Color Laser Printers

Not long ago, color laser printers were slow, balky, very expensive beasts. Only highly trained professionals could change their consumables, and they needed to live in a climate-controlled room to produce consistent color. Given that history, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the latest crop of single-pass color laser printers. Macworld Lab tested five: the Brother HL-4000CN, Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet 4600, Lexmark C750n, Minolta-QMS Magicolor 3100DN, and Xerox Phaser 6200N.

We found that these printers produced color pages at almost the same speed as black-and-white pages. And thanks to a new single-pass printing technology, they offer easy replacement of toner and vastly improved color stability. Best of all, their prices--between $2,199 and $2,399--won't break the bank.

All five printers are aimed at small businesses and workgroups that need fast, versatile output in both monochrome and color. They are well suited to business printing but can also be just the thing for small design shops that want quick, inexpensive comps.

Three of the printers--the Phaser, HL-4000CN, and Magicolor--appear almost identical on the outside, and they're based on the same Fuji-Xerox engine. But a lot more goes into a color laser printer than the engine; the three use very different controller hardware that makes them differ significantly in speed and in print quality.

Speed

Speed is a major reason for choosing color laser over other color printing technologies. We tested the printers by printing four different document types on each printer: a 20-page Micro-soft Word document printed in black-and-white; a 20-page Word document printed in color; a 10-page PDF file of text and graphics; and a 22MB, 8-by-10-inch Adobe Photoshop image.

Xerox, Brother, and Minolta-QMS claim that their printers have an engine speed of 16 pages per minute. HP promises 17 pages per minute; Lexmark, 20 pages per minute. As with other printers we've tested over the years, these printers' actual speeds were not even close to the speeds claimed by their manufacturers (see "True Colors"), who measure the speed at which the printer can produce multiple copies of the same page after the printer processes the information.

In our tests, the Phaser proved to be the speed champ, due to its 500MHz processor (the others weigh in at 350MHz or 400MHz); it took first place in our black-and-white-text and Photoshop-image speed tests, and it finished in second place in the color-text and PDF-document tests. The LaserJet finished a respectable second overall and was the fastest at producing the PDF document. The C750n, despite having the highest-rated engine speed, tied with the Magicolor for last place--it actually finished a distant last in all tests except the Photoshop-image test, in which the Magicolor had the slowest time by far.

Print Quality

If the quality of your output isn't up to snuff, you may not care how quickly it comes out of the printer. In ranking the output of the five color laser printers, our jury carefully examined a wide range of printed material, including monochrome and color text, line art, and photographic images. They looked for problems with registration, sharpness, and color, and they then assigned ratings to each printer's gray-scale, color-gradient, black-text, and color-photo output. We found that the printers differed substantially in output quality, even among the three that share the same engine.

The clear winner was the LaserJet. It produced excellent results in two of the four tests, printed acceptable gray-scale images, and performed poorly only on the color photo, which was washed out and overly red. But the HP driver was a prerelease version and did not include any ICC profiles, which help ensure color fidelity, for the printer. (HP says that the release version of the driver and the final printer profiles should be available by the time you read this.) We liked the dithering in the LaserJet's output, which made for sharp, clear images, but the color was very inaccurate.

The C750n's and Magicolor's output was acceptable in all but one test. Of all the printers, the C750n produced the worst rendering of the color photo--dark, muddy, and completely lacking in strong blues. The Magicolor showed significant registration problems on colored type, producing visible color outside the edges of the text.

The Phaser, while speedy, left a lot to be desired in terms of output quality. It did a decent job of printing the color photograph, but it displayed obvious registration problems with the colored type and surprisingly fuzzy monochrome black type. Unless we printed the entire document as black-and-white, any black text was rendered as black type made with a combination of the four colors. The HL-4000CN fared poorly in the line-art test, with dropped pixels in curved lines, and it had almost no blue in the color gradient (which means that it's unlikely to render strong blues anywhere).

Color Stability

An important drawback of color laser printers has been unstable color. Color would often shift over the course of a few hours; changes in temperature and humidity caused the toner to form larger or smaller clumps, directly affecting how much toner was laid down. We checked color stability by comparing a test target printed in the morning with an image printed at the end of the day.

