By Becky Waring
Online fax services let you ditch your landline and fax machine and fax from anywhere via e-mail or the Web.
The paperless office is not quite here, but three services in particular offer low-cost solutions that save a forest full of trees.
Free fax service is severely limited
I recall the day several years ago when my fax freedom started: My fax machine had run out of expensive toner for the umpteenth time, largely thanks to junk faxes offering me low, low prices on that very same toner.
I signed up with eFax, the biggest online fax provider, because the service lets you receive faxes for free via e-mail. Receive-only works for me, because I transmit most of my documents via e-mail, so I rarely need to send a fax.
On those rare occasions when I do need to fax something, I simply plug in my ancient fax machine, which has been tonerless since that fateful day.
(The fact that I still have a landline for the fax machine at all is another story. I've retained the landline because it is used by my DSL link, TiVo service, and burglar alarm. The total cost for all three of these services is cheaper than the price of cable service alone. Essentially, faxing doesn't cost me anything, and that suits me just fine.)
If you're like me and still have a landline for sending faxes, eFax's free Limited Account is a perfect fit. Signing up for the free service is quick and easy. Once you receive your number, you can start faxing to it right away.
The service has several limitations, however. Notably, you don't receive a local phone number and can't transfer your existing fax number. Also, faxes are delivered as .efx attachments and require the eFax Messenger software to read or print. The program works with Windows 2000, XP, and Vista.
I find that there's usually a delay in receiving faxes via eFax's free service, but the wait time is not significant. Another disadvantage of eFax's free service is that faxes are not saved in your online account. If your ISP's spam filter traps the faxes or they should otherwise go astray, you'll have no way of retrieving them. I've never missed a fax that I was expecting, but your mileage may vary.
If faxing is critical to your business, or you don't have a landline for sending faxes, you can sign up for eFax's paid service. eFax Plus prices start at $17 per month, which is far more than competing fax services cost.
After testing several fax services, I've found the best for low-, medium-, and high-volume faxing: TrustFax, MyFax, and OneFax, respectively.
Note that all the services I looked at charge about 10 cents per page for usage that exceeds your rate plan. They may also apply per-page charges for international faxes, depending on the country.
Most of the fax services define a "page" as any data that takes less than 60 seconds to transmit. If you're faxing a lot of graphics, each page you receive will likely count as several pages toward your monthly total.
None of my three favorite fax services charge setup fees. All three also offer free trials, so you can try them out before you spend any money, although TrustFax is especially stingy in allowing you to fax only five watermarked pages for free.
Unlike eFax, none of the three services require installing any software, an activity I avoid whenever possible. You send faxes via the Web or e-mail and receive them as standard PDF attachments, which you can save to disk and make searchable with various tools (the topic of my next column).
The top choice for low-volume faxing
The economy-fax winner is Comodo's TrustFax, whose plans start at just $29.95 per year for sending as many as 50 pages and receiving up to 150 pages. By contrast, MyFax's $10-a-month service lets you send up to 100 pages and receive as many as 200 pages to and from locations in the U.S. and many foreign countries each month. OneFax's $8.95-per-month plan offers unlimited faxing in the U.S. but costs more internationally and is not as easy to use as either TrustFax or MyFax.
TrustFax offers several other low-cost fax plans, including a $4.95-per-month option that lets you receive up to 100 fax pages per month and send as many as 50 pages. The service's reasonable international rates are drawn from a prepaid credit balance that never expires.
Signing up for TrustFax is easy. You can choose either a local or toll-free number, or transfer a toll-free number you already have. TrustFax's Web control panel is laid out well, although the TrustFax interface is not as foolproof as MyFax's.
On my first try at sending a fax via TrustFax's Web interface, I uploaded my attachment and clicked the Send button, but only the cover sheet came through — not the attachment. It turns out you need to check separately, from a list at the bottom of the screen, each of the files you want to attach AFTER they are uploaded.
TrustFax has many handy features, such as the ability to copy faxes from your inbox and resend them. You can also send faxes to a combination of fax and e-mail recipients at the same time.
Sending a fax via TrustFax's e-mail option uses a process similar to MyFax's e-mail transmissions, but TrustFax requires that you label certain elements in the body of the e-mail — such as your account name, code, and cover letter — and put them in a particular order.
While not quite as well designed as MyFax, TrustFax comes reasonably close and has by far the most economical fax plans.
