A fax machine, short for facsimile machine, sends and receives document renderings. The sending machine transmits a graphic picture of one or more documents across telephone lines in the form of a data stream to be reconstructed by the receiving machine. Fax machines make it very easy to send paperwork across town, across the country, or even to another part of the world, all within seconds.
Today there are countless types of machines to choose from, but virtually all are "plain paper" faxes whose final product looks very much like a printed page. Contrast this to the past when early machines used special thermal paper rolls that were inconvenient, expensive, and didn't always make a good rendering of the faxed document. A "plain paper" fax uses standard copier paper and inking processes.
A natural progression in the evolution of fax machines was the multi-function machine. For example, most machines today have built-in voice mail and advanced handset features so that the telephone can serve as the main phone of a small office. The fax will distinguish between incoming modem calls and human calls, and will automatically answer faxed calls. Telephone features are generally highly configurable.
Another function common to virtually all models today is the ability to use the fax machine as a copier. Generally this is meant to be used for light-duty work as a convenience, and is not intended to take the place of a heavy-duty stand-alone copy machine. Many machines also integrate a scanner, eliminating yet another extra machine around the office or home, and many can function as printers. These models will usually have larger-capacity paper trays.
A brand name plain paper fax machine with basic integrated functionality -- fax, telephone and copy machine -- can start for as little as US$55, though price will depend on make, model and overall features. For example, a model with multiple telephone lines will cost a bit more, as will printer functionality. Also, a laser fax will be more expensive than a standard model, as will machines that can print in color.
Some handy features to look for in fax machines include the ability to send faxes automatically in the middle of the night. This takes advantage of lower phone rates, handy for non-priority long distance faxing. Along with this comes a set number of pages the fax tray will hold. One tray might hold eight documents, while another model might hold thirty. The fax can be programmed to send so many pages to the first number, end the fax, dial a second number, send so many more documents from the tray, and so on.
The best way to pick the right fax is to take a good look at your needs. Decide which integrated functions are most needed, prioritize them, and make sure the model you choose can fulfill all of your needs in each of those areas. If a scanner is important, for example, what will you be scanning? Paper-feed fax machines with integrated scanners are great for scanning documents, but to scan pages from a book you will require a flatbed scanner to lay the book open. In the latter case, it may be easier to look for a scanner with integrated fax capability, rather than the other way around.