If Wikipedia is to be believed, the humble fax has its roots in the late 19th century with the labors of Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. Faxes didn't, however, spawn the fax machines we all know and love until the mid-1960s. Even today, as fax machines have been absorbed into all-in-one printers, sending and receiving faxes is still a necessity—particularly when dealing with doctors or governments. Thankfully, you don't need a hulking, screeching machine or even a sleek all-in-one to send a fax anymore. Instead, you can rely on an online fax service.
How Online Faxing Works
Online services swap out the fax machine for a slightly more modern technology: email. When you receive a fax to your fax number, it arrives as an email attachment. Sending a fax is just as simple: Type the destination fax number along with a special suffix (typically @faxservice.domain), and hit send. Your email is converted to a fax and spewed out of the remote machine.
Most fax services also include an online interface. From that, you can create and mark up documents and send them out as faxes from your browser. You can also view and search your existing faxes.
Some, but not all, of the fax services we've tested also include mobile apps. Most of these include special features, like document markup or the option to add a signature to a document by writing with your fingertip. The lack of a mobile app isn't a major downside for a fax service, however, since they all integrate with email. Just fire up your mobile email app and you're off and faxing.
How We Evaluate Fax Services
We have several key criteria on which we judge a fax service. A major one is comparing the price per month against the number of pages each fax service allows per month. This gives us a very concrete sense of the value provided by each service. Online fax services are a bit unusual in that there is a wide spread of pages per dollar.
Note that all fax services provide a monthly allowance of pages, but not all services treat these pages the same. Many fax services differentiate between sent and received pages, and offer different allowances for each per month. We prefer services that offer a pool of pages. This provides better value, as the split model means a consumer may end up paying for pages they never use or exhausting their page allowance too quickly.
When consumers run out of pages, they're usually charged an overage fee by the fax service. Of the services we've reviewed, the average overage fee is currently 7 cents. Several services charge ten cents or more per page, and others as little as 3 cents per page. This matters, because spam faxes are still a thing, and you could end up with a hefty bill just because someone sent you hundreds of junk pages.
We also consider what else besides pages sent and received you might get for the cost, however. The average monthly price of an online fax service currently sits at around $11. If the service costs significantly more than that, it needs to offer something special to make up for the extra cost. Conversely, if the monthly price is significantly below average, we consider what the consumer might lose by paying a lower price. Some low cost fax services offer a poor user experience or no online access, for example.
Faxing by Numbers
The other major consideration with fax services is the fax numbers they let you select. Some services will simply assign you a number with little or no input. Others not only let you select a specific region for your fax number, but even create a vanity number. At last, 248-FAX-MAX0 can be yours.
Another key differentiator between fax services is whether or not they offer toll-free numbers. Most do, with only a few exceptions. Although important, toll-free numbers have lost some of their luster as most consumers in the US are on cellular plans that differ greatly from the old style of phone billing.
Lastly, there's the issue of international numbers. All the services we have reviewed at least offer numbers in all or some of the US, the UK, and Canada. There are a few unique services that they can provide fax numbers the world over. That's particularly handy if you have a lot of far-flung offices to manage.
Numbers and metrics can only take you so far. A big issue with any software, or service, or software as a service, is what it's like to actually use a given product. That's why we make sure to go through the entire setup process and then test each online fax service ourselves.
Many fax services offer subpar user experiences, looking more like Hotmail circa 1999 than a modern piece of software. Others rely on the largely deprecated Flash plug-in. While it can be argued that faxing is a legacy technology that's on its way out, that's no reason for using outdated designs and unsafe technology.
The best fax services we review not only work in your email inbox, but also have clean, easy-to-use web interfaces. They support drag-and-drop attachments (a feature sadly missing from nearly all of the online fax services) and a capable editor for marking up your pages before you send them off.
The Future of the Fax
In previous years, we included an actual fax machine as part of our testing. The thinking was that since these services are intended to replace fax machines, we must ensure that each can actually send and receive faxes from physical fax machines.
This year, however, we discarded our last office fax machine. Not only that, our IT department deactivated the last of our landline phone connections. We also discovered that our VoIP service is not compatible with the screech of a fax modem.
The solution was simple: We simply sent and received faxes between two different fax services. But this raises two questions.
First, how many other people are simply sending faxes between online fax services? If fax machines and the copper wires that support them are dying out, but businesses and governments still insist on faxing, perhaps far fewer faxes are actually being printed out by a traditional fax machines. If that's the case, we're all simply sending complicated emails that we just think are faxes.
Second, the writing may finally be on the wall for faxing in general, as we've hinted. We consider ours to be an average office, technologically; if our IT department has disposed of faxing as a means of communication, then surely others have as well.
The fax, as we have come to know it, has existed for half a century, but the sun is surely setting. Yet some businesses and government services still require them, for now. So until the final twilight of the fax era, we'll continue testing the online alternatives.