One technology that refuses to give up the ghost is the fax.
Businesses large and small rely on
computer parts like the fax machine for exchanging documents and
like. And fax spam doesn't seem to have decreased much, either.
But faxing has never been the most efficient communications
technology. You need to print the pages that you want to send, then
cart them over to the fax machine. Even if you have an
all-in-one printer or copier with fax capabilities, which
enables you to avoid the two above steps, you never know when your
device will break down. Ink cartridges and toner cost a lot. And if
you're faxing outside of your area code, or outside the country, you
can rack up some pretty impressive long distance charges.
Small and home office users, smaller businesses, and
location-independent professionals really can't justify the
expense of, or even need, a fax machine. If you have to deal with
companies, clients, or organizations who rely on fax
can turn to the Internet for a cheaper, reliable alternative. And
that alternative is online faxing.
How does it work?
No feeding sheets of paper into a machine is necessary. Instead, you
create an account with a Web-based service; more on this soon. From
there, you need to do one of two things, depending on the service –
either upload the file that you want to fax to the service, or send
it to the service by email. All of the dirty work goes on behind the
scenes on the service's servers. With one type of service, you log
into a Web site, upload your file to the service, type the fax
number of the recipient, and then just click a button.
Or, you use email. Yes, email – a technology that everyone thought
would bury the fax machine. You fire up your email client and attach
your document to the message. For the email address, you enter the
fax number of the recipient, followed by the domain name of the fax
service you're using – for example,
firstname.lastname@example.org. The email goes to the fax service,
which converts the attachment to a format that a fax machine can
understand. The service strips the fax number from the email address
and routes the fax to a phone line, where it finds its way to the
A number of online fax services also allow you to receive faxes. The
process works in reverse. You get a toll-free number from the
service, and when someone sends a fax from a machine that fax is
routed to a server. The server converts the fax into an electronic
format, and either sends you an email with the fax as an attachment
or emails you a notice to log into the service and download the fax.
File formats and such
A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned that you could upload or attach
the files that you want to send. But what kinds of files can you
use? That depends on the online fax service that you're using. At
the very least, you can send:
Some services support other formats, like
PNG graphics or
OpenDocument files, which is the file format used by the Open
Source office suite
The problem with using graphic formats like JPEG is that documents
can look smudgy. TIFF files are quite large, especially ones that
contain multiple pages. Most people I know who do their faxing
online use PDF files. They're comparatively small, clean, and
they're easy to produce.
The pros and cons of online fax
The obvious advantage is that you don't have the burden of the
expense of a fax machine or a multifunction printer. As well, you
don't need to worry about long distance charges when sending a fax
outside of your area code. Trust me, this can add up if you have a
On top of that, you can save a tree or three by not needing to print
off a document before faxing it. You also have the flexibility to
fax whenever and from wherever you want. All you need is a reliable
On the downside, you lose a little control over your faxes. You
don't know how long they'll reside on someone's server or how secure
that server truly is. If you're concerned about security, you might
want to avoid using online faxing for confidential documents. You're
also out of luck if you don't have an Internet connection or if your
chosen service is knocked offline for any length of time.
Still, for someone working out of a home office, a small business
person, or a location-independent professional, the advantages of
using an online fax service outweigh the disadvantages.
What to look for when choosing an online fax service
Let's say you're convinced that an online fax service is for you.
Before you sign up with one, there are four main factors that you
need to consider before making your choice.
off, see if the service offers a free trial. It doesn't have to be a
long one – one or two weeks should be enough. That way, you get a
feel for whether or not the service and its offerings are right for
you. Note that you might be limited to sending faxes only within
your area. And remember to contact the people to whom you're sending
the faxes to ensure that they're getting through and that they're of
While there are a number of free online fax services, they might not
be the best options for professional use. Why? Those services are
supported by ads, which the insert on the cover page of the fax
and/or at the end of a transmission. If your recipients don't mind
seeing ads for, say, carpet cleaning services then you should be OK.
Otherwise, a few dollars a month is a good investment.
Not every online fax service has wide-ranging global coverage. If
you regularly send faxes to other countries, make sure that the
service you choose will allow you to send faxes to those countries.
Also consider some of the features that you might not use regularly,
but will undoubtedly find useful at some time. Features like the
ability to archive faxes online for future reference and an address
book that gives you quick access to people to whom you frequently
Some services you might want to check out
Quite a bit. This TechTip will only look at some of the better or
more interesting for-pay services.
eFax. With eFax, you send and receive faxes as email
attachments. It's easy to use, and the service supports a large
file formats – including several whose names I haven't heard in
years. eFax even supports faxing from wireless devices. There's also
OpenOffice.org extension for sending documents to eFax, and the
service offers a 30 day free trial. eFax is a bit more expensive
than most other services – $16.95 a month – but it is reliable and
packs a lot of features.
FaxZero is a free service, which adds an add to your fax's cover
page. But it also has an option that allows you to send a 15 page
fax to anywhere in the United States or Canada for $1.99. And you
can pay using PayPal. You just go to the FaxZero site, enter the
name and fax number of the recipient (along with your name and email
address), upload a Microsoft Word or PDF file, and away you go. It's
quick and it's cheap; a good option for anyone who only sends faxes
once in a while.
MyFax uses email to send and receive faxes. In fact, it allows
you to send and receive from up to five different email addresses.
There's also a Web interface for sending, receiving, and reading
faxes and you can set up an address book of recipients. MyFax also
integrates with Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Office, as well as
the ACT! personal information manager. The service supports 178 file
formats (!), and at $10 a month is a pretty good deal.
PamFax. Now, PamFax is a little different from the other
services discussed here. It works with
Skype, the Internet telephone service. Well, at least the
Windows and MacOS versions of Skype. PamFax is both a service, and a
piece of software that integrates with your Skype client. When you
want to send a fax, all you need to do is start PamFax, enter your
recipient's fax number, select the file to send, and the click
Send Fax. You can also choose a cover page, and
even receive faxes from within the PamFax software.
Paying for what you send takes several forms. You pay by the
page; literally pennies per. If you have a
Skype Credit account, you can have PamFax deduct fees from that.
There are also monthly plans, and you can buy credits. What you
choose will depend on how much faxing you do.
Fax is definitely a technology that refuses to die. It'll probably
be around for more years than most of us want to admit. But until
businesses move away from it, fax will remain an essential tool. If
you need to send faxes, and don't want the expense of maintaining a
fax machine, then one of the online fax services that's available is
a great alternative – regardless of whether you're sending a couple
of pages or hundreds of them.