We were pleased to find that the new toners specially formulated for this generation of printers offer much better color stability than previous ones. The only printer in our roundup that displayed a significant color shift was the Phaser, which still compares favorably with older color laser printers. The LaserJet had the best color stability; it was followed closely by the C750n.

Paper Handling

When deciding on a color laser printer, you'll also want to consider duplexing (printing on both sides of the paper) and tray options, as well as duty cycle--the number of pages it's capable of printing, measured in pages per month. All of the printers we tested had reasonable paper-handling specs.

Duplexing is a standard feature of the Magicolor and HL-4000CN. It's available as an approximately $500 add-on for the C750n and Phaser units. But the LaserJet we tested didn't have a duplexing option: if you want an HP printer and duplexing, you'll be better off buying the $2,499 HP Color LaserJet 4600dn, which includes both a duplexer and an Ethernet interface as standard equipment.

All of the printers have a standard 600-sheet capacity--500 sheets in the main tray and 100 sheets in the multipurpose tray, which also allows for printing envelopes and other specialty media. All have optional extra paper trays that increase capacity by 500 or 1,000 sheets, but the C750n offers the highest capacity, at 3,100 sheets. All print as large as legal size, and the Magicolor can print banners as large as 8.5 by 34.5 inches. As single-pass color laser printers, all five have much simpler paper paths than previous color laser generations, so it's a lot easier to clear paper jams, which happen much less frequently.

The LaserJet has the heaviest duty cycle--85,000 pages per month--and the others are rated at 60,000 pages per month. Exceeding the duty cycle isn't necessarily a prob-lem; it doesn't make the printer explode or fail drastically, but it generally leads to problems with paper jams and, sometimes, compromises output quality. The duty cycle is best interpreted as the number of pages per month at which you can expect trouble-free operation.

Setup and Networking

You'll probably want to share your printer in a network. Each printer we tested either includes Ethernet connectivity or has

an option that will support it. We tested the base model HP Color LaserJet 4600, which comes with parallel and fast infrared interfaces. We added an Ethernet card--the $255 HP JetDirect 615n internal print server--to the LaserJet to provide 10/100BaseT Ethernet connectivity, which is equivalent to that of the other printers. All the other printers offer USB, bi-directional parallel ports, and 10/100BaseT Ethernet, except the C750n, which lacks a parallel port.

All five printers offer PostScript 3 support (from Adobe in the case of the Phaser and HL-4000CN printers, and from third parties in the others) so they should perform well in printing from the latest versions of desktop-publishing applications. The Phaser offers PCL5c, while all the others offer PCL6 (the LaserJet offers both PCL5c and PCL6). The Phaser, HL-4000CN, and LaserJet all offer Web-based printer-configuration and -management tools, which generally worked well.

We had relatively few problems setting up the printers, but there were some exceptions. Most of the printers allow you to perform registration tests and adjustments quite easily, but the C750n's registration adjustments involve secret button combinations that dump you into engineering-level menus.

Most OS X printer drivers are still works in progress, partly due to limitations in the OS itself. We couldn't find any

way to make the Magicolor print in black-and-white, rather than color, from OS X, and we had to use the printer's front-panel controls to adjust quality settings--neither of these issues were present in the OS 9 driver. We also had some problems connecting the LaserJet over IP, even after upgrading to OS X 10.1.5, though we were eventually able to make it work. We hope that the release version of the driver will resolve these issues.

The HL-4000CN, which came with 64MB of RAM, was the only one that needed an additional 64MB installed to print our 22MB Photoshop image in Best mode. If you're planning to print larger files, you'll need to factor in the price of a RAM upgrade to HL-4000CN's price.

Macworld's Buying Advice

We were pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of this crop of printers, but the clear winner was the HP Color LaserJet 4600. It produced the best-looking output (and will likely do even better when the appropriate ICC profiles become available), and while it wasn't quite as fast as the Xerox Phaser 6200N, its better output quality more than made up for that. The Minolta-QMS Magicolor 3100DN deserves an honorable mention as the least-expensive duplexing color laser printer currently available. It produced acceptable (though not spectacular) output and was reasonably speedy in all tests except the Photoshop test.

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