Fax software offers the perfect solution if you want to send faxes without buying an expensive, bulky fax machine. But in recent years decent fax applications for the Mac have been tough to find. Smith Micro's Faxstf X (Review: May 2002) has been available for about a year, but it's extremely limited. Fortunately, over the past several months, some new fax applications for Mac OS X have surfaced, giving you more choices if you want to use your Mac as a desktop fax machine.
We evaluated three single-user applications: Ben Mackin's Cocoa eFax 1.0.3, Glenwarne's FaxElite Solo X 6.5, and Smile Software's Page Sender 2.3.1. We also took a look at two solutions for workgroups that need to send faxes over a network: Glenwarne's FaxElite Network X 6.5 and Soft Solutions' 4-Sight Fax 5.0.4 (see "Sending Faxes via a Network: Not Quite Ready for OS X Prime Time"). While testing these products, we faced a frustrating onslaught of crashes, nasty bugs, and poor application design, but we emerged confident in one amazingly versatile application: Page Sender.
The Perfect Fax Application
Fax software must be at least as easy to use as a fax machine. Ideally, setup should be painless, sending a fax should be as simple as printing a document, and receiving a fax should take no effort at all. In addition to these basic requirements, we also wanted a way to view previously sent and received faxes, store and retrieve fax numbers, and create customized cover sheets.
FaxElite Solo X
We knew that FaxElite Solo X would give us an interesting ride as soon as we installed the program and saw the little installation note suggesting that we set our OS X machine to load Classic on startup. Yes indeed, FaxElite is not fully OS X native.
FaxElite is composed of five separate applications, each specialized to handle a specific aspect of the program. There's FaxControl, which processes your faxes; Faxer, which helps you address your fax and add a cover page; FaxViewer, which displays a catalog of your sent and received faxes so you can view them; CoverDesigner, for creating custom cover pages; and Phonebook Editor, for storing fax numbers you add manually. This collection of applications makes FaxElite Solo unwieldy and cumbersome, and only FaxControl is a true OS X application -- the rest must run in Classic. While most of the time the program opens and closes each of the necessary applications as needed, we typically had at least three -- and often all five -- open at once.
As a fax application, FaxElite works like any printer. When you want to fax a document, you go to the Print dialog box, choose FaxElite from the printer menu, and click on the Print button. This prepares the document for faxing and opens the Faxer application. If you've entered names and numbers in your FaxElite phone book, you can select one from a drop-down menu that appears near the Name field. To fax your document to more than one recipient, you can click on the Phonebook button, which allows you to select as many names as you wish.
FaxElite Solo lets you select additional files from your hard drive to send in the same fax transmission. Unfortunately, we couldn't get this feature to work properly. During one attempt, the FaxControl application crashed while trying to render the attachment. In another attempt, FaxElite Solo confirmed that it had sent our four-page fax and indicated with a message box that it had sent 65,498 pages -- but the program actually sent only the cover page.
FaxElite Solo's CoverDesigner application offers quite a few ways to customize cover sheets. You can add fields that correspond to the information stored in your phone book, add standing text, and copy and paste an image from your favorite graphics program to your cover page. However, you can't import graphic objects directly onto the page.
Overall, FaxElite Solo fared well when we tried to send relatively uncomplicated pages of text and graphics, but it failed when we tried to use the program's more-advanced features.
Ben Mackin's Cocoa eFax posed a conundrum. It's easy to use, has some excellent features, is integrated into a single package, and at $10 is extraordinarily inexpensive. But when it comes to sending and receiving faxes -- the only reason you'd use a fax program -- it just doesn't work well.
Created specifically for OS X, Cocoa eFax requires no installation. All we had to do was fire up the application and enter our initial preferences. Cocoa eFax doesn't work like FaxElite: you don't use the Print dialog box to send faxes. Instead, you must either drag and drop the files you want to fax onto the Cocoa eFax icon in the Dock, or click on the program's Send Fax button and select the desired file from your hard drive. The program is also limited by its file compatibility: Cocoa eFax supports only a few file types, including PDF, PICT, JPEG, and TIFF. So if you want to fax a Microsoft Word or AppleWorks document, you'll have to save it as a PDF file first.
