Comms Corner 8 - originally published in the March 1996 issue of PCW Plus.

Fax software for the PCW has been around for some three years now, yet many PCW owners remain unaware that their computer is potentially a very powerful fax machine.

Unfortunately, there's no public domain fax software available for the PCW and, at this late stage of the game, you shouldn't hold your breath. In fact, as far as I'm aware, there's only one commercial fax package available, called PCWfax. PCWfax was reviewed in the December 1992 issue of PCW Plus and is available from Margolis & Co. for the princely sum of £50.

A restriction of PCWfax is that it will only work in combination with a Margolis Fax Link serial interface. Actually, it's fairer to say that this interface is required to enable faxing itself, as the better known Amstrad CPS8256 (compatible) interfaces are sadly not up to the task of faxing at high speed. The Fax Link can also be obtained from Margolis & Co. for a further £50. It goes without saying that you also need a modem with fax capability, although these days, modems without this feature are the exception rather than the rule.

Once you've got the necessary hardware and software, you're ready to go. Type FAX [RETURN] at the CP/M prompt and the program starts up. It's a good idea at this stage to set the system time and date, as this information will appear in the header of any faxes you send. Unfortunately, you need to do this every time you boot CP/M, as the clock isn't internally maintained (unless you happen to have one of those old real-time clock interfaces). Choose option 8 and follow the instructions on-screen. Failing to do so will immediately identify you as a PCW owner to the recipients of your faxes, as only CP/M believes that life on Earth began on 15th November 1982.

Back at the main menu, choose option 9 to configure the program. You only need to do this once, as any settings you make will be saved to disc a la LocoScript. Most options here are self-explanatory. The only things you need to watch out for are the maximum page length, the temporary disc and the printer type.

PCWfax allows you to insert standard headers and footers into a document. An example of a header might be your company logo, whilst your standard footer will in all probability be your signature. But how do you get these graphic images into your PCW without a scanner? You simply leave the PCW running PCWfax in automatic mode, go to a post-office or any other place with a coin-operated fax machine, and fax the required images to yourself! Back home, you can then use PCWfax's software guillotine to trim them into the required format and subsequently incorporate them into all your outgoing faxes.

Insertable headers and footers are not taken into account when tracking the page length, so you may need to reduce the default maximum of 66 by a few lines.

The temporary disc should be set to M for reasons of speed, unless you have a hard disc, in which case you can safely choose one of its partitions. Floppies are constantly playing catch-up and can lose incoming data at critical moments.

The printer type can catch you out if you're not careful. If you use a Canon bubblejet, make sure you check whether you operate it in BJ or LX mode. If you use BJ mode, you should tell PCWfax as much, but if you use LX mode, you rather surprisingly need to tell PCWfax that it's a 24 pin printer. In addition, if you will be printing a lot of faxes, you might prefer to drive your printer in a lower resolution than it's actually capable of, since the resolution of a standard fax machine isn't as high as that of a modern printer and the superfluous data will take much longer to send (up to 15 times longer than when working in 9 pin dot matrix mode).

We won't dwell on how to actually send and receive faxes with PCWfax, as the manual is very clearly written and the program itself is a doddle to use. Suffice it to say that you can put the PCW into automatic receive mode, leaving it to answer the phone, and even schedule faxes to take advantage of cheap phone rates.

Incoming faxes are received as graphics, rather than text, so how do you import them into your word-processor? The answer is OCR: Optical Character Recognition. OCR software analyses graphic images and converts them to text. Once again, PCW software is thin on the ground in this area. Philosoft's Insight (reviewed in the April 1995 issue of PCW Plus) is the only program of this kind that I know of, and happily it will read MicroDesign Area format files (.MDA). Since PCWfax is also capable of converting files from its own proprietary format to MDA format, combining fax and OCR technology to produce pliable text documents is within the grasp of every PCWer, although it rather begs the question whether you shouldn't perhaps be communicating via e-mail instead. Still, a business can't afford to tell its customers to use e-mail instead of the fax, so for those who can't do without the facility, this might be the way to go, although the process of converting graphics to text is time consuming and can never be 100% reliable. Spell-checking remains a must and a hard disc is definitely not a luxury.

As an alternative to PCWfax and a fax modem, you might be able to pick up an old Amstrad FX9600AT fax machine (reviewed in the August 1991 issue of PCW Plus) second-hand. Locomotive supply a printer driver for this machine, enabling you to fax documents direct from LocoScript without the need to print them out first or convert them to ASCII. As a bonus, the fax can also be used as a flat bed scanner, although it's performance in this area is reportedly questionable.

Next month, we'll delve into the cryptic world of file compression, one of the first dragons to be slain by the intrepid downloader and a source of headaches for the newcomer.

© 1997. Page last updated 31st December 1997