wait for a moment,” and the machine continues to produce phantom rings. If the receiver is not picked up or a fax transmission has not begun the machine says, “No one is here now, however, if you wish to send a fax, please transmit at the tone,” and the machine waits for a fax transmission.

You can also use the SFX-30 with an answering machine connected directly to it, though the fax manual points out that automatic switching may not work with all machines and that you may have trouble with remote message retrieval when the fax is in the answer mode described above.

Although the SFX-30’s automated functions are limited and its price is a bit high, its line-sharing flexibility is a notch better than average, and it offers a respectable basic feature set in a compact and attractive package.

Smith Corona

CoronaFax 735i

Rating: **

The Coronafax 7351 is an entry-level machine uncomplicated by features such as polling or delayed transmission. For simple sending and receiving, its basic features and functions are solid: a superfine resolution with 16- and 32-level grayscale, autodialer, voice request, an anticurl mechanism, and an automatic paper cutter (but no output tray to catch the pages).

The one serious shortcoming of the 735i is its lack of an LCD readout, so getting status information requires that you interpret combinations of lighted and unlighted LEDs on the front panel (the meanings of which are printed on the control panel). So entering your personal ID or autodial numbers requires care, faith, and frequent printouts of the System Configuration and Speed Dial Number Reports to check for mistakes.

This is not a functionally primitive machine – it does the fundamental job of receiving and transmitting as well as any machine we tested-but it lacks amenities that have become standard elsewhere, and using it can be a little like dressing in the dark.

Plain-Paper Machines

Brother IntelliFax


Rating: ***1/2

The Intellifax 2400ML is Brother’s high-end plain-paper fax, a biggish, laser printer unit. Aside from its printing mechanism and the absence of a built-in answering machine, the 2400ML is operationally similar to the 820MC thermal unit. Memory features, programming, and remote fax operations are the same as those of its thermal sibling, with one major exception: The 2400ML has less page memory (256 versus the 820MC’s 1MB).

Both the 2400ML and the 820MC can accept the $39 Missing Link option (not tested), which permits use with a computer for fax, printer, and scanner functions via a serial connection and Windows software.

Taken on its own, the 2400ML is quite well designed, with a 200-sheet paper cassette, a 30-page document feeder, and catch trays for both original documents and faxes. Output is fast and, of course, laser clean. One big negative is that the print engine runs its cooling fans all the time, which makes it rather noisy – and there’s neither an on/off switch nor a low-power (and thus quiet) standby mode to offer relief.

Canon Faxphone B-160


The Canon Faxphone B-160’s combination of ink-jet printing and sophisticated memory-based features makes it a good choice for more adventurous faxers. And the control layout is among the best of this group, with clearly labeled one-touch dialing and function keys.

Memory capacity is on par with other machines in its class:10O pages for transmission (also the limit of the document feeder) and 30 pages for reception. Broadcasting and polling are enhanced by the largest dialing groups of the machines tested: 116 speed-dial numbers that can be distributed among 16 one-touch keys.

Output quality is good on text, though the scanner did seem prone to producing those wavy distortions that sometimes appear as unwanted italics. Otherwise, the Canon is quite adept at coping with non-standard fax situations, boasting an unusual array of special document settings, including blueprint, tracing paper, highlight marker, and image reversal.

The B-160 can also work as a printer, via parallel cable connected to your computer, with Canon BJ-10 or Epson LQ-series emulations. You can’t fax out or make copies while you’re working in printer mode, but if a fax comes in, it will be stored in memory.

The Canon’s double-duty combination of solid, high-end faxing and good-quality (if not laser) computer printing should make it attractive to users who need high-end functions.



Rating: ***1/2

Hewlett-Packard’s Fax-950 scores high marks for both its sophistication and ease of use. The large front panel, with its well-marked buttons, 28-key multifunction touchpad, and two-line, 20-character LCD readout panel, makes programming as easy as it gets. The LCD panel itself gives a very good idea of what’s going on during programming.

With fine resolution and 64-level grayscale, print quality is very good, speed is reasonable, and the machine does not draw as much standby power as a laser unit. (Note that the 950’s top resolution of 300dpi is not standard and will work only with other fax machines that support 300dpi resolution.) Using ink cartridges the manufacturer rates at 1,000 pages and street priced at around $26, however, this may not be the best choice for high-volume receiving. Another possible drawback of ink-jet printing is that high-resolution pages with large areas of black come out with the ink slightly damp. One partial solution might be to set the contrast for lighter printing.

The Fax-950 comes with 512K (about 28 pages) of memory, expandable to 2.5MB with user-installable memory cards for up to 150 pages of storage ($139 to $349). The quick-scan feature is quite fast: It took about 10 seconds to store a text and photo page at fine resolution, which was then transmitted in two minutes.

