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For some, a dedicated fax machine is still a wise buy

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 (though those, too, are being found in fewer and fewer laptop and desktop computers) or 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 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. Cheaper faxes, however, might 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 or ink. 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. There are also a couple of fax machines on the market that use inkjet technology, but they don't receive strong recommendations from users.

To find the best fax machines, we consider several factors. At the top of the list is performance: the ability to send and receive faxes reliably, with decent image quality. Another aspect of performance is how easy the fax is to set up and use, since problems such as paper jams or frequent error messages can turn an otherwise competent machine into a useless brick. We also evaluate a fax machine's features and extra functions, such as printing, copying and scanning. Finally, we consider overall value: both the initial purchase price and the ongoing cost of toner and other consumables. We did not find any professional comparison tests of fax machines, so we relied chiefly on the comments of users at retail sites such as Amazon.com, Staples.com and OfficeMax.com. Many fax machines have hundreds of reviews from users at these sites, providing a good basis for comparison.

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