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Who needs a fax modem, anyway? Why should you send faxes from and receive faxes to your computer? Why not just send e-mail with a regular data modem?

Because there are tens of millions of fax machines in the world that aren't connected to computers. The people using them may not even have access to a computer or know how to use one if they do.So why not just send faxes with a fax machine? For one thing, a fax modem can cost less than $100. A decent fax machine is $300 plus. For another, with the right fax software, you can automate and customize your faxing. Want to send the same fax to 300 people? The fax modem can keep that address list and do it automatically, with a single command. Want to send those 300 faxes late at night, when phone rates are lower? No problem. Just use the scheduling command. Want to receive a fax, automatically forward it to another fax number where you're at this week and reply with a fax, meanwhile storing a copy of the received fax as a spreadsheet file for calculations? The most advanced fax software can do that, too, almost like having a fax secretary.

Fax modems let your computer send and receive faxes. You can send them to other computers with fax modems or to regular fax machines. With a fax modem, your computer can receive faxes from other computers with fax modems or from fax machines. Fax mo- dems today are also data modems.

Fax software can be scary because you don't see the results. You only know it screwed up when your friend, colleague or boss complains that he or she got an illegible fax or no fax at all. And because fax software is complex and pretty new, those snafus happen a lot.

You fax pages from your computer documents. Most fax modems just act like "teleprinters." You give the program's command to print, and the page turns out on the fax machine miles away instead of on your printer. That way, you can send words (from word processors), pictures (from graphics programs) or anything else your computer can show on screen. You can only send pages that have already been printed - such as from a magazine or book - if you have a scanner to first get those pages into the computer. Stand-alone fax machines have built-in scanners.

Faxes you receive through a fax modem show up on your computer screen. Depending on what your fax software allows, you can draw on the fax image, add notes to it, zoom in on it to see details or use an OCR, or Optical Character Recognition, program to convert the image into a word processor or spreadsheet file.

Some cheap modems are "fax send-only," not able to receive faxes. Make sure you have a send-and-receive, fax-and-data, fax Group 3 modem. Group 3 is the current standard for fax communication.

With any fax software, you need the basics: sending and receiving, keeping a log of each, viewing of received faxes on screen, storing received faxes on disk and sending faxes from inside any program. Those are absolute minimums.

Look also for a phone book to store fax numbers and for making fax broadcast lists.