Dedicated fax machines are a disappearing breed. Most PCs are equipped with a fax modem -- although some versions of the Windows operating system are more fax-friendly than others, although Macs don't come with fax modems. You can also download free software that lets you receive faxes without having a modem -- handy if you only need to receive, rather than send, the occasional fax. Additionally, many multifunction printers include a built-in hardware fax modem, and those are a popular option for business and home users.
But for some users, there's still a place in the world for the dedicated fax machine. Using a scanner and computer to fax a hard copy takes longer than simply feeding a document through a fax machine. If you need to send or receive multiple faxes, a standalone fax machine is easier and faster to use. Keep in mind that plain-paper fax machines can also make a limited number of copies. If you need to send more than a handful of faxes per week, you'll get your money's worth from a dedicated fax machine.
Few professional reviewers are still covering this category. ConsumerReports.org discontinued their fax machine reviews a decade ago. BetterBuys.com, an office-equipment review site, is the most up-to-date resource, covering many models. However, only laser fax machines are reviewed. Overall, the best sources for information are user reviews posted to Amazon.com, Staples.com, Epinions.com, BestBuy.com and elsewhere. In some cases, machines have amassed a considerable amount of feedback -- certainly enough to form clear indications of which ones are winners and which are not.
For instance, some of the most consistently negative user reviews we've seen involve the Panasonic KX-FL511 (*Est. $145). Paper jams seem to be a major headache with this laser-based, plain-paper fax machine. We've also seen complaints about the high cost of supplies and a low-toner alert that sounds well before toner is actually exhausted. Finally, several users have said that long-term reliability is questionable, adding that their fax machine broke down within a year.
Experts recommend buying a plain-paper fax machine. Older fax machines use rolls of thermal-transfer paper that is difficult to write on and tends to curl and fade over time. Although some less expensive fax machines still use thermal-printing technology, they do it on regular, plain paper. More expensive plain-paper models use inkjet or laser printing, the same as computer printers. Inkjet fax machines are faster and a bit more expensive than thermal printing, and laser fax machines are the fastest and most expensive. However, laser fax machines aren't as expensive as they used to be. The Panasonic model above notwithstanding, you can now find good laser fax machines for less than $200.