If Wikipedia is to be believed, we can credit Alexander Bain with the creation of faxes, thanks to his invention of the electric printing telegraph, a fax machine forerunner, in the 1840s. The fax machines that we’re more familiar with didn’t arrive until the mid-1960s, though. Even today, as standalone fax hardware has been absorbed into all-in-one printers, sending and receiving faxes is still sometimes necessary, particularly when dealing with doctors or governments. Thankfully, you don’t need a big, noisy machine or even a sleek all-in-one to send a fax anymore. Instead, you can rely on an online fax service that you access online or from your phone.
How We Evaluate Fax Services
We use several key criteria to judge fax services. One of the first aspects we look at is each service’s price per page (the price per month divided by the number of pages allowed), since that metric allows us to determine their respective value. While the majority of the fax services we reviewed provide a monthly allowance of pages, not all services treat pages the same. For example, several differentiate between sent and received pages, setting caps on each. We prefer services that offer a pool of pages since this structure offers more flexibility to users who may need to send significantly more faxes than they receive—or vice versa.
When customers run out of pages, most fax services charge an overage fee, in the range of 3 to 12 cents per page. For frequent faxers, a lower overage fee is obviously advantageous. Spam faxes still exist, too, so you could end up paying for junk pages, if you don’t block the number before things get out of hand.
Faxing by Numbers
A major consideration with a fax service is what choices you have for your fax number. Some services simply assign you a number, giving you little or no input. Some let you select a specific region for your fax number, and some even allow you to choose a vanity number. At last, 248-FAX-MAX0 can be yours. Another key differentiator between these services is whether they offer toll-free numbers. Most do, with only a few exceptions. We also appreciate when an online fax service can port an existing fax number, saving you the trouble of notifying all your contacts.
We also consider how each service handles international numbers. All the services we reviewed offer numbers in the US, and most cover the UK and Canada. However, some services can provide international fax numbers in more countries. That’s particularly handy if you have a lot of far-flung offices to manage or international fax correspondences.
Web and Email
Numbers and metrics can only take you so far. Usability is a big issue with any software or service. That’s why we make sure to go through the entire setup process and test each online fax service ourselves.
Many fax services offer subpar user experiences, with web interfaces that look more like Hotmail circa 1999 than a modern piece of software. While it can be argued that faxing is a legacy technology on its way out (at least for most consumers), that’s no excuse for an unintuitive user experience. In fact, some of our top services excel in when it comes to UI design.
We consider email-to-fax capabilities a requirement, especially since many of the fax services we reviewed employ web interfaces that are a pain to use. To send a fax from your email inbox, simply type the destination fax number along with a special suffix, typically: [RecipientPhoneNumber]@[faxservice].[domain]. You can add any attachments as you would with a regular email. After you hit send, your email is converted to a fax and spewed out of the remote machine. You can also receive faxes in your inbox with no additional setup.
Most people don’t want to be bothered to visit a web interface or email inbox to send a fax, and why should they? Android apps and iOS apps are now vital pieces of a service’s offering. Apps allow you to use your phone to take a picture of whatever document you need to fax, attach a cover letter, and send it off to a recipient in a few quick steps, all without ever touching a PC. That’s right; there’s no need for a scanner.
As with a service’s web interface, a mobile app should feature an intuitive design and useful capabilities, such as attachment previews and a contact book. If a service doesn’t offer dedicated apps, it should, at the very least, have a responsive design interface that resizes well for mobile screens.
Security and Features
We take a fax service’s security seriously. For example, we penalize services that do not handle passwords safely (sending them in plaintext, for example) during the account setup phase. We also much prefer those services that support two-factor authentication. As government and medical offices are the likely recipients of your faxes, you absolutely need to make sure that any correspondences remain private and inaccessible to anyone else, as you would with any other sensitive online account.
We also prefer online fax services that offer useful and relevant features. The ability to sign documents digitally, for example, is convenient since you don’t need to print a document out for signing with a pen and then rescan it. Robust search features are also important for finding old communications, especially since several of the services we reviewed save your messages forever.
In previous years, we used an actual fax machine to test how well a service maintains an attachment’s text and graphics, in part to verify their compatibility with the machines they are supposed to replace. However, we no longer have any fax machines in our office—we’re also now mostly working from home, like so much of the rest of the world—so we now use online fax services at both ends of the equation.
We send two test documents (a graphics-heavy one and one that is primarily text) between fax services to test how well each service processes and transmits them. We evaluate the received attachment by checking that both the graphics and text are clear and legible, and that there is minimal artifacting in the background. Whenever possible, we use the same fax destination to minimize any variances between how each service handles incoming faxes.
The fax, as we have come to know it, has existed for half a century, but the sun is surely setting on this technology. However, since some businesses and governments still require faxes, we’ll keep testing these online services for now. Let us know in the comments if there are any other aspects of fax services that are important to you or your business.