One thing we really liked about Cocoa eFax was its helpful Fax Browser, which stores a catalog of every fax you've sent or received. Fax Browser lets you view any cataloged item by clicking on it once. You can also rotate any fax -- via a sliding bar at the bottom of the viewing window or by entering the number of degrees you want to rotate the image.
When it's time to address your fax and add a phone number, Cocoa eFax links to OS X's Address Book application. To use this feature, you enter a contact name in the program's Fax Number field and then press the Check Address Book button.
If a name in the Address Book matches your search criteria and has an associated fax number, a message will appear below the Fax Number field stating how many fax numbers Cocoa eFax found. Opening this field's drop-down menu displays the list of selected contacts. Choosing one places the appropriate fax number in the field. Unfortunately, if you type a name in the Fax Number field and accidentally leave it there, Cocoa eFax will attempt to send the fax and then abort the transmission without giving you an error message.
Try as we might, we couldn't get Cocoa eFax to receive a fax properly. Initially, the program crashed every time a new fax came in. After working with the developer, we got an updated application that didn't crash, but it got stuck in an endless loop that continued creating files -- without displaying them -- until we quit the program. Sending files as fax attachments works fine in Cocoa eFax, as long as you orient the document in portrait mode; the program delivered landscape-mode documents on approximately 8.5-by-8.5-inch pages that were missing a third of the image (see "Half the Fax, Ma'am").
Cocoa eFax can't be considered a ripe offering, but it does have potential. We're curious to see how this product fares when Ben Mackin works out the bugs, but until then we can't recommend it.
After going through all kinds of trouble with our other two single-user fax applications, Page Sender, which runs in OS X only, provided welcome relief. Page Sender is a stable, superbly designed program with excellent features that are integrated so well with so many applications that you'll want to use it all the time.
Like FaxElite Solo X, Page Sender functions through the Print dialog box. When you want to send a fax, you select Print from the File menu and choose Page Sender as the printer. The Print window then becomes Page Sender's Fax Envelope dialog box, where you add your recipient's name, company, and fax number. You then send faxes using your internal modem or any of the major online fax services, such as eFax.com and J2.com's jConnect.
Aside from its fax capabilities, Page Sender can also send the open document in any application as an e-mail. This is especially useful with programs such as AppleWorks and Intuit's QuickBooks 5, which lack integrated e-mail capabilities. You can share Page Sender on a network like any other printer, with a couple of minor limitations: you can't select a customized cover sheet and you won't receive an acknowledgment that Page Sender has completed your fax job if you're working on a remote computer.
Page Sender makes addressing documents easier than sending a fax to a preset number on a fax machine button. The program links not only to OS X's Address Book app but also to virtually every other major program that has an address book, including Palm Desktop, Microsoft Entourage and Outlook Express, and Eudora. Beyond simply opening your specific address book, Page Sender includes a feature called Live Addressing, which you can use with four of the supported address books: Power On's Now Contact, Microsoft Entourage and Outlook Express, and OS X's Address Book. As you type the name of your recipient in the Name field, Live Addressing lists the matching names in your address book that have a fax or e-mail address (see "You Send Me"). The only time this feature didn't work was when we tried to fax from within a program while Page Sender was using its address book. That is, if you try to fax an e-mail message from within Entourage when Page Sender is accessing the Entourage address book, Live Addressing won't work. That caveat aside, the Live Addressing feature alone is almost worth the price of the product.
When it comes to faxing and receiving documents, Page Sender works perfectly. The program handled everything we threw at it, from graphic images to word processing documents, without a hitch. We also tested it by sending faxes via eFax.com (an excellent product in its own right) instead of a dial-up modem, and Page Sender worked without a hiccup. The only features it lacks are a way to organize sent and received documents (they all appear together in the program's main Fax Center window) and a way to create a transmission log once you've sent a fax. Otherwise, of the products we tested, Page Sender is hands-down the best fax software out there.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Crashes. Freezes. Bugs. Classic. This roster of Mac-based fax applications isn't pretty, and if not for Page Sender, it'd be downright ugly. At best, Cocoa eFax can be considered only a beta application with a fair degree of potential. FaxElite, in both its solo and network versions, is so tied to pre–OS X operating systems that you have to be willing to live in Classic -- or forget about OS X altogether -- to use the program. Fortunately, Page Sender -- while it needs some minor improvements -- is a stellar fax application with a great set of features.