TRIED AND TESTED / Fax at your fingertips: If you work from home or run a small business, a good fax machine is now a must. Our experts transmit their conclusions on six

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The Independent Culture
The number of people working from home has increased by a fifth, to about 600,000, in the past 10 years, a trend aided by the trusty fax machine. There's even a sector of the office equipment market targeted at these stay-at-homes, known as the SoHo market - small office, home office. We asked a panel of testers to look at six fax machines suitable for small business or home use. They found them all easy to use. There also wasn't a huge difference in the printing quality of the faxes sent and received, except when there were photographs on the page. But where they did vary was in the price, from pounds 350 to more than pounds 800, and in the features they had (see table).

Two of the most important features to look out for are a paper cutter and a document feeder. Without the first, your incoming faxes emerge in a long scroll which you must tear off and cut into pages yourself. If you don't have the second, you'll have to stand over the machine feeding in each page separately - a tedious process with long documents. Other considerations are transmission speed (although this depends mainly on the level of detail on the page); how many fax numbers you can programme in the memory to save on key-punching; and whether there are extra settings for sending fine text and photographs more clearly.

You can buy machines that take plain paper rather than thermal paper, which is expensive and prone to fade and curl, but they cost a lot more. If you intend to use a thermal paper machine a lot, it's worth checking the size of paper roll it takes. The rolls last a surprisingly short time and, such is life, have an alarming tendency to run out in the middle of the most important messages.

Two of the machines we looked at have an answerphone built in. You won't need to have a new phone line installed for any of these machines; all can share your existing phone line and all are Mercury compatible.

AMSTRAD FX7000: pounds 352.49. 10 x 23 x 28cm. No paper cutter. No document feeder. Links to answerphone. Thermal paper, 15m roll. Extra settings for clearer transmission. 20 number dialling memory

BROTHER FAX-370: pounds 410. 11 x 38 x 30cm. Paper cutter. 10 page document feeder. Links to answerphone. Thermal paper, 30m roll. Extra settings for clearer transmission. 45 number dialling memory

SHARP UX222: pounds 598. 11 x 37 x 28cm. Paper cutter. 10 page document feeder. Built-in answerphone. Thermal paper, 30m roll. Extra settings for clearer transmission. 50 number dialling memory

SAMSUNG SF505: pounds 410. 9 x 33 x 25cm. No paper cutter. 5 page document feeder. Links to answerphone. Thermal paper, 30m roll. Extra settings for clearer transmission. 38 number dialling memory

BT DF200: pounds 410. 7 x 27 x 31cm. No paper cutter. 5 page document feeder. Built-in answerphone. Thermal paper, 30m roll. No extra settings for clearer transmission. 50 number dialling memory

BROTHER FAX-1000P: pounds 821. 21 x 45 x 42cm. n/a. 30 page document feeder. Links to answerphone. Plain paper, 100 A4 sheets. Extra settings for clearer transmission. 160 number dialling memory

THE PANEL

Liz Webb, secretarial training supervisor, East Kent Telecottage, which provides office services to teleworkers and employers; Jacquie Saneh, personal assistant, Personal Performance Consultants UK; Paul Fogelman, self-employed accountant who works from home.

THE TEST

Each panellist was asked to give the fax machines marks for how easy they were to use, the clarity of the instructions, usefulness of the features and value for money. Their scores were converted into star ratings. The prices include VAT; you may be able to get better deals by shopping around.

**AMSTRAD FX7000 pounds 352.49

This is a basic model without a paper cutter or document feeder, and few other frills. Not surprisingly, it didn't score very highly for its features. Liz Webb liked the way the paper feeds into and comes out of the side of the machine, rather than the front or back. 'It makes tear-off easier and you don't lose paper off the desk,' she said. But she pointed out that it doesn't print out transmission reports. Paul Fogelman didn't like the machine's looks. 'Styling not attractive,' he said. One advantage is the speakerphone, which leaves your hands free for dealing with paperwork when you're on the phone.

**** BROTHER FAX-370 pounds 410 .TX.- For pounds 60 more, this machine gives you a document feeder and a paper cutter. The testers thought it was best value for money of all the machines. Jacquie Saneh found it 'very easy to use and it looks good. The document feeder is very useful and the paper seems to go through speedily'. But Paul Fogelman thought it looked old-fashioned and found the instructions rather complicated.

**SHARP UX222 Combined phone/fax/answerphone pounds 598

This machine, which has a paper cutter and document feeder, is larger and sturdier-looking than some of the others. You can alter the resolution for sending photographs and diagrams, unlike the BT machine. On the Sharp, as with the others, this did make pictures clearer but the text became rather faint. Jacquie Saneh thought the Sharp was 'nice, but too big'. She also thought it quite fast. Like the Samsung, it doesn't have a tray to collect outgoing documents after transmission.

***SAMSUNG SF505 pounds 410

Testers found this machine very easy to use. It doesn't have a sheet cutter, though, and the document feeder only takes five sheets compared to the Brother 370's 10. The testers also thought it needed a tray to pick up the pages that had been sent out, which would otherwise waft down to the floor. Liz Webb liked the fact that you don't have to lift the handset to send a fax.

***BT DF200 Combined fax/answerphone pounds 410

For the same price as the last two machines, you get a built-in answerphone with the BT DF200. It was Paul Fogelman's favourite: 'The smartest machine, small, with a good design. Easy to use and approachable. With the answerphone, it's a good all-rounder for a small office. The only downside is that it doesn't take plain paper.' Liz Webb liked the fact that it was quiet and found its transmission reports useful, but she pointed out that it doesn't print out transmission reports automatically each time you send a fax.

***BROTHER FAX-1000P pounds 821

It could be difficult to find space for this large plain-paper machine in a corner of your kitchen or spare room. 'Nice to be able to use plain paper, but it's very bulky,' said Liz Webb. Paul Fogelman thought it was useful to be able to make copies of documents on to plain paper. 'I can't wait until these types of machines are cheaper,' he said. One useful feature is that it will store up to 10 pages of incoming fax messages in its memory if the paper has run out.

(Photographs omitted)

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