Laser Printers: going cheap doesn’t pay off

Most people shopping for a color laser printer want one because they think it will print quickly, produce good-looking output, and cost less to run than an inkjet printer. But the sad evidence from our tests and research shows that for the cheapest color laser printers, the opposite is true: They tend to be slow, their print quality beyond plain text is mediocre, and their toner costs as much as (or more than) the ink for a comparable inkjet.

Slowpokes

It’s virtually a guarantee–the lower the price of a color laser printer, the slower it willbe. Two current $400 models, the Dell 2150cdn and the Oki Printing Solutions C330dn,managed decent speeds in our testing, reaching 15.1 pages per minuteand 15.2 ppm, respectively, when printing text. You can certainly findcolor laser printers that are faster, but those speeds are aboutaverage for all the color laser printers we’ve evaluated. If you slidemuch lower on the price scale, you’ll be drumming your fingers whilewaiting for your printouts to appear. On the same text-printing test,for instance, two current $230 models, the HP LaserJet Pro CP1025nw and the Dell 1250c, posted noticeablyslower speeds of 11.2 and 7.5 ppm, respectively–the latter just halfthe average speed of all color laser printers we’ve tested. If youvalue your time, remember that the money you save on one of theseprinters you’ll end up paying back many times over just waiting forprints.

Lousy photos

Most color laser models still print inferior photos incomparison with inkjets, and cheap color laser printers are nodifferent. The Dell 2150cdn’s output was pretty good–after we fiddledwith its automated and manual color-registration tools far longer thanwe usually have to. The Oki C330dn’s color graphics showed noticeablebanding and graininess, and cartoonish flesh tones. Photos from the HPLaserJet Pro CP1025nw looked dark and oversaturated. Only the Dell1250c’s color quality was impressively good.

Pricey toner

Buying toner for a cheap color laser printer is a bit likedining at a trendy new restaurant where you pay $30 for a plate withthree shrimp. Cheap color lasers have the most expensive toner, whichcomes in low-capacity cartridges that print 2000 pages at the most.

For instance, the Dell 1250c (as well as its cousin, the Dell 1350cnw) has the highest-costtoner of any color laser we’ve tested. The printer’s standard tonercartridge prints just 700 pages. The black toner costs $50 (which worksout to 7.1 cents per page), while each color costs $55 (7.9 cents percolor, per page). A page with all four colors would cost almost 31cents. Those prices look steep even when compared with the costs of acolor inkjet printer.

You can buy cartridges for the Dell printers that will yieldmore pages. The costs of those versions are lower, but still onerous.The black toner lasts 2000 pages (3.5 cents per page), and each colorlasts 1400 pages (5 cents per page). A four-color page would cost 18.5cents.

The situation isn’t much better for other cheap color laser printers.The Dell 2150cdn’s standard-size cartridges are very expensive, and itshigh-yield cartridges are just average in price. The Oki C330dn’s tonercosts are tolerable. The HP LaserJet Pro CP1025nw’s toner cartridgescost more than average.

Is a cheap color laser printer a good deal for anyone? If you arepatient, you print fairly little (no more than a few dozen pages perweek), and you stick to simple color graphics rather than photos, acolor laser might be a reasonable buy. But so would an inkjet–and itwould generate better photos and might well cost less initially.

The color laser printers we’ve tested that perform the best–printquickly, produce nice images, go easy on toner costs–are designed forhigher-volume situations, such as a workgroup in a busy office, andhave higher purchase prices to match. Interstingly, Dell, the samecompany that makes the disappointingly slow and costly 1250c colorlaser, also makes our current top-rated models, the speedy 5130cdn and 3130cn.

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