Do-it-all peripherals really have to do it all'sharply

Do-it-all peripherals really have to do it all'sharply

Like Swiss Army knives, these multifunction units have to offer ready access to a number of tools

By John Breeden II and Carlos A. Soto

GCN Staff

Multifunction devices have come of age in government offices that have to make do with less money and, in some cases, less space.

A single device that combines fax, scanner, copier and print server functions with a network printer is an attractive alternative to buying and maintaining multiple peripherals. But remember that an army marches only as fast as its slowest unit.

The GCN Lab staff tested three devices billed as multifunctional by their makers. We rated the units for quality of components and ease of use. We also considered the value of each, relative to its number of services and ease of setup.

Ideally, a multifunction device should work like a Swiss Army knife, easily opening up into several good tools.

When you want to fax a document, for example, you should be able to get right to the fax component at the touch of a button.

Furthermore, functions that do not require the user to be in the vicinity of the device, such as copying or scanning a paper document, should be accessible over the network regardless of operating system or platform type.

Early multifunction devices fell short of these basic requirements. Buyers got a mix of substandard components or discovered that a specific component hampered delivery of all the services that had been expected.

One device we reviewed had an excellent printer and worked fine as a fax machine. But it did poorly as a scanner. Although image reproduction was fine in the copier component, a software glitch prevented saving images in Joint Photographic Experts Group or other graphical file formats without going to a lot of extra trouble.

When a government office pays several thousand dollars to have access to several peripheral services but cannot use one of them satisfactorily, it's difficult to go back and justify buying a standalone unit to make up for what is lacking. So the lab staff considered it important for multifunction devices to score high at all their claimed services. In this testing aspect, we were merciless.

Another past fault of multifunction devices has been their steep learning curve. Theoretically, they have a lot of functionality built in, but finding out how to get the different functions to work has been a chore for users.

The most recent round of releases has largely overcome the learning problems through re-engineered outer shells. Big, colorful buttons on most units show users exactly where to push for whatever function they need.

The Panasonic Panafax DX-2000 was a powerful office tool once it started working, but it was difficult to set up.

Although the latest multifunction devices aren't perfect by any means, they have gotten good enough to integrate smoothly into most office settings'something that should please systems administrators.

As any administrator knows, troubleshooting a single device is a lot easier than working out user problems with several devices.

The Hewlett-Packard 8100C Digital Sender, an advanced version in the company's Digital Sender line, had the fewest services of any of the three devices reviewed but performed solidly as far as it went.

The Digital Sender combined a color scanner, a document e-mail server and a copier. The copier component, however, required an additional printer that an office might already have on hand'or might not.

The 8100C plugs into an office network through a standard 10Base-T, 100Base-T or token-ring connection.

Getting it to communicate with a mail server was hard. Nowhere did the administrator's guide present a simple Step 1, Step 2 type of server-side installation procedure.

Automatic? Oops

HP evidently expected the device to set itself up on a Microsoft Windows NT network, grabbing an IP address from the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server. But as often happens on our constantly changing test bed network in the lab, something went wrong.

Setting up the Sender to work properly took hours of tedious trial and error. It did eventually work, though. Offices with more homogeneous networks probably will find the automatic setup procedure easier.

The Digital Sender resembled a fax machine with a small keyboard. And thank goodness for that keyboard, which made the device much easier to use. Defying industry practice, HP put a real QWERTY keyboard, albeit a small one, on top of the unit.

The keyboard area also had a good-sized LCD for easy programming and operation. In most respects the Digital Sender acted like a desktop PC, giving visual feedback for keystrokes.

High-quality color

HP's Digital Sender had a convenient keyboard on top for management functions.

The document feeder on top of the unit could load up to 50 pages, a minimum for a networked multifunction device. Color scans were high-quality, especially those stored as Adobe Portable Document Format files, which looked almost exactly like the originals right down to the ink color of signatures.

The Digital Sender could deliver graphical files as TIFF or PDF images to any e-mail address or series of addresses. In this way, it acted like a fax server with a distribution list, though technically it was an e-mail server.

After scanning, the finished products were small enough to zoom through quickly as e-mail attachments. Sending such a file to hundreds of e-mail addresses took only a few seconds.

We were disappointed that the Sender had no local print function. Output could go to any printer resident on the same network, but it would have been better if the unit had some ability to print documents, if only to make proofing scans easier.

Like an office fax machine or network printer, an all-in-one machine often has to be moved from corner to corner or floor to floor.

The lab staff understands the benefits of keeping the administrator's back healthy. We judged the weight and size of the multifunction products as important factors. No administrator is going to love a 500-pound peripheral that has to be moved around periodically.

HP's 11.9- by 12.3- by 11.6-inch Digital Sender weighed 24 pounds. Samsung Electronics America Inc. sent a lighter 19-pound unit.

The Samsung Msys 5200 incorporated a standalone printer, a copier, a fax and a scanner in a well-designed, compact 9- by 14- by 16.3-inch frame. It wasn't as sophisticated as the HP unit, not being designed for network use, but it cost more than $200 less.

