From fast-food and microwave dinners, to super highways and drive-thrus, to instant messaging and high-speed Internet access, our culture seems committed to life in the fast lane. Faster is better, and one of the key tools for life in the fast lane is the facsimile, or fax, machine.
While the facsimile has been around since 1843 (www.comm.cornell.edu/COMM626/reports/cjw11112397.html), it took until the 1980s for fax machines to enter the mainstream and become an integral part of everyday business. Fax machines are simply the fastest, easiest and, in most cases, the cheapest way to rapidly send a copy of a written document.
Turning computers into fax machines by integrating fax capabilities into modems was a natural evolution. In reality, however, a computer makes a poor fax machine. To rely completely on computer faxing requires that the computer and the fax software is up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Using the modem to connect online takes fax capabilities offline. Receiving a fax on the computer also steals computer resources from other tasks, which can also interrupt workflow. Frankly, modems and faxing software don't come close to matching the simplicity and reliability of an inexpensive, dedicated fax machine.
Computer faxing has definite advantages, including the ability to fax documents directly from the computer, eliminating the need to print a copy. Computer faxing is also a boon for road warriors where the notebook computer doubles as a portable fax machine. Unfortunately, notebooks are much better at sending faxes from a hotel than receiving them. Attempting to fax a hotel guest's notebook computer through the hotel switchboard brings home the true meaning of the age-old expression "you can't get there from here."
Computer faxing can also be a problem for those accessing the Internet through a direct network connection. Many companies don't allow modems on their networked computers for security reasons. Cable and DSL broadband modems do not have fax capabilities, so these users quickly find they still need a computer modem and phone line for computer faxing.
E-mail goes a long way in plugging the computer fax holes. Electronic documents are easy to send as e-mail attachments, and written documents can be scanned into a computer and sent the same way. Unfortunately, not all correspondents have scanners, and there are still times when you must fax to a machine instead of to someone's e-mail.
There just has to be a better way, and Internet fax services look like the answer. Internet faxing eliminates many of the headaches of computer modem faxing, rivaling dedicated fax machines in convenience.
In Internet faxing, the service provider supplies the user with a personal fax number that is tied to the user's e-mail account. Faxes sent to the number are received as e-mail attachments in the user's e-mail. Sending a fax is as simple as addressing an e-mail or printing a document to the fax machine's phone number. The result is an amazingly fast and flexible personal fax system.
Recently, I signed up for Internet fax accounts with eFax (www.efax.com) and Fax1.com. Both services provide free receive-only fax accounts, which should serve the needs of someone looking for an easy way to receive faxes while sending faxes using their computer modem or dedicated fax machine. Accounts with send privileges are at an additional, but reasonable, cost.
The heart of the eFax service is its Fax Messenger Plus software, downloaded from the Web site. The software installs an eFax icon in Microsoft Window's task bar that provides a pop-up menu with commands to open the Fax Messenger Plus software, edit your fax address book or cover note, access your account, or scan a document for e-mailing or faxing. Fax Messenger Plus also installs an eFax send button in the menu bar of open applications, providing convenient, one-click faxing of an open document.
Fax Messenger Plus is much more than a tool for reading, sending and printing faxes. The software can combine fax files into a single document and supplies a number of basic graphic and text tools for annotating and stamping faxes. eFax Plus account subscribers can also use Fax Messenger Plus' optical character recognition technology to convert a fax to text.
Another nice touch is the ability to "fax" a computer document to a file. The fax document can then be e-mailed to non-eFax subscribers after embedding it in a self-extracting viewer or converting the fax into a JPG or TIFF file using the Fax Messenger's export command.
eFax proved to be extremely reliable and easy to use in my testing. The only problem I noticed was that the eFax send button would disappear from my Paint Shop Pro menu bar if I clicked on the menu bar outside the command buttons.
Fax1.com (fax1.com or www.fax1.com) is a no-frills, low-cost fax service. Like eFax, Fax1 provides a free long-distance fax number with unlimited free receipt of faxes. There is no monthly service fee for sending faxes. Instead, subscribers deposit a minimum of $25 into their fax account. Each time a fax is sent, per-page charges are deducted from the account balance. Fax1 faxes cost approximately 12 cents per page to U.S. destinations; the Fax1 international rates are typically cheaper than eFax.
Fax1 requires two simple utility programs -- a settings program that holds the user's fax phone number and account user name and password, and a Sent Faxes utility that provides fax log and phone book. Faxes are received as TIFF files viewed with the graphics viewer functions of your e-mail software.
While I like the no-frills, low-cost aspect of Fax1, several issues prevent me from giving the service a strong recommendation. The first problem I noticed was that faxes sent from a machine using standard resolution were distorted, appearing squashed vertically. Faxes sent using fine resolution appeared normal.
Next, my fax number has been perpetually busy for the last week to anyone sending from a fax machine. E-mail and Web faxes still work. I'm working on the problem with Fax1's customer service.
Other Internet Fax Options
While my research indicated that eFax and Fax1 are the most economical Internet fax services, there are others interested in your business -- Fax Cube (www.faxcube.com), Fax Mission (www.faxmission.com) and J2 (www.j2.com) -- that you may want to evaluate. If you're interested in adding Internet fax services to your network, check out the @fax.com Internet fax portal (www.atfax.com).
Regular readers know that I'm a big advocate of cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) broadband Internet services. My enthusiasm was tempered in mid-May when I encountered serious network problems with my service provider, MediaOne. The problems continued until mid-November.
The six-month wait was unbearable. By the time August rolled around, I considered dropping MediaOne and going with one of the local DSL service providers in my area. Not wanting to trade one problem service for another, I decided to research potential vendors on DSL Reports (www.dslreports.com).
DSL Reports is a wonderful source of broadband information, including tools to help fine-tune your computer for the best performance and user ratings of various cable and DSL vendors. Unfortunately, I found that broadband problems are almost universal, and the reports on my local DSL providers did not look good. I decided to stick it out with MediaOne.
Anyone interested in broadband Internet access should comparison-shop at DSL Reports before committing to a service. It's well worth the time.
Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, author of "Internet User's Guide for Safety and Health Professionals," is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. He can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards, by fax at (216) 899-1581 or by electronic mail at mblotzer@ mediaone.net.