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Most creative souls thirst for color but don't need the photo-realistic output of a high-end (and high-cost) photo printer. Fortunately, there's an alternative: consumer-level color ink-jet printers. Also known as business ink-jets, these printers can cost as little as $89. Although these models, which use four ink colors, can produce photographic images, the gradients they print aren't as smooth as those of specialized photo ink-jets, which often use six (see "Picture-Perfect Prints"). But if you want the flexibility of printing text documents, colored charts, and the occasional photograph with one printer, then a four-color ink-jet may have your name on it.
We rounded up nine ink-jet printers that cost less than $200: Canon's S450 and S600; Epson's Stylus Color 777i and Stylus Color 880i, Hewlett-Packard's DeskJet 842c and DeskJet 935c, Lexmark's Z32 and Z42, and Xerox's DocuPrint M760. Macworld Lab printed text documents and photographic images on each, measuring speeds and comparing printed results side-by-side. In the end, the DeskJet 935c offered the best compromise between speed and image quality.
Setting Up Shop
The printers from Canon, Epson, and HP were all very easy to set up, thanks to large, Mac-specific, step-by-step guides. Although Lexmark doesn't provide such a guide, setup for its Z32 was very straightforward. Unfortunately, the Z42 is much less Mac-friendly; the URL listed for downloading Mac drivers was broken when we tried it. Only by performing a search on Lexmark's Web site could we find the 2.7MB download. Xerox was even less accommodating for its DocuPrint M760. The packaging, Quick Reference, and Getting Started documents suggest only Windows compatibility, and the setup diagram doesn't offer Mac-specific instructions. A single sentence buried in the diagram's introduction lists a URL for Mac drivers.
Inks and Paper
All these printers can accommodate legaland letter-size paper, as well as smaller formats such as envelopes. With the models from Canon, Epson, and Lexmark, you load paper into a slot at the top of the printer, and finished prints fall into a tray at the bottom. The printers from HP and Xerox have a much sturdier paper-transport mechanism: they draw paper from an enclosed cassette at the bottom of the printer and deliver your completed prints to a tray directly above the cassette. This design protects paper from outside agents such as dust and curious felines. But if you are short on desk space, you might prefer the top-loading models, which allow you to remove the bracket that supports blank paper and then fold up the receptacle tray.
Although ink-jet printers are very inexpensive, money spent on ink cartridges can quickly add up. The DeskJet 935c is the most economical of this group, with an estimated per-print cost of roughly 6 cents for color output, not including paper (see "The Big Picture"). In contrast, the Z42 has an estimated per-print cost of 14 cents. When printing black only, the S450, S600, and DeskJet 935c are the least expensive, about 3 cents per print, while the Stylus Color 777i and Z32 cost about 7 cents per print.
The Canon and Xerox printers all use a more practical approach to ink cartridges than traditional models: the ink tanks are separate from the print heads, and each color has a separate tank. So if you print a lot of black text and a single color (say, magenta), you don't need to replace the whole set of inks when just one runs out. The Lexmark inks produced an unpleasant odor during printing, though the odor disappeared after the ink dried.
The Fine Print
To judge image quality, we printed high-resolution photos at the printer's highest-quality settings on the paper recommended by each vendor. The printers produced some impressive prints, but each displayed at least one deficiency. The Stylus Color 777i and Stylus Color 880i both produced fine, smooth prints with good continuous tone. Prints from the DocuPrint M760, S450, Z42, and Z32 were much coarser, with obvious dots. (The other printers fell somewhere between.) In general, the printers with higher resolutions produced better continuous tone. The one exception was the DeskJet 842c, which despite a relatively low resolution of 600 by 1,200 dpi produced smoother output than the Z42, which supports 2,400-by-1,200-dpi resolution.
When we compared the printers' color output with our original test image, the DeskJet 935c was the most accurate, with the Stylus Color 777i following close behind. Prints from the Stylus Color 880i and the S450 were oversaturated and contained an excess of yellow, resulting in unrealistic skin tones. Output from the Z32, Z42, and DocuPrint M760 appeared pale and washed out.
We also looked at each printer's ability to produce a gray-scale image without perceptible color. When printing gray-scale, ink-jets use a bit of color to help round out the gradients between subtle shades of gray. Most of the printers were able to reproduce fairly neutral grays with only a subtle color cast. The exceptions were the DocuPrint M760, the Stylus Color 880i, and the Z32, whose grays were noticeably tinted red, green, and blue, respectively.
The Text Factor
If you use your printer for tasks other than color printing--letters or schoolwork, for example--legibility is important. The Lexmark printers produced the sharpest text on plain paper, with only minor bleeding along the grain. The DeskJet 842c and DeskJet 935c were almost as sharp as the Lexmark printers, while the other printers showed fuzziness typical of ink-jets: bleeding around the letters and subtle, arbitrary variations in stroke thickness. The most striking flaw was with the S450, which cut off text along the right margin.
The Race Is On
When printing text, the Canon printers and the Stylus Color 880i were the fastest of the group, cranking out a ten-page Microsoft Word document in less than two minutes. In contrast, the DeskJet 842c was downright sluggish, taking a little more than five minutes. When printing high-resolution Adobe Photoshop images at highest-quality settings, the DocuPrint M760 took a significant lead, printing a 22MB file in five minutes. The second fastest was the S600, which took eight and a half minutes to print the same image. The slowest printer in this test--the S450--took more than 16 minutes. Of course, if image quality isn't a priority--if you're printing from the Web or for proofing, for example--you can cut printing time significantly by outputting your graphics at a lower resolution. Almost all of the printers were able to produce a low-resolution image in less than a minute and a half. (The Epson printers accomplished the task in just over 30 seconds.) Even the slowest printer, the S450, took less than two and a half minutes.