Color is great--but it's not right for everything. When it comes to reading text, for example, the eye prefers the simplicity of black ink on white paper. While color ink-jet printers are affordable and can print both black and color ink, their text output is never perfectly crisp. If you need sharp text that doesn't strain the eyes, and you don't have a lot of time to wait for documents to meander through a printer, nothing beats the quality and speed of a monochrome laser printer.
Macworld Lab tested six monochrome laser printers priced below $800 and designed with home offices and small work groups in mind: the Brother HL-1270N and HL-1670N, the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1200se, the Lexmark Optra E312 and Optra M412n, and the Samsung ML-6060. After testing each printer's speed and output quality, we judged the Brother HL-1670N to be the best overall value.
If you're sharing a monochrome laser printer among more than one computer, you'll need to connect it to a network. The HL-1270N, HL-1670N, and Optra M412n all include 10/100BaseT Ethernet ports. Brother takes the HL-1670N's networking features to another level by including a built-in Web server that allows remote administration of networked printers via a Web browser. To connect the Optra E312, the ML-6060, or the LaserJet 1200se to a network via Ethernet, you must first install an upgrade card, an option that will cost from $179 (for the ML-6060) to $255 (for the Optra E312)--more than half the price of the printer.
Of course, printers without Ethernet capabilities can still be networked using Apple's USB Printer Sharing software. However, setting them up that way can be more complicated. (See " Four Questions to Ask Yourself before You Buy.")
Speed and Power
Printer speeds advertised by a manufacturer do not include the time it takes to process and start printing the first page. A printer may take up to three minutes to process an image before a sheet of paper is pulled from the tray. The complexity of a document, the amount of memory installed in the printer, the power of the printer's internal processor, and the resolution settings all affect how quickly it will print. In general, the more RAM installed in a laser printer, the larger the file it can print. Likewise, the stronger the processor, the faster the printer starts printing. For example, the Optra M412n, with its 137MHz RISC processor, printed an Adobe Photoshop document in less than half the time it took its sibling, the 67MHz-processor E312.
Macworld Lab's time tests begin when the print button is clicked on and end when the last page drops into the paper tray. On each of the printers we reviewed, we printed a ten-page Microsoft Word 2000 document at a resolution of 600 dpi. The Optra M412n finished first, in just 48 seconds. The Optra E312 came in last, taking 1 minute and 17 seconds.
Although none of these printers had problems printing our Microsoft Word documents at their highest resolution setting, graphic-intensive documents considerably slowed down some models. In our Photoshop speed test, the Optra M412n completed the page in a stunning 56 seconds. But three of the printers--the HL-1270N, the Optra E312, and the ML-6060--weren't able to print our Photoshop document at all until we purchased and installed additional memory. We found a $49 16MB upgrade for the HL-1270N printer on Crucial Technology's Web site ( www.crucial.com ). Lexmark sent a 32MB upgrade for its E312 model, at a cost of $289. However, through Crucial Technology we found a comparable module for $8command--which also worked in the ML-6060. All of the memory upgrades came with easy-to-follow installation instructions.
When we tested text sharpness, the HL-1270N, HL-1670N, LaserJet 1200se, and Optra M412n all produced crisp, easy-to-read pages. Text from the Optra E312 was sharp but slightly heavier than the other samples. The ML-6060's text was slightly less sharp but still acceptable. To evaluate each printer's image quality, we printed a high-resolution Photoshop file and a PDF document with graphical elements including fine curved lines, horizontal and vertical gradients, and photographic images. The HL-1270N produced the best overall image quality, with excellent photo images, plus good fine lines and gradients. The HL-1670N also performed well, scoring a bit lower for photo quality, but still producing acceptable gradients and fine lines.
The photo images produced by the Optra M412n were grainy, with visible horizontal lines. The Optra E312 did slightly better, with fewer horizontal lines and cleaner images. The ML-6060 produced the best gradients of any of the printers, but there were obvious breaks in the fine lines, and its Photoshop document was very light. (This printer offered no means of controlling the toner's density, unlike Lexmark's printers, which have settings in the drivers.)
The LaserJet 1200se didn't print the Photoshop test document at all initially. Instead, it spit out twenty pages, each with only a single line of characters across the top. After changing the default Binary setting to ASCII, the printer performed well across the board in the Photoshop tests, but a Mac printer should print Photoshop documents without requiring a change to default settings. (All HP printers using USB have this problem; at press time, HP said it was working on a bug fix.)
All of these printers except the ML-6060 ship with some type of emulated support for PostScript so they can interpret lines and text from PostScript-based applications such as Adobe Illustrator and QuarkXPress.
The LaserJet 1200se, HL-270N, and Optra E312 offer PostScript 2 emulation. The Optra M412n and HL-1670N include PostScript 3 emulation, which supports more levels of gray, for smoother images, and includes more fonts than PostScript 2.
Without a $199 PostScript 3 upgrade (which includes an 8MB RAM upgrade), the ML-6060 must use the included PCL drivers, resulting in blurry, blotchy images when printing Photoshop, XPress, and PDF documents. With the upgrade installed, the ML-6060 was able to print much sharper images at 1,200 dpi.
The Lexmark and Brother printers produce a maximum 600-by-600-dpi output, but both companies employ a resolution-enhancement technology that purports to pump up image quality to that of a 1,200-dpi printer. Indeed, in our tests the Brother printers produced clear, high-quality graphics using the enhancement technology. However, we had a hard time distinguishing between the Lexmark printers' regular and enhanced output. The companies also claim that their "enhanced" printers can print faster than printers with a real dpi count of 1,200, but we recorded only a slight advantage in our tests.