Getting (and Sending) the Fax, Online

By Scott Nesbitt- August 23, 2009

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 contracts and the 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 fax machineyou 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, 11234567@myfaxservice.com. 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 recipient.

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 OpenOffice.org.

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 long document.

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 Internetconnection.

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.

acroreaderFirst 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 acceptable quality.

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 send faxes.


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.

First up, eFax. With eFax, you send and receive faxes as email attachments. It's easy to use, and the service supports a large number of file formats including several whose names I haven't heard in years. eFax even supports faxing from wireless devices. There's also an 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.

Like eFax, 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.

Finally, there's 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.


Final thoughts

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.