It is an extraordinarily complex and inefficient process. Computer-generated text can be sent much more accurately, quickly and conveniently as electronic mail - a stream of data sent over the telephone sytem via a modem attached to the computer - than as a fax. But while more people have faxes than email accounts, the only answer is to this inefficiency is to retaliate. Winfax Pro 3 is a program which enables you to send faxes almost as simply as you can print to paper; to receive them directly into your computer, and - best of all - to 'scan' them back into computer-readable text.
It differs from a dedicated fax in one respect: it only works while the computer is switched on. If you want to be able to recieve faxes at any time, then you must never switch the machine off.
Winfax Pro is fairly cheap, at pounds 99, and very reliable. It is one of the best arguments for moving to Windows that I know of. But it has a couple of small disadvantages. The first is that it needs a powerful machine with plenty of disk space and memory to be really useful. Fax images - the pictures which a fax machine draws on paper - take up far more space than the same words stored as text, even with fancy typefaces. Scanning such images demands a lot of memory and a lot of processing power. It is one of the few applications where the added speed of a 486 DX, rather than SX processor makes a vast difference in performance.
The second is that a scanned image is only as good as the sending fax. If the copy comes from an up-to-date fax machine, you can hope for a thousand words with no errors at all in them. But if it comes from an ancient machine with eccentric rollers, such as are used in Dominican priories and reform synagogues, there will be a mistake in every line.
Since I mostly tested this capacity by receiving the sermons - in my capacity as Religious Correspondent - which the Independent published at Easter, I became convinced that the scanner was actually designed to insert blasphemies into the copy. Many of these are quite charming, and some are a great improvement on the real thing, such as 'Burn-again Christians'.
Others errors have a science-fictional sense of their own: 'And we ex perienced pain and sufferiny with God, who went into Exile with Israel as the Shechinarthe indwelling Presence of God who weeps for Her PeoPle and Guffers withTt.'
A really bad passage can come out like this: 'In tho same way, f wanl to soe L'udaism at its kxst, spilling drops of wirle frorn its cup of joy bochause our own joy is dimLnished wllien we look at: the suffering of k7gyptians in taTe platues and in tkle death whicl- visits a canrtunity dorninated by a stubborn ruler'
But correcting these errors is quicker and less boring than typing the whole screed in again. Winfax will show you the scanned text on the bottom half of the screen, and the original fax as received on the top half, so that correction becomes as easy as possible.
As the ultimate test, I tried it on a 20-page fax of sermons from Lambeth Palace, reckoning that they would be likely to be improved by random errors. After nine pages, Winfax crashed. The most likely explanation was that we had come across the only serious limitation in Winfax 3, which is that it can not handle faxes which come as a continuous page.
But these are really trivial points. It is wonderful to be able to receive faxes at all, and they can be read on screen or printed out with no trouble even when they will not scan. And sending faxes could not be easier with Winfax. It is almost as simple as printing to a printer, and certainly simpler than operating any fax machine I have ever used. All you do is choose from the normal Windows printer menu to print to 'Winfax' rather than your normal printer, and then, when asked, select the name and number you wish to fax to.
Faxes can be sent automatically to groups of people, and queued to send at cheap times of day. If the line drops half-way through a fax, Winfax is intelligent enough only to resend the pages which did not go through the first time.
A simpler version, Winfax Lite, comes free with many fax modems. It is less flexible at storing telephone numbers, and lacks the scanning capability of Winfax Pro. But it is also less complicated, and will do most of what most people need from a fax modem, especially on a laptop.
Hardware: 8 megabytes of disk space, 8 megabytes of memory
(081 207 3163)
Price: Street: pounds 99
Rivals: Windows: Ultrafax from Wordstar (081 643 8866) Fax programs under Dos are generally too complicated to be worthwhile.
Fax on modems
To use a fax program, you need a modem, the box of tricks that turns computer data into warbles that can be transmitted down a telephone line. The modems that send fax images use slightly different warblings to the ones used by computers to exchange text, but fax modems are now becoming the standard.
Street prices for such dual-purpose modems range from about pounds 150 for the cheapest and slowest models to pounds 480 for fast models. All these British Telecom approved modems will send fax satisfactorily: the gains in speed apply chiefly to computer data.
Most come either as 'internal' or external. Internal modems have all their chips mounted on circuit boards that fit into the expansion sockets inside almost every PC: the phone line then plugs into the pack of the PC. External modems come in their own boxes, and need a cable to connect them to the serial port on the computer. They have the advantage that they can be used with any make of computer.
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