The fax machine isn't the crucial piece of office equipment today that it was 10 or 20 years ago. Many (though not all) all-in-one printers include the ability to scan and fax documents without even turning on your computer. It's also possible to send faxes via a computer fax modem (seldom included in new computers, but available separately for $15 to $40); via an online fax service; or by attaching a scanned document to an email.
However, if the need to send or receive faxes is an important part of your or your business's daily activities, a dedicated fax machine can make sense. While many all-in-one printers (also called multifunction printers or MFPs) can fax, a dedicated fax machine is set up to excel at that task. The best fax machines offer a more robust lineup of fax-specific features, such as lots of slots for one-touch speed-dial numbers and the ability to broadcast faxes to multiple locations. They also include enough memory to hold hundreds of pages in storage in case faxes are received but can't be printed out (for example, if the fax machine is out of paper). Fax machines might also include standard phone features, such as a handset for making calls, caller ID, and a built-in answering machine (or the ability to add an external one). Moreover, most modern fax machines can also handle basic printing, copying and scanning -- although they won't perform as well at those tasks as an MFP that's designed to be a printer first.
Most modern fax machines use laser technology, just like a laser printer. A few cheaper fax machines, however, use the older thermal-transfer technology. They print on plain paper using a thermal ribbon that typically costs more per printed page than printing with toner. They're usually a better choice for light fax users, since the low cost of the machine itself won't be outweighed by the high cost of consumables.
At every site we consulted for this report, we found more recommendations for Brother fax machines than for any other brand. Of these, the best all-around performer appears to be the Brother IntelliFax-2840 (Est. $150). This fax machine uses laser technology, which is faster and produces better print quality than older thermal-transfer technology machines. Its built-in Super G3 (Group 3) fax modem has a speed of 33.6 Kbps and can transmit a page in as little as 2.5 seconds under ideal conditions. It includes copying and scanning functions, as well as a USB connection that lets it double as a computer printer.
The IntelliFax 2840 can easily handle the faxing needs of a home or small office. Its paper tray holds 250 sheets, and its document feeder can handle up to 20 pages at a time. It can also store up to 400 pages in memory, so you can run several large documents through in quick succession and walk away while the machine sends them. It's capable of scanning one fax into its memory while receiving another, and it can send the same fax to multiple users. Its 2,000 pages-per-month rating should handle the needs of all but the busiest offices.
Users give the IntelliFax-2840 high marks for its speed, ease of use, and print quality. They also say it's easy to set up and the toner cartridge lasts a long time. However, they have a few complaints about its reliability. The biggest problem is that when the fax machine sits unused for a while it goes into a deep-sleep mode, and an incoming fax cannot always jolt it back to wakefulness. (It's possible to disable deep sleep mode, but it requires a trick that isn't covered in the manual.) It can also have problems receiving faxes if there is any noise on the telephone line. Users also report occasional problems with paper jams and bugs such as getting "out of paper" and "out of toner" messages that aren't accurate. And several users say the printer's display screen is hard to read unless it's placed well below eye level.
For heavier office use, reviewers recommend the Brother IntelliFax-4100e (Est. $250). Like the cheaper 2840, this fax machine incorporates a laser printer, but it's a heavier-duty one, with a recommended print volume of up to 3,000 pages per month rather than 2,000. It has the same high-speed modem as the Brother IntelliFax-2840, along with its copying and scanning functions, plus a few other features that make it more suitable for office use. It has a larger 30-page document feeder, and its memory can store up to 500 pages of faxes at once. Also, a standard toner cartridge can print 3,000 sheets, as opposed to 1,200 for the IntelliFax-2840's standard cartridge. Its transmission speed of 3 seconds per page isn't quite as lightning-fast as the 2840's, but it can scan a page to memory in just 2 seconds compared to 2.5 seconds for the 2840, so you spend less time standing at the machine. Also, unlike the IntelliFax 2840, this machine can retain stored faxes in memory for up to four days during a power outage (the 2840 will lose stored faxes if power is lost).
Users at retail sites, as well as at Brother's own website, praise the IntelliFax-4100e for its speed, low consumables cost, and good print quality. Most also find it easy to set up and use. However, the 4100e has many of the same reliability problems as its less expensive cousin. Users complain that the fax machine often won't wake up from its deep sleep mode and can miss faxes due to noise on the phone lines. And while the 4100e doesn't tend to have problems with paper jams per se, a few users say the machine's automatic document feeder (ADF) sometimes grabs multiple pages of a document at once rather than scanning them through one at a time.
For home users who only need to send and receive faxes once in a while, both of these Brother machines are probably overkill. A more reasonably priced option is the Brother FAX-575 (Est. $50). This ultra-basic fax machine uses thermal technology and doesn't have the wealth of features found on the pricier Brother fax machines. It can't be used for scanning or printing, and its copying capabilities are very basic. The 9.6 Kbps modem takes 15 seconds to send a page, and the built-in memory can only store up to 25 fax pages. Its automatic document feeder is limited to 10 sheets, and the print quality, though decent, is well below that of most laser-based fax machines.
On the other hand, the FAX-575 has several features that make it ideal for home users. Its smaller footprint makes it a good fit for a home office. It can also be hooked up to your regular telephone line and switch automatically between fax and voice calls, so you don't need to pay for a separate line. It can even use your phone's caller ID and distinctive ring detection features, if you have them. It doesn't have a built-in answering machine, but it's possible to hook one up.
Most users describe the Brother FAX-575 as a good value. They say it's very easy to set up and use, and the image quality is reasonably sharp. The main complaint about this Brother fax machine is its high consumables cost. The thermal ribbon cartridges cost about $18 each and are good for only 150 pages; that works out to a whopping 12 cents per page, not counting the paper. We also saw many complaints about paper jams, which are not a common problem with the pricier Brother fax machines. Overall, those who send or receive no more than a few pages a day are the ones most likely to be satisfied with this fax machine.
Dedicated fax machines are seldom covered by credible professional reviewers. Thus, we had to rely on user-written reviews from retail sites to get the lowdown on these machines. The fax machines covered in this report have received hundreds of reviews on Amazon.com, Staples.com, Walmart.com, OfficeMax.com, and BestBuy.com. These comments, written by both home and office users, provide details about the machines' reliability, image quality, speed, and overall ease of use.