Faxing and Windows XP
Several different questions about Windows fax software have appeared in my inbox over the last week, ranging from does Windows XP have fax software like Windows 95/98 to what's the best free fax application, to questions about finding an IP fax solution, to choosing a standalone fax machine. I'd personally love this antiquated form of document transmission to finally go away; it's one of the many things computers should make obsolete. Since we're stuck with the technology until people come to terms with digital methods for signing documents, sending a fax remains one of those little problems that we all get to enjoy. When I send a fax or receive a fax, I use a combination of a standalone machine and IP based fax, but there are a number of ways you can deal with sending and receiving faxes without needing any special equipment.
Window XP Fax
Microsoft does not include the Windows XP fax application in the base install of Windows XP, even though the app is readily available to all XP users. The application is very basic, designed to transmit documents via a modem connected to your PC. To install the Windows XP fax utility, open Control Panel > Add/Remove Programs and click on the Add/Remove Windows Components button on the left side of the window. Check the box next to Fax Services and click next, which starts the install process. Depending on how Windows is installed on your PC, the installer may ask you for your Windows XP CD. If you have a system restore logical drive, which is common to most HP machines, point the installer at this drive to install the necessary components. Once installed, the fax app is located in All Programs > Accessories > Communications > Fax. Configure the basic settings for the app like company information and cover page details and you should be ready to go. Make sure a phone line is connected to your modem or the fax app won't get dial tone and of course be sure to pass the phone line through a surge protector to keep your computer from getting zapped by electrical fluctuations or a lightning strike.
IP Fax Solutions
eFax remains the most widely accessible free IP fax solution. I regularly use their fax service to receive faxes because I don't like hassling with remembering to set my physical fax machine to receive, my phone line is never tied up with faxing and it keeps me from getting any physical junk faxes that waste paper and clog the fax queue. If you have very infrequent fax needs, eFax offers free inbound faxing which drops the fax files in your inbox in the proprietary eFax format. You are limited to receiving 20 fax pages per month and a number assigned by eFax (which might mean your number is not local to the city you live in). They do offer a premium fax service, which costs $0.10 per faxed page, supports inbound faxes as PDF files and carries a monthly fee for providing you access to a local number, an online storage facility for tracking received faxes and unlimited inbound faxes. I've successfully avoided needing this service because most inbound faxing to me comes in the form of 1-2 page documents and the number I wound up with is local to the opposite side of Lake Washington, so it's almost like having a number for my area.
When I need to do an outbound fax, I've hesitated to deal with the nonsense of sending through my PC because scanning pages seems to take forever when compared to loading pages into a traditional fax machine and letting them run. I indirectly use an IP based solution for sending faxes because I dial the outbound numbers through my Vonage account and send that way. Vonage doesn't guarantee this will work unless you purchase a separate line for faxing, but I've had no problems sending faxes using this method and receiving works as well, although I prefer electronic versions for my received faxes.
Faxaway is another IP based fax service similar to eFax. They charge $0.11 per minute with a $1 monthly fee in the United States with rates varying to send to other countries. They have an interesting feature designed to let Web site visitors fax stuff from your Web site to their phone number, which seems silly considering the same document could be easily printed. I'm not sure I'm willing to give a stamp of approval to their inbound fax based on my experiences trying to receive faxes with their sister service k7.net, which is based on the same technology. Both offer a so-called unified messaging application that provides one phone number allowing people to leave a message or send a fax. In my personal experience, no one was able to get a fax through to my number and kept getting routed to voicemail. According to the Faxaway site, David Pogue of the New York Times loves the service, so I may just be unlucky.
Prior to using eFax as my inbound solution, I relied heavily on a variation of CommuniKate which provides unified toll-free messaging, fax, conference calling and a virtual phone answering service capable of doing a call blast to all your phone numbers simultaneously. I ultimately decided it was overpriced for the way I used it and dropped the service, but there are distinct advantages for some people. One of the features of CommuniKate is an outbound fax app that lets you send faxes through your account. Of course, you still need a scanner or some other method for getting the pages into your computer to send, but once loaded, this feature works extremely well.
Standalone Fax Machines
In terms of the type of fax machine I recommend, I'm a cheapskate. I opted for a budget-priced model from Panasonic, because faxing is such a minimal part of what I do. It worked well when I still had a landline. It continues to function as advertised when I want to fax things through my Vonage account. The ink cartridges are good for printing about 150 pages before they need to be replaced and I'm only on my second cartridge in two years, with plenty of life in the current one. One of the big things I like about this is the cartridges are readily available at any office supply store and if the fax machine breaks down, I won't feel bad about recycling it and buying a new one.
There are several options that offer combinations of printer, fax machine and scanner but they aren't without issue. I have yet to test an all-in-one product that didn't have at least one fatal flaw. The most common problem is having the pages stick as you send a multipage document through to scan it in. Fax machines in general are prone to this problem, especially when the faxed pages originate from a computer printer prior to hitting the fax machine, but all-in-one devices seem to be the worse than standalone units. HP is probably the best of the worst in this category, but in general, I steer clear of multi-function devices.
Unless you do a seriously high volume of faxing, I recommend going with a straight flatbed scanner and using either a fax app designed to dial out like the Windows XP fax utility (Windows 95/98 have a similar app) or sign up with an IP fax service like eFax for sending outbound faxes. I plan to stick with my method of sending faxes with a crusty plain paper fax machine until the format goes away altogether.