Using a modem to send and receive faxes from your computer sounds like a great idea. You won't waste paper printing your documents in order to feed them into a fax machine. And since many faxes are as ephemeral as email, receiving them via fax modem and viewing them on screen is less resource intensive than reading faxes on paper, then recycling them. You can even send and receive faxes while travelling - few people want to lug a fax machine along on trips.
Unfortunately, the benefits of using a fax modem fall flat when you encounter the software that's supposed to do the job. The prevalent mediocrity (or worse) of current fax software is probably a function of the marketplace: modem manufacturers feel the need to bundle software that offers fax functions, but since modems have tiny profit margins, they don't want to spend much. The result is that the "free" bundled software is often outdated or crippled (or both) and generally worth exactly what you've paid for it. STF Inc. had a bright idea in offering FAXstf Pro 5 as a full-functioned alternative to the often-abysmal bundled programs, but the reality leaves much to be desired for people like me who send and receive between 30 and 70 faxed pages per week.
Ideas vs. Implementation -- FAXstf Pro offers a full range of features for diverse faxing needs. Preferences allow you to select an outgoing dial prefix, such as a 9 to reach an outgoing line, or a 1010 dial-around for using a specific carrier for long distance calls. FAXstf Pro can dial a credit card number when you need to reach a remote machine on the road. The program can store multiple preference sets, valuable if you travel or work for multiple clients. You can set up many different fax cover sheets, helpful if you work on several projects or just want to express various moods.
Inevitably, however, some of FAXstf's many features are useless to any individual user, and others are poorly documented. I had to call STF to figure out how to use a 1010 dial-around code, and the box provided isn't large enough to show all the digits. Likewise, the credit card procedure is difficult to master, although telephone carriers share the blame for cumbersome and inconsistent procedures.
Some good ideas are not fully implemented. "Smart dialing" knows enough to drop the area code when you tell it you're calling from within the same area code. However, it doesn't know to turn off a 1010 long-distance dial-around setting for local calls, nor does it have an option to deal with the many metropolitan areas with new overlay area codes that require 10-digit dialling for local numbers.
For international faxing, you identify the country you're calling from in the preferences, and pick the destination country for each fax address. (The United States appears to be the default in both cases.) By providing a scroll-down list of countries, FAXstf saves you the annoyance of looking up country codes for unfamiliar nations. Unfortunately, there's no other way to enter country codes, and scrolling to the bottom of a long list every time you enter a phone number in the United Kingdom is a nuisance. If you fax overseas, be sure to get the version 5.0.3 updater from STF's Web site. The initial release of the software, version 5.0, did not save country codes properly, so it defaulted to the United States (or in one case I caught, Albania), forcing you to re-specify the country each time you called.
Plays Poorly with Others -- Other bugs in FAXstf Pro 5.0 also betray a rush to market, and left the software with a brittle feel. I had problems setting up the initial version, leading to a series of crashes, and had to reinstall it twice. Version 5.0.2 could not print incoming faxes of 5 pages or more, a bug fixed in version 5.0.3.
Most troubling are conflicts between FAXstf Pro and other software. Some applications are decidedly unhappy with the default placement of a Fax menu in the menu bar. Fax menus multiply in WordPerfect 3.5, but most software seems to work when the Fax menu is placed under the Apple menu. One exception is Nisus Writer 5, which dims the "Fax Front Document" command, apparently with good reason: trying to fax Nisus documents using the recommended combination of Command and Option keys froze my Power Mac.
That's not the only deadly interaction between FAXstf Pro and other software. Install FAXstf Pro 5, and Highware's Personal Backup 1.1.2 to 1.2.3 crashes at startup, a problem confirmed by ASD Software, American distributor of Personal Backup. (Fortunately, another commercial backup program, Retrospect Express from Dantz Development, does not conflict with FAXstf Pro.) The nastiest problem occurred when faxing from Presto PageManager 2.31.0, which came with my UMAX Astra 610S scanner. The fax went through, and the Mac seemed to run normally afterwards, but it somehow damaged the resource fork of the Mac OS 8.1 System file, so the Mac wouldn't boot until I replaced the System file. To be fair, that old version of PageManager could be responsible. Nonetheless, STF was at best slow to acknowledge bug reports and still has not said anything about plans to fix the conflicts.
Despite these problems, conflicts between fax software and other programs are less prevalent than in the past, when almost any problem related to modem use could be traced directly to fax software. In the early days of the Internet, fax software was responsible for a vast number of the connection problems experienced by Macintosh users, in large part because fax software likes to take over the modem port while waiting patiently for a fax to arrive. Never mind that another program might want to use the modem port in the meantime. FAXstf Pro avoids that problem except with some older terminal emulators. It also seems better behaved under Mac OS 8.5.1 than under Mac OS 8.1, but that's a subjective judgement.
Phone Home Alone -- FAXstf Pro performs adequately once it's up and running. However, getting to that stage and figuring out the conflicts wasted far too much time, and it was disturbing to have to choose between scheduled backups and outgoing fax transmission. I would have trashed FAXstf long ago if I had any reasonable alternative - and there's the rub. There are no other options for general purpose faxing with a wide range of modems. The outdated version of Smith Micro's MacComCenter that came with my modem is useless; it doesn't even report if faxes go through. I didn't try updating to the new version because it seemed more oriented toward voice mail than faxing. Global Village's new version of its GlobalFax software works only with iMacs or G3s that have internal modems, leaving out a wide range of Mac OS computers (including mine). ValueFax, the one operative shareware program I found, was little improvement over the outdated version of MacComCenter. All the other fax programs I found run only on the modems with which they're bundled.
Talking with other Mac users, I find I'm not alone in my discontent with the state of fax software: the best is pretty bad and the worst is useless. FAXstf Pro is a good idea, but needs much more work. Unfortunately, STF seems more interested in offering features like toll savers and fax broadcasting than in tracking down bugs and conflicts with other applications. Some solid competition would help, but fax software may suffer from a chicken-and-egg problem with attracting the necessary interest from developers. Since fax software has ranged over the years from unusable to mediocre, anyone who's serious about sending and receiving faxes needs a standalone fax machine. A fax machine is simpler and easier to use for sending documents already printed as loose sheets or that require signatures, and is always ready to receive incoming faxes. Coupling a scanner with a fax modem can avoid the need to photocopy bound documents for faxing - but my cumbersome scanner software limits faxing to one page at a time and requires awkward resetting of print options. Perhaps the users who benefit most from fax modem software are the junk faxers who send reams of identical outgoing faxes. Without pressure from the serious users, fax software developers seem not to have had incentive to create a product that could actually compete with a fax machine.
Internet fax services such as eFax and CallWave offer free phone numbers for fax receiving, then deliver faxes via email as TIFF images (which Mac users can view in a program like Thorsten Lemke's shareware GraphicConverter, with varying degrees of success). However, these services don't necessarily solve problems for typical fax modem users with dial-up Internet access, since TIFF files are big and slow to download, and you don't know there's a fax waiting until you check your email. Yet, these services may help discourage programmers from developing improved fax modem software.
In the end, I fear that I'm stuck. I have little hope either that STF will fix the lingering problems in FAXstf or that any other company will invest the time and effort to produce a truly elegant fax program for use with fax modems.
[Jeff Hecht is the author of Understanding Fiber Optics, 3rd Edition, published by Prentice Hall in November 1998. His book on the history of fiber optics, City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics, is being published this month by Oxford University Press.]