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Using a Windows computer for sending or receiving faxes

You can use a computer as a fax machine. The parts about receiving faxes by email apply to any internet-connected machine. Other parts are Windows specific.

This page provides basic advice about using a computer for faxing. I haven't addressed the joys of setting up your fax hardware (modem) and software.

There is advice on three topics:

1) Sending faxes
2) Using your modem and computer to replace a fax machine
3) Receiving faxes cleverly: The sender "sees" a fax machine, but you receive the fax as an email!

Sending a fax:

From at least Win95, something called Microsoft Fax has come with Windows, but I haven't used it, can't tell you much about it.. except that it may be a reasonable 'bare-bones' option. Before Win XP, what little I did know about the free built-in faxing software didn't impress me. From Windows XP onwards, I would be surprised if the built in software couldn't do an adequate job of sending faxes, at least.

Before we go too far here's something you might not realize in our Brave New Broadband World: To send or receive faxes the traditional way (see below for non-traditional), you need a connection between your computer and the phone line, and no, I don't count a broadband connection that is running over the phone lines. You need something like the old fashioned "dial up" internet connection: When you are faxing, your voice line will be tied up. (If you just want to receive (or send) faxes without the old fashioned connection to a (voice) phone line, you can skip down the page to a section about a way to do that.)

If I wanted to explore a different free option, I would look for something in the Tucows collection

I am most familiar with WinFax. It was not expensive when I bought it (for what it does), and has served me well for years in various versions. I once bought a Compaq with a bundled fax/ phone program. However, I wanted Wordperfect on the machine, too. Due to a 'fight' over a WFC .dll, I couldn't have both. Winfax behaved properly with Wordperfect. (And thanks also go to CompUSA who were very helpful in discovering what was going on.) Anyway... back to hints that may help you...

Once you have installed some form of faxing software, and have your modem connected to the phone line, and working, you are ready to send things to fax machines. It is very simple. Faxing is very, very like printing.

If you have no one better to send a test fax to, feel free to send one to me but...

! ! ! please send your email address... not just fax number... in the fax ! ! !

Forgive that bit of shouting? You wouldn't believe the number of test faxes I get with no way to tell the sender that the fax arrived! I used to have two fax numbers. One was in the USA, one in the UK. Feel free to send at any time, day or night. The US number was taken away from me when a wretched realtor's system over-used it... and eFax were, seemed to me, very unreasonable about recognizing what had happened. Sigh. The UK number is available for tests... but discuss it with me by email first, please. I'm unlikely to respond in less than 12 hours, nor more than 48. Here is how you can email me, which would be helpful.... it saves me trying to decipher your eddress from within the fax.... which may not reach me. Why would you be testing it, if you knew it would reach me?

Many fax machines offer limited "photocopying" facilities. If yours does, try using it... that will often show you problems with the scanner's ability to render what you want to send.

Create the document you want to send. Any program that can print can send a fax, but I've used Notepad for the sake of this example. (The exact menu entries may change slightly with other programs.) With Notepad, under the 'File' menu item, you will find 'Print' and 'Page Setup...'

General Windows fact: (Assuming the author of the program you are using respects MS's 'rules'):

The '...' after 'Page Setup' tells you that if you click on this, you will get another window, one in which you can make choices, usually. The absence of the '...' after 'Print' (on Notepad's 'File' submenu) tells you that it will just do it if you click it. (End of general rule)

Click 'Page Setup...' You'll see a button marked 'Printer...'. Click that. You'll get a window with a combo box marked 'Printer Name'. Your default printer's name will be shown. However, there's a little down-pointing triangle at the right end of the box. Click that. You then should see a list of ALL the 'printers' your system knows about. Your fax software will be 'pretending' to be a printer! If your fax software is set up properly, it should be listed as one of your printers. Click on it. Click OK to leave the 'Printers...' page, click OK to leave the page setup window. Click 'Print'... and be patient... quite a lot has to happen. You'll be used to this if you've used Windows for more than half an hour, won't you? :-)

If all has gone according to plan, then before, say, 60 seconds, your fax software will put a window on the screen asking for some information from you: what number should the fax go to?, do you want to send a cover sheet?, etc. Answer the questions, click OK, and the fax should go. Fax machines, real or computer, have a system whereby after a fax has been sent, the receiving machine sends a 'got that okay' message back to the machine which sent the fax. WinFax gives you a nice little 'you sent the fax successfully' message. Any other fax software should provide something similar. Most can be set up to keep a record of faxes sent, to whom, when, etc.

Don't despair if things don't go quite to plan. One possible glitch: The number you are calling may be busy! If you're having trouble, don't forget to check that simple possibility before looking for bigger problems.

Other programs for preparing documents usually have 'Print...' on the 'File' menu, not 'Print' (with no '...'.) In such cases, the chance to choose the 'printer' arises with all the other questions like 'How many copies', 'Which pages', etc.