The case itself seemed better designed for moving around. It also was easier to set up and use than the HP unit.

How much easier? About 15 minutes' worth. We finished setting up the Msys 5200 in three minutes, compared with the HP's 18 minutes.

Although the Msys 5200 would be a good bet to replace a small office fax machine, scanner and copier, the office would still need a network printer. The Samsung unit only worked with a single desktop system. It interfaced with the serial port and used Samsung's SmartThru multifunction peripheral (MFP) drivers.

Six of one

Samsung's Msys 5200 was handy, but it's a standalone, not a networkable device.

SmartThru consisted of six programs: ScanThru, CopyThru, FaxThru, DocuThru, ImageThru and MailThru. All were self-explanatory except for DocuThru, which was the menu for selecting one of the SmartThru options.

ImageThru, a database manager and image editor, could search for saved scan images, arrange the images' brightness, and add or remove effects. ImageThru also could fax or e-mail images.

One part of SmartThru not quite up to office standards was MailThru, which worked with an existing e-mail system to send, receive and organize messages. We saw no advantage in having to deal with an extra set of such mail services.

After the two minutes of setup and software installation plus one minute to configure printing from the Msys 5200, and with no additional setup time except for the MFP device drivers, we were printing directly from the client PC.

Faxing was equally simple at the touch of a button, and so was copying.

MFP drivers for the Msys 5200, like those of most printers and other multifunction devices, usually have a couple of flaws, one of which Samsung apparently fixed.

The first flaw is that when one service goes down in a multifunction device, so do the others. All the eggs are in one basket.

The second flaw is that most multifunction devices can't multitask. They won't generally receive a fax while printing. But the Msys 5200 could. It slowed everything down a lot but performed more than one simultaneous task without problems.

The reason it could multitask is that an internal 2M of memory let it pool and allocate memory to different tasks.

For versatile performance, simple setup, Swiss Army knife capabilities and low price, we gave the Samsung Msys 5200 the lab's Bang for the Buck designation.

None of the three devices merited a Reviewer's Choice designation. The HP Digital Sender seemed more like an advanced scanner than a multifunction device'specialized and not a jack-of-all-trades. The Samsung Msys 5200 could not connect to a network.

Setup snafu

And that leads to our final multifunction device, the Panasonic Panafax DX-2000. It could be a truly powerful office helper and might have been our Reviewer's Choice if it hadn't been nearly impossible to configure and difficult to use.

Its $2,300 price'$1,100 more than the HP Digital Sender'plus its 34-pound weight and 17.2- by 19.4- by 12.1-inch dimensions made it the most expensive, the largest and the heaviest of the three devices.

Setting up this all-in-one unit took two days, an improvement over the older Panafax UF-770, which took three days.

The headaches began with heavy reading: two user manuals plus an installation manual. They all repeated many of the same things but were still difficult to follow.

The 16 required preinstallation tasks ranged in difficulty from providing an IP address or domain name, which the unit must have all to itself, to finding a Relay XMT password needed for network security to the relay station.

Mystery letters

What's Relay XMT? Nowhere was it explained.

Here's the bottom line: Unless you are a network administrator and get paid overtime, you don't want to try figuring out how to set this machine up.

Once set up, the Panafax DX-2000 did perform better than most multifunction devices we have tried. In our experience, Panasonic makes particularly powerful Swiss Army knifelike equipment.

The older Panafax UF-770, for example, had impressive fax capabilities both over the Internet and over a phone line. The DX-2000 did, too.

The DX-2000 also could serve as a decent network scanner, letting us send TIFF images to a PC. It printed well, or at least better than the Samsung, whose paper jammed a few times.

Likewise, faxing over the phone line went faster and looked better with the Panafax DX-2000 than with the Samsung Msys 5200.

You pay a premium for the Panafax DX-2000's quality, but you also pay in configuration headaches. For those reasons, especially the steep price, it didn't get a Reviewer's Choice designation.

Combining all office peripheral needs in one device is efficient and seems to be the trend in medium-sized and some larger offices.

Only a couple of years ago, multifunction technology simply wasn't sophisticated enough for large networks and offices. That isn't the case anymore, as the Panasonic DX-2000 demonstrated.

Now the final obstacle to wide acceptance of these devices lies in making them more user-friendly.

Three multifunction devices save on space and office budgets
8100C Digital Sender
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
tel. 847-342-2715
Msys 5200
Samsung Electronics America Inc.
Ledgewood, N.J.
tel. 800-726-7864
Panafax DX-2000
Panasonic Communications & Systems Co.
Secaucus, N.J.
tel. 201-348-7000
FunctionsDigital fax, scanner and e-mailPrinter, fax, scanner and copierNetwork printer, fax machine, copier and scanner
Pros+ Scanner server for e-mailing documents
+ High-quality color scans
+ Simplest to set up, administer and use
+ Compact size at good price
+ Network-accessible and powerful
+ Fast multitasking
Cons' Bulky
' Complex configuration
' Not a network device
' Often grabbed two or more sheets while printing
' Expensive
' Could not connect to lab network
Overall Grade


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