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Four Machines in One In the Latest Home-Office Gizmo

Scattered around most home offices are a printer and fax machine. Visit the more sizable operations and, more likely than not, you'll find a copier and computer scanner too. Now wouldn't it be nice if someone could cram the functionality of those four machines into a single, space-saving gizmo? And wouldn't it be even nicer if this multipurpose gizmo was priced so ordinary people could afford it?

Well, that's the promise of the Xerox Document WorkCenter 250. Occupying a space no bigger than my old dot-matrix printer, the WorkCenter prints, scans, faxes, and makes copies. And at $599, it costs about the same as a laser printer.

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If you're setting up a home office and need only the basics, then maybe a multifunction office machine is for you. This is a conditional endorsement. Multipurpose office machines are frequently criticized - and rightfully so - for doing nothing as well as their single-purpose rivals.

Still, there is an elegant logic behind the multipurpose idea. The same ink-jet mechanism that prints your computer work also spits out faxes and copies. The same scanner that works as a copier also lets users scan a page into their computer and turn it into computer-readable text. Xerox says sales of the WorkCenter 250 are running ahead of projections.

The niftiest function of the WorkCenter is faxing, because it solves an age-old problem. Computers only receive faxes when they're turned on. Unless users are willing to leave their machines on all the time, they either have to put up with part-time faxing capability or buy a regular fax machine.

But the Xerox WorkCenter solves this elegantly. Using Delrina's WinFax Lite software, which comes with the WorkCenter's built-in fax modem, users can set their computers to receive faxes. When the computer is turned off, the faxes automatically are printed out on paper.

As a fax machine, the WorkCenter really shines. It has built-in features such as speed-dial buttons, polling options that allow a single fax to be sent to multiple locations, and even a mailbox system that stores confidential faxes in memory until the user is ready to print them out.

The WorkCenter is also pretty good as a 300 dots-per-inch printer. Although it doesn't quite match the quality of other good ink-jet printers, it's speedy and relatively sharp. Just as other ink-jet printers have incorporated color, look for Xerox to come out with a color version of the WorkCenter soon.

Copying with the WorkCenter was something of a disappointment - a surprise from a Xerox machine. It did an adequate job with regular letter-sized sheets, such as tax forms and press releases. And it has a nice copy reduction and enlargement feature. But a user has to feed the pages into the machine one at a time, making the copying of smaller pieces of paper unpredictable. Sometimes the WorkCenter copied them and sometimes it didn't. Flimsier paper, such as newspaper, often jammed the machine.

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Another problem: Making multiple copies takes much longer than the xerographic process of a regular photocopier, because the WorkCenter's printer has to print out a line at a time on each sheet.

Scanning with the WorkCenter involves many of the same challenges with one addition: using the TextBridge scanning software that comes with the WorkCenter 250. When it worked, I could scan in a press release and have the software turn it into computer text. But TextBridge was difficult to install and more confusing to use than rival products.

As a printer and especially as a fax machine, the WorkCenter 250 is a viable alternative to stand-alone machines, particularly for home offices where space is at a premium. But if home-office workers plan to do more than very basic scanning and copying, they should look elsewhere.

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