Service Provided by: eFax.com
If you are reading this article, the odds are pretty good that you own a modem. And, unless you like growing facial hair while your Web pages download, your modem probably has built-in fax capabilities. Hence the name “fax modem.” I am currently on my third such device and, as of a month ago, I could count the number of times I used the fax functionality provided by my modem on one hand.
Sending faxes wasn’t the problem—receiving them was. Since I had only a single phone line, I would have to pick up the phone, dash to the computer whenever I heard the telltale fax tones, tell the fax modem to pick up, and pray that I had acted fast enough. The moral of the story: while a fax modem may be great for sending faxes, unless you have a dedicated line, they are a royal pain for receiving faxes. Besides, if you are going to shell out the cash for an extra line, you may as well spring for a full fledged fax machine so you can put your Mac to more productive use.
A solution to the single phone line/fax modem dilemma comes in the form of fax to e-mail services. With these services, your faxes are sent to some location where they are converted to images, attached to an e-mail message, and then rushed off to your inbox. One company providing such a service is eFax.com. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. For a grand total of $0.00, you get your own incoming fax number, unlimited faxes, and digital copies of all faxes which can be archived or thrown out, depending on importance. If you keep your hard drive properly backed up, you may never lose a fax again. This certainly seems more durable than a single hard copy that you would get from a fax machine. A coffee spill here or a misfile there and your important message is gone forever. With a digital copy, however, you can just call the file up on your monitor, and even print it out. One side note about that incoming fax number mentioned earlier: the chances are good that your fax number will not be in the same area code as you. This means that a friend down the street may be able to call you for free, but if that friend faxes you something, there will probably be long distance charges. If the people who fax you live in a different area, though, this is a moot point.
Signing up for the eFax service is a breeze. You fill out a short form on the eFax.com Web page and wait for your informational e-mail. This e-mail contains your personal fax number, your PIN number for accessing your account information, and other information about the eFax service. At this point, you are all set.
Where eFax runs into trouble is its support (or lack thereof) of the Macintosh platform. For a service like eFax to truly be free, there should be a no-cost way to actually see what people send you. Fax files are stored as TIFF-F files. Unlike plain vanilla TIFF files, TIFF-F files are broken down into multiple pages. Under Windows, eFax users get the handy Microviewer application, which is designed to display TIFF-F files. Macintosh users are not so lucky. There is no version of Microviewer for the Mac. PictureViewer, included with QuickTime 3.0 and above, cannot display TIFF-F files. Neither can AppleWorks, included with the iMac. So much for free. I know of four currently shipping programs that will properly display TIFF-F files: OmniPage 8, WorkingPapers Pro and LE, and GraphicConverter (reviewed in ATPM 5.02). Of these three, GraphicConverter is the least expensive, at $35.00 in the United States. GraphicConverter has a wonderful reputation, which is well earned, but it is definitely overkill for somebody solely interested in viewing and printing faxes. Such users should take a look at Tiff-Sight (see below).
While not specifically a problem with eFax, privacy is an issue with fax to e-mail services. When you convert a fax to an e-mail attachment, it becomes vulnerable to the same issues as regular e-mail. At this very least, your ISP (or employer) could easily take a peek at your incoming faxes. Windows users can elect to have their faxes encrypted, then decrypt them with the Microviewer application. Mac users do not have that option.
One concern I had about the eFax service was the speed at which faxes could be received, converted, and e-mailed. Some testing on my part proved that this concern was unfounded. I found the process to be exceptionally fast. As I write this, I am in Miami, Florida. My fax number is somewhere near Boston, Massachusetts, in the 508 area code. The ATPM mail server is...well, nobody really knows where the ATPM mail server is. It’s one of life’s great mysteries. [I am told it’s somewhere in Maryland, but I’ll believe it when I see it. —MT] As a test, I sent three faxes to myself: a 4-page text document, a 2.5" x 3.5" picture with cover page, and a 4-page text document with a full page picture on page 5. By the time the third fax was being sent, faxes one and two were sitting in my incoming message mailbox.
As for file sizes, the 4-page text document came in at 196K, the 2.5 inch by 3.5 inch picture with cover page came in at 108K, and the 5-page fax was 844K. None of these files are prohibitively large, so downloading them was not a major problem.
Thus far, I have only had one problem with a fax I received. I was sent a 5-page fax from a plain paper fax machine. Pages 1 and 2 came out fine, but pages 3 through 5 were crammed onto a single page. This page was unreadable. This issue did not appear with any of the three test faxes. The test faxes, however, were sent from a fax modem. I suspect that the fax software did a better job of clearly indicating page breaks than the plain paper fax did.
The quality of the incoming faxes was as good as could be expected from faxes. Viewing faxes in GraphicConverter is difficult, however, since GraphicConverter will only display the files in black and white. Viewing the files in grayscale significantly increases the readability of text files. Grayscale also makes pictures more recognizable.
For viewing faxes in grayscale format, I used a program called Tiff-Sight. Currently in public beta testing, Tiff-Sight looks to be shaping up as an alternative to GraphicConverter if your needs are limited to viewing faxes. Designed specifically for viewing TIFF-F files (it can handle TIFF files as well), it takes steps like anti-aliasing text to make faxes easier on the eye. It is also smaller, both in terms of hard drive size and RAM footprint, than GraphicConverter. Tiff-Sight is available from http://www.blueglobe.com/~cliffmcc/tiffsight.html and carries a shareware fee of $10.
eFax is definitely a good idea. For Mac users, though, eFax falls into the category of “there must be a better way to do this.” On the one hand, I must give eFax credit for pointing out that there are ways for Mac users to take advantage of their service. On the other hand. Mac users miss out on the best features of the service—namely the encryption and the free part. Until Macintosh users can access the same features as Windows users, it would be difficult to rate the eFax service as anything better than Good.