Laser fax machines are fastest, but also they're more expensive to buy. Their toner cartridges last longer than inkjet cartridges, and they cost less in the long run on a per-page basis. Most laser fax machines are monochrome only.
Although lower-cost machines are certainly acceptable for most home and business use, the Brother IntelliFax-4100e (*Est. $300) gets rave reviews as a high-speed option for offices. In more than 50 user reviews at Staples.com, it earns an average score of 4.4 out of 5 stars, with 96 percent of posters saying they would recommend this fax machine to a friend. In three dozen reviews at Amazon.com, it earns 5 out of 5 stars. The sole complaint is that it is not compatible with VoIP (Internet) phone service. Reviews elsewhere, such as at Epinions.com, are similarly complimentary.
At about $300, the Brother 4100e fax machine is almost certainly overkill for most consumers and home offices, but for mid-sized business where faxing is both constant and mission-critical, users say it's worth the expense. The built-in Super G3 fax modem has a speed of 33.6 KBps, and is capable of transmitting as fast as a page every three seconds, though perfect conditions and a compatible fax modem on the receiving end are needed for such speedy throughput. Additionally, the paper tray has a 250-sheet capacity, and the Brother fax machine can accept an optional second tray. The auto document feeder has a 30-sheet capacity. The 8 MB of built-in RAM can store up to 500 fax pages in memory. When receiving faxes, the Brother can print up to 15 pages per minute. Parallel and USB inputs lets the Brother 4100e double as a computer printer. It can broadcast faxes to up to 182 locations.
For a small home office, Brother offers a still powerful but less pricey alternative that's also been well received by users. The Brother IntelliFax-2820 (*Est. $175) earns a Best Buy rating from ConsumerGuide.com, but the review is brief. User reviews are a tad less glowing than the IntelliFax-4100e, but still positive overall. In nearly 70 reviews at Amazon.com, the fax machine gets a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, and Staples.com users give it 4.4 out of 5 stars in more than 120 reviews. Staples.com compiles common pros and cons, and the only consistent complaint (by a dozen users) is that it is noisy. Interestingly, however, far more users (more than 70) describe the machine as quiet. Other positives include that the Brother IntelliFax-2820 is accurate, fast and efficient. However reviews at Epinions.com are a little more mixed. Although positive reviews dominate, a couple of users report issues with paper jams.
Although there is a significant difference in cost between the Brother 4100e and the 2820 fax machines, the latter is certainly less powerful. The 14.4 KBps fax modem is only half as fast, though it can still transmit pages at a healthy six pages per second, conditions permitting. The paper tray holds 250 sheets, but there's no ability to add a second tray. The automatic document feeder is less spacious, holding only 20 sheets. However, the built-in memory can hold the same 500 fax pages and the printer can still spit things out at a respectable rate of 15 pages per minute. It can broadcast faxes to more locations than the 4100e (up to 270). Brother also makes an upgraded version, the IntelliFax-2920 (*Est. $275), which adds frills like an LCD screen, a faster modem, and battery back-up (your fax memory is saved in the event of a power outage) to the 2820. Although the IntelliFax-2920 gets a few recommendations of its own, the Brother 4100e gets more rave reviews for about the same price.
The Canon Laser L170 (*Est. $270) is another laser-based fax machine that's worth considering for high-demand business users. The Canon's 33.6 KBps modem can send a page in as little as three seconds, and its printer can kick out up to a rated 19 pages per minute, though real-world speeds are likely to be slower. The paper tray can accommodate up to 250 sheets, and the automatic document feeder has a capacity of 50 sheets. The built-in memory can hold 450 fax pages, and the L170 can broadcast to up to 142 locations. Owners posting to Amazon.com give the Canon Laser L170 fax machine mostly good grades, but some report paper-handling problems.
