Colour approaches affordability

Monochrome laser printers are old hat. Every office has them. But colour lasers are a different matter. Typically they have been large, expensive beasts, closely guarded by cost-conscious office managers and IT personnel who cringe at the price per page and often log every precious sheet printed.

Until recently, the only personal colour printers were inkjets – cheap to acquire, not networked – and horribly expensive to run, but tolerated because of low print volumes.

That has been changing as the cost of acquiring colour laser technology has gone down.

In fact, according to Evans Research, colour laser printers were the most dynamic segment in the printer market, enjoying 120 per cent year over year growth in shipments during the fourth quarter of 2005.

Shipments in this segment have the potential to double in 2006, according to Evans, perhaps even exceeding the 100,000 unit mark, and this will likely mean slight declines in the monochrome laser segment.

We asked vendors for their version of a personal or small workgroup colour laser printer. The only specified criterion was that it could be lifted by one person without subsequent hospitalization or chiropractic treatment. That was a stretch: The lightest we received weighed over 40 lbs., and the heaviest almost 63 lbs. Clearly, the colour laser is not yet ready for small offices occupied by a single out-of-shape individual. Four units arrived and were put through their paces with a variety of documents.

We printed using the default settings; quality might have been improved with driver twiddling, but since most people don’t touch the settings, we rated the machines on what they can do out of the box.

All four machines were network-enabled and had USB connections. We ran them off a network.

Here’s what we found.

HP LaserJet 2605dn

  • Price $549
  • PPM (Black) 12
  • PPM (Colour) 10

Setting up HP’s shiny new LaserJet 2605 was a mix of good and bad. The good was the hardware. The instructions were clear, and we had the machine humming away in no time. The bad was the software installation. Spending something like half an hour to install a printer driver is ridiculous. I didn’t think an HP install could be that agonizing, so I had someone else install the printer on his machine, and he experienced the same pain.

Once it was set up and ready to print, the 2605 performed well, although it was extremely chatty. ZoneAlarm logged attempts to talk to something on the Internet every time we printed, and often while the printer was idle as well. Some of the traffic was from the driver’s automatic updating agent, which did pop up and request permission to grab a newer version.

Print quality was very good on text, and colour fidelity on images was not quite perfect, but better than on some of the others. The colours weren’t ugly, just not quite the same as those on the original image. There was slight banding on solid black areas.

Lexmark C522n

  • Price $638
  • PPM (Black) 20
  • PPM (Colour) 20

Lexmark had the smartest packaging of its (barely) liftable printer (57 lbs. according to the specs and 67 lbs. including packaging). The carton is in two pieces. To extract the machine, release the plastic latches that hold the pieces together, lift off the top, and you can then easily remove the printer from the carton base.

Its installation was the least intelligent, however – the driver installed with no problem, but I then had to manually add a TCP/IP port so it could talk to the printer. Time to first page out was the slowest of the bunch; even the equivalent of a walk from one end of an office to the other was not enough time for the printer to rouse itself and cough up a page. Once it did emit some paper, the quality was good. Solid black areas exhibited slight banding, however, and there was a slight blue overtone that was only obvious when sitting printouts from several machines side by side.

The C522n offers Postscript and PCL 3 emulation, and it supports everything from PC and Mac to Linux to AS/400 and HP-UX.

Oki C3200

  • Price $624
  • PPM (Black) 20
  • PPM (Colour) 12

Oki’s printer is not, strictly speaking, a laser. Instead, it uses LEDs to do the work done by a laser in other printers. Oki was one of the pioneers of LED printing.

The installation was clean, and the driver searched the network, found the printer, and happily talked to it.

It did offer a lot of choices of what to install at first, which could be confusing. All you really need to do is install the driver, which figures out the connections. Duplexing is an option.

Oki’s consumables are slightly different from the others in that the toner and the imaging drums are separate. Toner lasts about 1,500 pages per package (at the infamous “industry standard” of five per cent coverage), and drums are good for about 15,000 impressions. This can cut costs compared to printers with integrated toner/drum cartridges, although it does mean you have more bits to swap.

Print quality on text was good. Colours had a slight reddish overtone, and colour prints were shinier than those produced on the other units, even on plain paper. There was no banding.

Samsung CLP-600N

  • Price $649
  • PPM (Black) 21
  • PPM (Colour) 21

Samsung’s driver installation was a delight. It asked if it should do a standalone or network installation, and even asked if you were installing it on a server (if so, it also copies drivers for other operating systems so the server can dole them out on request). It was clean, simple and fast, and worked flawlessly on the network.

The printer itself was a hefty beast (none of them were exactly dainty), tipping the scales at almost 63 lbs.

Samsung has sensibly made input and output tray capacities the same: 250 sheets. The drivers support Windows, Mac OS X and multiple flavours of Linux. Like the Oki, Samsung’s colours have a slight reddish overtone (though Oki’s was more pronounced). There was no banding evident in solid black areas. Text quality was very good.

The pros and cons
Colour printing still isn’t the cheapest of propositions, although it has come a long way since the $1-plus per page days. You not only have to buy black toner for your printer, you need cyan, magenta and yellow as well. The industry-quoted cost per page is always at five per cent coverage, too, which may work sometimes with monochrome text, but with the large blocks of colour one typically prints, it’s nonsense. Consequently, your cost per page in colour will probably be quite a bit higher than that quoted by the manufacturer (one vendor claims about 16 cents, for example; I’d hazard at least twice that, realistically).

HP’s printer produces lovely output (probably the best we saw, despite the slight banding), and its standard duplexing is a major plus. It is the slowest machine in the roundup, though, and the incessant nattering to the Internet is a concern, both from a security point of view and because of the network traffic.

Oki’s unit is relatively quick, although there’s a huge discrepancy between monochrome and colour output. Its colours tended to shift toward the red end of the spectrum, and were brighter than those output by the other machines. The five-year warranty on the printhead is a plus.

Samsung’s machine is an all-round solid performer. It talks to a wide variety of systems (though not as many as Lexmark’s), its installation and driver software are a delight, and although its print quality wasn’t the best of the group, it is quite acceptable for most purposes.

Lexmark talks to virtually anything, a major plus in a heterogeneous environment. To help keep costs down, it even offers a deal that is both environmentally and consumer friendly: It sells toner under a plan in which you return spent cartridges and get new ones at a significant discount over non-returnable cartridges. Print quality was good, although warmup time was painful. It also has an onsite warranty, a blessing because it is one of the heavier units we tested.

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