ISSUE 423: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Multifunction electronic devices can save office
but individual components still offer more flexibility - Dec 2 1997
Think about how many devices you have in your
home or office that include a clock. The list doesn't stop at just your
wristwatch and wall clock. Your VCR, microwave, television,
coffee-maker -- almost every appliance you own has one. Or see if you
can count up the number of audiocassette players you and your family
Similarly, most offices have a bunch of devices
offering similar or overlapping capabilities. For example, your office
photocopier and laser printer are variations on the same print
mechanism. The fax machine combines the functions of a scanner,
photocopier, printer and modem.
In small offices, this duplication can be impractical.
It's not only expensive to have to pay over and over again for the same
basic functions, but, in many cases, there simply isn't enough room for
all the gadgets!
In the past few years, multifunction devices have
emerged as the solution. Originally called "hydras" after the
mythological many-headed beast, these typically combine some
combination of computer printer, fax, scanner and copier in a single
This column looked at the then-new product category a
couple of years ago and concluded that they were a lot like portable
stereos -- a package that traded convenience for lesser quality than
that found in individual components.
With prices ranging around $1,000 (give or take $300
or so), home office or small business users can save a couple of
hundred dollars over the cost of a separate printer ($300 - $700),
scanner ($300 and up) and often a plain-paper fax ($500 - $600), and
get a free low-volume copier thrown into the deal ... and you only need
to find space for a single unit.
All models in this product category include optical
character recognition software, making it possible to scan a printed
document and convert it into computer-readable text that can be edited
with word processing software.
Potential buyers of these units have some decisions to
* Most models are built around colour inkjet printers.
A few, such as Brother's MFC-4550, Okidata's Okioffice
44 and Panasonic's KX-PS600, are based on 600-dot-per-inch
laser printers. As with stand-alone printers, these are faster and
cheaper per page than the inkjet competition and offer crisper
printouts -- as long as you're content with monochrome only. If you
need colour printing or scanning, look elsewhere.
* Just as prepackaged home stereos tend to skimp on
the speakers, these all-in-one units offer scanning that, while better
than a typical fax machine, is not on par with most stand-alone
scanners. Only Hewlett-Packard's high-end OfficeJet Pro 1150C
offers a flatbed scanner, making it possible to scan from books and
magazines or other sources. Most other models are limited to scanning
single pages. Xerox's Document HomeCentre offers an innovative
detachable scanner. Some of the colour printers, such as Canon's
MultiPass C3000 and Hewlett-Packard's OfficeJet 570, cut costs by only
including a black-and-white scanner, which also limits you to
black-and-white copies. If quality colour scans are important to you,
you may prefer to combine a dedicated flatbed scanner (models now start
around $250) with the printer of your choice. Software allows you to
use the combination for copying and faxing.
* Models vary in what range of features are accessible
through front-panel controls. A full range of controls is especially
handy if you often want to use your unit for faxing or photocopying. If
you have to fire up your computer and load the appropriate software,
you'll find them more awkward to use.
* Do you need a built-in fax? While most of these
units include faxing capabilities, several models don't, and you can't
tell which simply based on price. While Panasonic's low-cost KX-PS600
lacks faxing, so does Xerox's mid-range HomeCentre and
Hewlett-Packard's high-end OfficeJet Pro 1150C. Software with those
models will allow users to send a scan to a fax-modem, if one is
installed in the computer, but that is less convenient than an actual
fax machine. Those models that do integrate fax with the printer, by
the way, mean that you get plain-paper faxing. That means there's no
need to use special thermal paper.
Multifunction units have improved over the
past few years. The print components, whether black-and- white laser or
colour inkjet, are on a par with standard office printers, and the
scanning capabilities are better than what was offered in the first
generation of such models. For offices with limited space or limited
budgets, they can have a lot to offer -- but the comparison with home
audio remains: if you're looking for the most flexibility and the best
quality, nothing beats separate components.*