Canon's lower-end model, the FaxPhone L90 (*Est. $165), also gets some encouraging user feedback, ranking well in BetterBuys.com's comprehensive laser fax machine roundup. Compared to the L170, the L90 has a smaller amount of available memory (good for about 350 pages), and its maximum resolution isn't as fine. Paper handling is scaled back too, with a 150-page input tray and a 30-sheet ADF. On the other hand, the L90 has the same modem and transmission speeds as the L170, and it weighs a lot less (about 19 pounds versus 25 for the L170).
Inkjet plain-paper fax machines are typically less expensive than laser models, but user reviews are also typically less impressive. Still, we found a few that seem to leave users more satisfied than others. The Brother IntelliFax-1860C (*Est. $100) falls into the latter category. Although feedback isn't overwhelming in terms of numbers, and a few complaints -- most notably about paper-tray issues -- are seen, when all user reviews at all sites are considered together, it looks like the best option.
The Brother IntelliFax-1860C is capable of monochrome (black and white) and color faxing and printing. It's equipped with a high-speed 33.6 KBps modem that can send pages in as little as three seconds (assuming there's a compatible fax machine at the other end). The built-in 16 MB memory can store up to 300 pages. Each color ink comes in an independent cartridge, which means that only the color that's out needs to be replaced. However, we did see a user report that says the printer will not work if any of the cartridges are completely dry. The paper tray is rather small at just 100 sheets. The automatic document feeder has a capacity of 20 sheets. Maximum print speed is rated at 20 pages per minute color and 25 pages per minute black and white, though real-world output is likely to be slower. A nice touch is that the ink packed with the machine is in full-capacity cartridges, not starter cartridges as is sometimes the case with other fax machines or printers. A USB interface lets this fax machine double as a computer printer.
The step-up Brother IntelliFax-1960C (*Est. $170) is nearly identical save for one feature. Instead of a basic corded telephone as offered on the 1860C, this fax machine includes a 5.8 GHz cordless telephone/answering machien system. Reviews are generally positive as well, though some of the complaints we saw revolve around the answering machine rather than the fax.
If you don't need color printing or faxing, the HP 640 (*Est. $80) monochrome inkjet fax machine gets nice recommendations in some user reviews and is a good alternative to the more expensive Brother IntelliFax-1860C color inkjet fax machine. The fax modem isn't the fastest, but it still can send pages in as little as six seconds each. The paper tray holds up to 50 sheets, and the automatic document feeder can handle 10 pages at once. Internal memory can hold up to 50 pages. Fax broadcasting ability is far lower than that of the Brother 1860C (five vs. 160 numbers). Only a starter black ink cartridge is included.
With the dropping prices of other technologies -- notably inkjet -- ribbon transfer thermal fax machines seem to make less and less sense. However, such a budget printer might be acceptable for home or home-office users who just want to send an occasional fax.
Selling for as little as $30 from some vendors, the Brother Fax-575 (*Est. $50) is among the least expensive fax machines available. While the Fax-575 is the subject of an unflattering review at ConsumerGuide.com, users largely say that as long as you don't expect too much, it is an acceptable performer.
Features are basic. The fax machine can auto-sense whether an incoming call is voice or data, and route it to the fax machine or handset as appropriate. The paper input can accept up to 50 sheets, and the automatic document feeder can hold 10 sheets. The 9,600 bps modem can send a page in about 15 seconds, and the built-in memory can hold up to 25 fax pages.
ConsumerGuide.com, which isn't widely known as a critical reviewer, finds lots of negatives. They say that the transmission speed is too slow for serious consideration, even in a small business or home office setting, and that the unit lacks a paper tray, making jams more likely. The print ribbons are not too pricey (*Est. $30 for two), but each only produces about 150 pages. That means consumables costs can quickly add up if you do a lot of faxing or copying (there is no option for using the Fax-575 as a computer printer).
Still, all those negatives aside, users give the Brother Fax-575 lots of feedback and relatively high marks. More than 300 owners have weighed in at Staples.com, and about 90 percent say they would recommend the fax machine to a friend. The happiest owners are those who only send or receive a few faxes a day or less. There are also lots of reviews at Amazon.com -- more than 100 -- and feedback follows a similar pattern.