Line-sharing abilities include voice/fax detection, an answering machine interface mode, and distinctive-ring detection. There is a jack for an extension phone and a remote-activation code for waking up the fax, but the code works only in the manual mode, not in the automatic answering mode.

In addition to broadcasting, polling, and delayed transmission, the Fax-950 does multifile transmissions of up to eight documents to different destinations.

If you want plain-paper output without the fuss and energy consumption of a laser mechanism, the Fax-950 is for you.

Panasonic KX-F3000

Rating: ***

Panasonic’s KX-F3000 is based on the company’s small, tower-configured LED printer. The print engine produces high-quality output and is both quick and quiet-in standby mode, there is none of the fan noise you would expect from what is essentially a laser printer.

Panasonic’s long-term involvement with telephone products shows in its ease-of-use features. The dialing directory, for example, is alphabetically indexed and searchable. Programming and setup are better than average.

The KX-F3000 has a strong set of high-end, memory-enabled features: memory reception (up to 20 pages), polling, and broadcasting. The fax-forwarding feature is especially handy if you travel or work regularly at a second site.

Even though it scans pages into memory before transmitting, this does not happen quickly. For a single page at fine resolution, the scan itself took 20 seconds, but processing it to memory took another 40 – and only then did transmission start.

The KX-F3000 supports distinctive-ring service and has a line-sharing telephone/fax mode, but it is otherwise oddly weak in this department – there is no remote-activation code that lets you answer from an extension, and no jack on the machine to connect a phone or answering machine.

Aside from its curious shortcomings in the line-sharing department, the KX-F3000 delivers excellent-quality faxes and an advanced feature set at a competitive price.

Sharp UX-1500R

Rating: **1/2

Sharp’s UX-1500R ink jet provides performance and advanced features fairly typical of machines in its class: polling, broadcasting, delayed transmission, and memory reception and transmission. Holding 20 pages for transmission or 36 pages for reception (or a mix), the machine also offers memory reception that starts automatically in the case of a jam or if paper or ink run out. Line-sharing capabilities include support for extensions connected directly to the fax machine and answering machines but not for distinctive-ring service.

The ink-jet print engine is respectably quick and delivers clear output, though with an occasional line of wavy, distorted print. The halftone setting offers A levels of gray, and copies of a complex page (regular and black-on-green text or photos) came out rather well, though some of the photos showed banding.

Several details of the advanced features are worth mentioning. The timer function, for instance, allows scheduling transmissions or polling up to a week in advance, instead of the usual 24 hours. There are no dialing groups for broadcasting, however, which is limited to numbers entered into the 15 one-touch keys.

The Sharp UX-1500R lacks the polish and the full feature set of the Canon and Hewlett-Packard ink-jet machines but offers acceptable plain-paper faxing and many of the advanced features likely to be useful for small businesses.

Sharp UX-3200

Rating: **1/2

The Sharp UX-3200 laser fax machine we received was a late preproduction unit, so it is possible that details will be different by the time it ships, but our impression is of a machine characterized by useful touches on some features and what seem like half measures on others.

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice is what’s absent: noise, in both printing and standby modes. There is also an option to turn off the fuser heater to conserve energy (faxes will be taken into memory and printed when the printer is up to operating temperature, a matter of a minute or so). Output quality on text is what you would expect from a laser print engine: sharp and clear. The UX-3200’s specifications top out at fine resolution and 32 levels of halftone, but its halftone copy of the mixed text-photo page turned out a bit better than the 64-level Sharp UX-1500R’s – a convincing demonstration of the difference in output quality between a laser and an ink jet.

Autodial capability is reasonably large: 30 two-key speed-dial numbers and 20 one-touch autodial keys, each of which will store up to three numbers for either a primary fax number, a voice number, and a backup fax number in case the primary doesn’t answer.

Oddly enough, the UX-3200 lacks polling but the strangest half-measure is in the line-sharing area. The UX-3200 will distinguish between incoming voice and fax calls, but like the Panasonic KX-F3000, it has no provision – not even a jack – for supporting an extension phone or answering machine.

Designs such as this show that you can’t expect high-end plain-paper faxes to have all the features you’d need. But if you want clean output and quiet operation but otherwise lead an uncomplicated fax life, the UX-3200 will do.

In Brief

Anyone in the market for a business fax machine now has to wrestle with the choice between plain-paper and thermal output. No longer priced at more than $1,000, plain-paper machines, which can double as occasional-use copiers, have become a smart purchase. Hewlett-Pachard’s Fax-950 offers sophisticated features, ease of use, and reliable performance at a great price. On the thermal side, Brother’s IntelliFax-820MC is packed with highend memory and messaging features and is an optimum choice for those juggling faxes and voice messages on one phone line.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Freedom Technology Media Group

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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