The bad news: You can only send as a fax (via your computer) something which you can get onto your screen. If you have a scanner or digital camera, then you can send images or handwritten things by first scanning them or photographing them. Remember that faxes are monochrome. If you use the camera option, you might want to import the image into a word processor document, and then send the document. (This will allow you to deal with various issues relating to the size of the image, and to annotate it.) If you don't have a scanner or camera, you'll have to type (or otherwise create) anything you want to send. (Paint, or Paintbrush create simple diagrams perfectly well. There are various more sophisticated drawing tools available from sources of good free software.)

Receiving faxes using your computer:

I don't. There are a number of hassles, none of which I want to contend with. But....

Even 'basic' programs are supposed to be able to cope with receiving faxes, and many also provide you with an answering machine, voice mail, feed the cat and make the tea... when they are working happily. I value the messages people leave me too much to fool around with something as unreliable as any Windows computer. I have an old fashioned answering machine, and I don't receive faxes directly via the computer... usually.

If someone needs to send me a fax, the following does work:

First they phone and speak to me in person. We arrange that they are going to send a fax. We then hang up. I start up the fax software in my computer. With Winfax, I just click on the taskbar 'Start'| Programs| Winfax |Winfax. (You can set up a desktop shortcut.)

Somewhere you'll find a way to manually start reception of a fax. Wait for your caller to phone you. Don't pick up the handset. Just click Receive|Manual, or Receive Now (or whatever your software calls it). The computer should do the rest! (It will first capture the fax, and probably put it on the screen. It may merely put it in an 'in tray' which you will have to find. There's usually some indication that you have unread faxes. If you want an ink-on-paper copy, you will probably have to click a "Print" button.)

Beware: If you take my approach, you want to be sure that your fax software is not configured to answer the phone automatically. When the program was installed, it may have been set up to do this.

Another reason I don't use my computer to accept incoming faxes all by itself: It means leaving the computer on all the time (which I don't mind, but you might), and it means leaving it connected to the phone line all the time.... lying in wait to 'steal' calls from my (separate, old fashioned) answering machine. You also have to be sure that your screensaver and monitor/ system power save features are set up to notice incoming calls and 'wake' the computer. Etc., etc. Can it work? Yes. Am I going to take the time to get it all right? No.

Yes! I'm a Luddite. It is possible to have the computer take care of faxes and messages... I just haven't got the energy to get everything on my machines set up to work together. Go for it, if you want to! It should work..... but if I had a penny for every thing the "should" work and doesn't.....

Receiving fax via email:

In late October 1999, I signed up for an interesting new idea: free fax reception by email. I'm still using it happily at March 2006. That gave me my US fax number. In September 2004, I signed up with a second provider, also free, who gave me a UK fax number. Note that while I pay nothing more than the cost of my internet access to see the faxes I am sent, the sender (as they would if sending to a "real" fax machine) pay the ordinary (not premium rate) phone charges which they would pay for a voice call to the fax number.

A quick visit to www.efax.com (for the US service) and www.pumaone.com (for the UK service) was all it took. I had to fill in some details... nothing unreasonable, for a pleasant change. (Microsoft gets the prize there: They wanted my telephone number, "so they could be sure not to phone me", before they would speak to me about how much I would have to pay to get Flight Sim 5.1. I'd bought Flight Sim 5.0, which wasn't satisfactory. Version 5.1 "had more features" (their description).. and, as a previous customer who had paid for a very similar product, I was entitled to... no discount. (I wanted 5.1 for the multi-player feature which 5.0 was supposed to have, but didn't seem to.) Anyway! Back to the fax story....)

After I had been to the fax service provider's site, I received an ordinary email from them telling me what 'my' fax number was. (Actually, in the case of Puma One, they may have told me via the pages I accessed with my browser. In any case, my number was available almost immediately in both instances.) With eFax (the US supplier) I had to download some software to read the faxes-by-email when they arrive.... but this has never given me any trouble. With Puma One, the fax comes through as a .tif attachment, which is a common format that I doubt you'll have trouble viewing. Efax also sent me a test fax saying "Welcome". (I sent myself a fax to test the Puma One service.) Now if anyone wants to fax me, they send it to that number. Their fax machine thinks it has reached an ordinary fax. In five minutes or less, an email goes out from the service provider to my email account. The next time I look for emails, I see whatever was faxed to me. No charge to sign up, no 'per fax' charge, no charge to the sender (beyond the ordinary phone charges already mentioned, inherent in any fax).

Too good to be true? For what it costs (nothing!) I'll take the service as provided, and be grateful... but here are some considerations....

Your fax number is the one you are given. The US provider did not used to be able accommodate requests for a particular area code, but that may have changed.

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