Multifunction electronic devices can save office space
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 own.

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 unit.

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 make.

* 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.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan