Almost everyone is familiar with the term paper jam , as well as some of the more cryptic messages communicated by printers. Everyone from big businesses to small offices keeps their printers running full-time -- and using them has nearly become as second nature as dialing a telephone. We looked at four new monochrome laser printers and found that they all produce crisp text, but vary in usability and speed.
Ink-Jet versus Laser
Color laser printers have dropped in price, and many ink-jet printers deliver sharp text, network options, and print speeds fast enough to satisfy the needs of some small workgroups. But the monochrome laser printer remains the workhorse of day-to-day office printing because of its print quality, speed, and durability. We tested four new monochrome laser printers: the GCC Elite 21 N, the Minolta-QMS PagePro 4100GN, the Lexmark Optra T614nl, and the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 4100n. All include 100BaseT Ethernet networking capability and are targeted at small to medium workgroups.
A Familiar Look
The GCC Elite 21 N, HP LaserJet 4100n, and Lexmark Optra T614nl all feature a similar footprint, weight, and paper capacity. Plus, each has an LCD screen to access printer functions. In comparison, the Minolta-QMS PagePro 4100GN is smaller and lighter, but with its exposed, low-capacity, ink-jet-like paper tray, the printer occupies the same office real estate as the larger models. Instead of an LCD screen, the PagePro 4100GN uses one button and a confusing combination of three colored flashing lights to communicate the status of the printer with the user.
Along for the Drive
The drivers for each printer installed easily -- we were able to successfully create a desktop printer and print to each without any problems. While all these drivers allow you to choose print resolutions and paper-handling options from the print menu, two offer added customization. The LaserJet 4100n drivers offer the most complete set of features: four different option menus to save a job to the printer, choose a security PIN, and use the LCD to print directly. Watermark and overlay options are also available, and the LaserJet 4100n has a built-in Web server for remote administration. The T614nl offers an easy-to-use slider bar to adjust toner darkness settings.
A Measure of Speed
In the speed department, the Kentucky-bred Lexmark Optra T614nl led the pack in printing both the 40-page Microsoft Word test document and the Adobe Photoshop test document. While office document results generally tracked the printers' quoted page-per-minute speeds, the Photoshop print times were more varied (see "Testing for Speed and Quality.")
The ability to print high-resolution images depends on the way a printer uses available RAM to buffer pages and handles general housekeeping chores. To keep costs down, printers, like CPU systems, often ship with less-than-optimal RAM. Sixteen megabytes of RAM is sufficient for printing high-resolution text and office-type graphics such as charts and graphs, but it's not necessarily adequate for high-resolution image files. Just as we recommend upgrading to at least 128MB of RAM with a low-end iMac, we recommend upgrading to 32MB of memory or more for optimal performance when printing high-resolution graphics on these networked monochrome laser printers.
The T614nl and LaserJet 4100n were able to print the Photoshop document with their shipping configuration of 16MB of RAM, but the Elite 21 N required an additional 16MB in order to print our high-resolution document at 1,200 by 1,200 dpi. The PagePro 4100GN can't print at this resolution, so memory wasn't a factor.
Connect the Dots
To test image quality, we printed office documents that included text, graphs, charts, and photos. All four printers offer excellent text quality at 600 dpi. For graphics, the PagePro 4100GN is at a disadvantage because its maximum resolution is limited to 1,200 by 600 dpi (the competition offers 1,200 by 1,200 dpi). Although the PagePro's text quality did not suffer from the lower resolution, images showed some banding and artifacts. Overall, our jury found that the Elite 21 N prints excellent gray ramps and photo detail with good contrast. The T614nl follows close behind, with excellent ramps, very good image details, and good contrast. The LaserJet 4100n performed strongly across the board, while the PagePro 4100GN printed fair ramps and detail with good contrast. Again, the PagePro 4100GN's lower resolution resulted in printed artifacts appearing on the page.