Home Computer: Singular drive to fax from a PCW: Amstrad user Josephine Balmer slips right out to send herself a letterhead.

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The Independent Online
IN THE PAST, if you wanted to file a report, you would type it, post it and hope, GPO willing, that it would eventually turn up on the desired desk. The advent of cheap word processors and the fax revolution has changed all that, even for the self-employed. Even for some of them who want to fax direct from their computers and even for some who only have a basic Amstrad PCW system to do it from.

This is exactly what Margolis & Co's PCWfax offers. Even with the smallest Amstrad PCW - which is still at heart a general purpose computer system - the company claims it is possible to send and receive up to four pages of text, while larger machines can handle up to 35.

It sounds wonderful. But how well does it work in practice? Using a single drive Amstrad 8256 - the most basic model - I put the PCWfax through its paces. Installation of the hardware was straightforward enough. The manual describes each component in detail so that even the most computer illiterate can understand what goes where.

A small modem - the hardware to send information over the telephone lines - is supplied to transmit the fax data, with a connector lead that plugs into a telephone socket. A word of warning, however. Users with some larger PCWs would have to replace their daisy wheel printers - which can only print text, but of quite high quality - with a dot matrix printer which can print graphics and which is standard with the 8256. If you are working in a room with a single telephone socket, an adaptor to have telephone and modem operating at the same time is also essential.

As for software, PCWfax is available with either a 3-inch or 3.5-inch program disk. Once loaded, the main menu shows nine clear options. 'Immediate Receive' acts like the manual button on an ordinary fax machine. Alternatively, 'Automatic Operation' will take a fax call in your absence.

Once received the fax can then be edited or printed like any document. One of the delights of the system is that handwritten messages or graphics will be reproduced - great fun to watch. More practically, by faxing yourself your own graphics from the local post office or print shop, these can be saved and incorporated into future faxes, rather like headed notepaper.

Transmitting faxes is more complicated. Brief messages can be written using the system's editing facility, although this is limited. Lines are restricted to 79 characters, and editing mobility is also limited - and exhausting - as text can only be scanned by the cursor arrows.

For anything longer, it is advisable to use Locoscript - the PCW's word processing software - and then convert to basic text format - for transmission. In the 8256 this can be tedious as the machine has to be turned on and off between loading up Locoscript and PCWfax. When the fax has been prepared, it can be sent immediately or programmed for delayed transmission.

An even better solution would be to use a word processor such as Protext that runs under the PCW's basic operating system, CP/M, which would harmonise better with PCWfax and not require the machine to be restarted between writing and faxing. Incoming faxes are of course pictures rather than text files and so cannot be edited in any word processor.

After several false starts, I found receiving and sending short messages straightforward, although if you are working on a long Locoscript document when a fax arrives, the connection could be lost by the time the PCWfax program is loaded to receive it. If your PCW is switched off, this is even more likely - although who wants to leave their machine on night and day, especially if power fluctuations could interfere with the programs.

The main problem was space. A 2,000-character text file expands ten fold to a 20,000-character fax file and the floppy discs fill quickly. It is possible, though, to receive faxes directly on to the printer, which bypasses the disk space problem. Normally each page of a fax is shared as a separate file on disk, which means not everything is lost if transmission breaks down half-way through.

The best answer would be to treat each page as a separate file which could then be sent or received consecutively using either the 'Automatic Operation' or 'Schedule Fax' options. Margolis and Co also suggested that the problem of space in smaller Amstrads could be simply solved by installing an extra pounds 10 memory chip.

Is this system a better investment for PCW users than a separate fax machine? Certainly the price is competitive, at about pounds 300 including VAT.

But Frances Brown, editor of the magazine Space Policy who works from home with a 9256 Amstrad and a paper fax, often receives two or three 10-page press releases a week, plus the occasional 25-page report. If they all arrived by computer fax on the same day, chaos could ensue, disrupting her normal work on the computer.

On balance, it all depends what you want from a fax. If you normally send short messages or documents, the convenience - and novelty - of transmitting straight from your system could appeal. But anyone who really needs a full fax machine will not find this a substitute.

Vital statistics:

System: Amstrad PCW


Hardware: 256K memory

Software: CP/M plus

Publisher: Margolis & Co, 228 Alexandra Park Road, London N22 4BH (081-889 7755)

Availability: From the publisher

Price: Software: pounds 116; plus modem: pounds 304. (Inc VAT.)

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