Maybe there is a free lunch. There certainly is nothing free in the computer industry. But we found a giant of a bargain.
It's a thin circuit board for IBM compatible PCs that answers the phone, dials for you, sends and receives faxes, forwards calls and faxes and even tosses in a modem so you can telecommunicate directly with other computers.Aptly called the Complete Communicator, the board retails for $700, although there are less costly versions with fewer features. That's so cheap for computer stuff, we think its Silicon Valley maker should be hired to pare down the national debt.
We've followed products made by the Complete PC from the day of the company's birth. Their prices were always good. But their early products didn't last long enough unless you treated them with a lot of TLC. We used to warn, at our Computer Update seminars, `They have a great warranty - and you need it!' We gave their products another four-month test just recently. We installed and uninstalled and reinstalled and used and abused a bunch of Complete PC's boards. We're pleased to say that the long warranty isn't so necessary any more. The boards came through unscarred, unscared and still hard at work.
Getting back to TCC: It fits into almost any IBM compatible PC.
You open the case, generally held together with five screws, and insert TCC into one emply slot. The software it comes with installs itself after you type in the information it needs, such as name and fax number (if any). We don't hesitate to recommend its installation and use for near novices.
(Never installed anything inside your IBM compatible? Send a stamped self-addressed envelope for a copy of our how-to column.)
Next you can adjust TCC's phone power (or accept default settings). You can control how many rings you want before it answers the phone, how long a message people can leave, whether you want a signal on your computer screen that shows messages are waiting.
You can set TCC so you can access the answering machine by phoning in and sending it a special signal. You can turn on call forwarding that way, too. With that option, TCC takes a message, phones a preselected number, waits for your touchtone password and delivers the message to you.
Clever TCC watches your pennies with a toll-saver feature. If it's got no new messages stored, it waits two extra rings before answering the phone. If it's you phoning and you notice the longer wait, you can hang up before it answers.
If there are waiting messages, TCC answers with your message of the day. You can record endless messages and change them at will. You can record new messages phoning in from any place civilized enough to have a phone.
When you call for messages, you can punch a special code to interrupt your own canned message. Then TCC changes hats. It guides you, with reminders, in listening to messages, disposing of them (choices are saving, replaying or deleting) and recording new messages.
TCC lets you set up as many voice mail boxes as you want for fellow employees, customers, friends or family members. Each person on the system gets a special code. Typing the code on a touchtone keypad tells TCC which mail box to activate. If there are messages in the box, TCC plays them. If the caller wants to leave a message, TCC records it.
TCC's voice is not computer generated. It's recorded just like on a tape cassette, but on your computer's hard disk instead. All the messages are recorded there, too. One advantage of a disk over cassettes is that messages can play or replay in any order. TCC lets you even replay just the last eight seconds of a message, the time during which most people tell you their phone number.
Also built right into TCC's circuits are almost all the parts of a working fax machine. It sends faxes of anything stored on your computer disk. The fax circuits in its board link to your PC as if they were a second or third printer. Whenever you print to the phantom printer, TCC intercepts the output and transmits it as a fax.
You can set up TCC so it sends faxes when cheap long distance rates are in effect. You can also set the one board to receive both fax and phone messages. It listens for a fax signal. If it hears the whistle, it copies down the fax, stores it on your disk and prints it out on your computer printer.
If there is no fax signal, it redirects the call to its voice mail system, plays your recorded answer and takes messages.
TCC can also answer calls from another computer, sent via modem. You can use it just like any stand-alone 2,400 baud modem, dailing online information services, bulletin boards and such.
If you don't need a fax or a modem but just a computerized answering device, buy the same maker's the Complete Answering Machine. It costs $400 retail. Just need a fax and modem? The Complete Fax 9600 sends and receives faxes and has a built-in modem. It retails for $500. The Complete Fax 4800 is slower but costs just $250.