The quick and simple way to fax online
MyFax is the winner on the usability front, hands-down. The service features a polished interface, a setup wizard, and a deep feature set.
I took advantage of a 30-day free trial that was not advertised on the main MyFax site. To find it, enter "MyFax trial" in your favorite Web search engine and click to the next page of results, if necessary, until the free trial appears.
Security alert: Be sure you are clicking a link that goes to MyFax.com. There is also a MyFaxTrial.com site that took me through the whole sign-up and credit-card-entry process with an interface exactly like that on MyFax.com. Suddenly, the session timed out. MyFax confirms that the MyFaxTrial domain is a phishing site.
MyFax offers both toll-free and local numbers, the latter using many different exchanges around the U.S. If you currently have a fax number, you may be able to transfer it to the service.
After you sign up, the MyFax setup wizard lets you designate your send and confirmation e-mail addresses. Up to five addresses can be associated with a fax number, so your whole family or small office can share a single account.
You also determine whether you want incoming faxes sent as e-mail attachments or notifications, a handy option if you normally check your e-mail from a cell phone.
MyFax's process for sending faxes via the Web is streamlined yet full-featured (see Figure 1). Just log in and click Send Fax. This opens a form you use to select up to 50 recipients from an address book, attach as many as nine documents, and add a cover page if you wish. You can even schedule when you want your fax to be sent, and you can include a billing code, which is useful for accounting and tax purposes.
MyFax Web interface for sending faxes
Figure 1. MyFax Central lets you send, receive, and monitor your faxes from any Web browser.
To send a fax via e-mail, just enter firstname.lastname@example.org as the recipient, attach your documents (178 different file types are supported, according to a MyFax listing), and enter your cover letter in the subject and body of the message.
You get an e-mail confirmation once the fax has been sent. All my test e-mail faxes were received within 10 minutes of clicking the Send button, even those with multipage attachments.
MyFax integrates with Microsoft Office 2003 and 2007, so you can send faxes directly via the Send To command from within Office apps. Also, all of your received faxes are stored online for a full year.
The one MyFax feature that will seal the deal for many people is the ability to fax for free (within your regular page allotment) to a huge number of foreign countries, including most of Europe and Asia and a sprinkling of South America (but, notably, not Mexico).
The all-you-can-fax alternative
If you send a ton of faxes, consider OneFax, the only truly unlimited Internet fax service I know of. You can send and receive as many faxes as you like within the continental U.S. for just $8.95 per month for a local number or $12.95 for a toll-free number.
This is an incredible value. By comparison, MyFax costs $40 a month for up to 400 inbound and 400 outbound pages, while TrustFax charges $18.95 per month for up to 800 inbound and 250 outbound faxes.
OneFax's international rates are steeper than those of the other services, but if you don't fax much to countries other than America, the service's unlimited U.S. faxing is hard to resist.
While there's no catch to the unlimited faxing (you can even receive incoming faxes to unlimited e-mail addresses), OneFax's interface is simply not as polished or feature-filled as that of MyFax. Also, customer support from OneFax is limited to its business hours rather than the 24/7 support offered by MyFax and TrustFax.
On the plus side, when I tried OneFax's live chat support, I got a prompt response to my questions.
Sending from OneFax's Web interface is simple: Enter your recipient(s), attach a file (either uploaded from your PC or chosen from your OneFax storage area), and include comments for your cover letter. You won't find any of MyFax's fancy cover letter templates, however, and only 12 common file formats are supported for attachments.
Still, the OneFax service worked just fine when I tested it: All faxes sent from the Web were received promptly, and e-mails confirmed their receipt.
Using OneFax to send a single attachment via e-mail is similar to the easy MyFax procedure, although you have to click a separate authorization message before the fax will actually be sent — a big hindrance if you send a lot of faxes.
This is probably OneFax's way of making sure that its unlimited system is not abused by spammers, but the extra step is an inconvenience for regular users. If you're not certain you'll be around to authorize your fax via e-mail, be sure to use the Web interface to send it instead, because that method requires no extra authorization.
OneFax's Web control panel offers the essentials, such as an address book, a fax log, a fax inbox, and the ability to store the files you upload for future faxing. However, you can't review the contents of sent faxes, as you can when you use MyFax.
While OneFax is definitely a bare-bones service, it works well and can be a huge money-saver if you send a lot of faxes.