Speed rules

Speed rules

Adding colour to your work documents has always come at a price in terms of time, money, or both. Colour ink-jet printers are inexpensive and great for printing photos from your digital camera, but the paper and ink can cost an arm and a leg, the print times are often slow, and the text is not up to laser clarity. But over the past year, prices have dropped to the point where it’s now feasible to consider colour laser printing for homes and small offices. We looked at five colour laser printers priced at about $US1000: Brother’s HL-2700CN, HP’s colour LaserJet 3500n, Konica Minolta’s magicolour 2350en, Lexmark’s C510n, and Xerox’s Phaser 8400/B. All but the Xerox are network ready.

The look of things

Since none of these printers is designed to sit on your desktop, they don’t require dazzling good looks. They’re all fairly loud and large, weighing on average about 30kg, and they’re all either grey or putty coloured. The Konica Minolta’s unusual design features an open tray that you load from the side; accessing this tray could be difficult in tight spaces. Also, all of the Konica Minolta’s connections (USB, Ethernet, and power) are on the side of the unit.

The real cost

All of the printers except for the HP ship with low-capacity starter cartridges that require that you buy replacement toner sooner than you would with standard cartridges. Konica Minolta and Lexmark sell two replacement cartridges, with different capacities. The more expensive, higher-capacity ones are a better value. Taking into account the cost of the toner and inks alone (not the more durable components such as the fuser and the waste-toner bottle), the printers with the lowest ink cost per page (about $US0.09) were the Brother and Lexmark. The most expensive was the HP, at a cost of $US0.12 per page. These numbers were supplied by the vendors.

Options, options

All of these printers have a variety of extra options. You can expand all of them to handle more paper by using a different paper tray. You can upgrade all but the HP with duplexing units that allow automatic printing on both sides of the page. And you can upgrade all but the HP with more memory. The more memory a printer has, the faster it can handle large and numerous print jobs. The Konica Minolta, Lexmark, and Xerox printers ship with 128MB of RAM, while the Brother and HP Data printers ship with 64MB. A 22MB Photoshop file would not print with the standard amount of memory until it was downsized to 21.3MB. Although the larger file would spool and the printer would indicate that it was processing a job, it never produced a page. A memory upgrade would have solved the problem.

All the pretty colours

We printed several different kinds of files and assembled a panel of experts to evaluate each printer’s ability to reproduce accurate colour. Even if you’re in the market for a colour laser printer, you’ll probably have to print plenty of black-and-white text documents. We printed a simple Word document with a variety of text sizes ranging from nine to 14 points at best resolution, and had our panel rate the output. Although some of the text appeared a little lighter or heavier, all the printers received a Very Good score, and our jury was unable to pick a clear winner.

Next we challenged the printers’ ability to produce fine curved lines and gradients. Only the Lexmark scored a Very Good rating for both tasks. The Brother had some obvious bends within the curved lines and dropouts in the colour gradients. The Konica and the HP produced smooth curved lines, but the smaller point sizes had some noticeable breaks.

We used our standard Photoshop test image, a picnic scene with many different elements, to judge the printers’ ability to produce accurate colours and photographic detail. When comparing the output to a colour-corrected print of the file, our jury rated the Lexmark as Very Good.

The Brother and, to a lesser extent, the Konica printed too red, and the HP’s reds looked almost pink. Concentrating on some shadow detail in a bowl of peppercorns and on handwritten text on a recipe card, our jury again thought the Lexmark fared well, rating it as Very Good.

Next we printed a grey-scale photograph on each printer. All but the HP showed some kind of colour cast. Unfortunately, the HP print was so dark that it lost much of the photo’s shadow detail. The Brother print had a light green cast and some strange colours in some of the transitional greys.

Quick off the marks

Although digital photography may not be a colour laser’s strong suit, speed is. If you’re printing large or multiple jobs, the speed of these colour lasers is nearly as important as their print quality. To see just how fast they are, we printed several different types of files and recorded the time it took each printer to complete each job. If you mostly send one- or two-page jobs to your printer, you’ll really appreciate the following statistics: sending a one-page black-and-white Word document to the printer took 8 seconds for the Xerox and 28 seconds for the HP; the rest fell somewhere in between.

To test the speed on longer jobs, we timed the printing of a 10-page black-and-white Word document. Interestingly, the Xerox, first to print a single page, came in last here, at 1 minute and 17 seconds. The Lexmark, which took nearly twice as long as the Xerox to print the first page, won this round in 33 seconds, followed closely by the Brother at 36 seconds.

Setup and networking

All the printers were easy to set up. The Lexmark, the Brother, and the Konica Minolta even shipped with the toner cartridges already installed. The rest shipped their toners or ink cartridges in separate bags.

All of the network printers support DHCP, for automatically assigning IP addresses. But the Brother and the HP are the only printers that support Rendezvous, Apple’s zero-configuration networking feature. This lets users view the printer status page in Safari (from a menu-bar pull-down menu) without needing to know the printer’s IP address.

The HP is the only network-ready printer that comes with an external print server, which was a breeze to configure. The server plugs into the printer’s USB port; unfortunately, it requires an external power brick to operate. The Xerox is the only printer that ships without network capabilities; it requires a USB connection. (For $US300 more, you can get a network model.) Xerox claims a change in the way Panther handles USB printers caused a driver problem we encountered: the documents would print and they looked fine, but in the Print Centre window the Status column wouldn’t clear the job after completion, and the print icon in the Dock also indicated that the job was still printing. Xerox gave us a new driver that worked just fine; it should be available from the company’s website by the time you read this. And though the Xerox isn’t technically a network printer, we were easily able to use Panther’s print-sharing utility (via the sharing icon in System Preferences) to print to it from another Mac on the network.

Buying advice

Any of these printers would be an acceptable choice for printing heavy text and occasional colour graphics. But we recommend the Lexmark C510n for its generous RAM configuration, expansion options, great print quality, and rapid speed.

Under the hood

These printers use several different technologies to produce colour output. Most are standard four-colour CMYK laser-toner printers. Here’s how this technology works: A laser, directed by moving mirrors, draws an electrostatic image on an imaging drum. The first colour attaches itself to the charged areas of the drum, which applies toner to the sheet. The sheet then goes to the fuser, which melts the toner and fuses it to the paper. The process repeats for the remaining three colours in the sequence.

The Xerox doesn’t use toner at all, but solid ink, similar to a crayon. You drop the waxy ink sticks into their keyed slots. A heater melts them down and uses ink-jet technology to apply the melted ink to the page. Solid-ink technology has its benefits: It uses fewer costly consumables such as cartridges or drums, and it doesn’t have any moving parts to break down. Also, you don’t have to worry about disposing of or recycling empty cartridges.

On the downside, the printer can take longer to warm up from an off state; it emits a smell (like a candle burning); and, most important, the ink isn’t fused to the paper, but rather sits on top. Although this allows the Xerox to print on a wide variety of media, you can scrape off the ink with a fingernail or a pen. If you expect your prints to be manhandled, you may be better off with a toner-based printer.

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