Color laser and ink-jet printers seem to get all the attention. Ink-jet printers are inexpensive and print great photographs, but their text isn’t as sharp as laser printers’ output. And their expensive inks make the cost per page too high for an office full of people to be printing e-mail and expense reports on a daily basis. The prices of color laser printers have come down considerably, but if most of the documents you print are of the gen-eral office variety—primarily text, and some graphics—the price and features of a small workgroup monochrome laser printer are hard to beat. This month, we look at four network-enabled monochrome laser printers priced at or below $500: the Brother HL-5170DNLT, the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1320n, the Lexmark E332n, and the Oki Data B4350n. The standouts were the Brother, for having the most features and being the least-expensive printer, and the Lexmark, for its outstanding print quality.
Although they’re designed to support small workgroups, each of these printers is compact enough to be used as a single-user desktop laser printer. The HP’s cube design takes up the least amount of desk space—about 14 inches square. With its additional standard paper tray attached, the Brother is almost 14 inches high—it’s the tallest of the group by nearly 4 inches, but it should fit easily into most workspaces. The Brother and the Oki Data sport retro-conservative beige-and-gray cases, while the HP mixes in some dark gray for a little flair (Oki Data has also recently introduced a black version of its printer). The Lexmark makes a fashion statement with its black-and-silver contoured case and the bright blue power button on its front.
Setup and installation of each printer was straightforward, though we did get a little toner on our hands as we tried to install the Oki Data’s toner cartridge. The Brother, Lexmark, and Oki Data printers use separate toner-cartridge and image drums, while the HP combines these into one piece. All the printer makers offer standard and high-capacity toner cartridges; the higher-capacity cartridges have a lower cost per page. Looking just at the toner costs and the number of prints each toner cartridge can make, as reported by the printer makers, the HP appears to have the highest cost per page—3 cents using the standard-capacity cartridge and 2 cents using the high-capacity version. Factor in the cost per page of the imaging drums, though, and all the printers come in at about 2 cents per page when using high-capacity cartridges.
The Oki Data’s software setup was not very Mac-like. The box contained two CDs with different part numbers but very similar descriptions and contents. And the files on the CDs were not clearly marked. For example, the PDF manual, which is named B4xUGen.pdf, was near the bottom of one CD’s 74 top-level files and folders.
Once turned on and connected to the network via Ethernet, each printer was able to automatically retrieve an IP address. All but the Oki Data worked with Apple’s Rendezvous networking technology, which allows you to choose the printer and then view and manage it via Apple’s Safari Web browser without needing to know its IP address. The Oki Data was also configurable via a browser, but you’ll need to know the IP address and then manually enter it into your browser’s address bar. Each printer includes a USB 2.0 port for non-networked printing. The Brother and the Oki Data also provide parallel connectors for connection to Windows PCs.
All of the printers were easy to use. The HP, Lexmark, and Brother printers have a few buttons and indicator lights that show print-job status and alert you to paper jams and other problems. The Oki Data has an LED that shows the printer’s status.
In terms of features, the Brother has the most complete list. Like the HP, the Brother offers a built-in automatic duplexing capability (for printing on both sides of a page). Although it takes longer to print in duplex mode, doing so can save a lot of paper. The Brother also comes with a second paper tray, doubling the others’ 250-page capacity, so you won’t have to fill the paper trays as often, and you can have two types of paper in sizes as large as legal (8.5 by 14 inches) available to you at the same time. You can use one tray to hold cover stock or higher-quality paper that’s suitable for presentations, and fill the second tray with less-expensive paper for everyday, or draft, printing. Additional paper trays are available as options from Oki Data (a 500-sheet tray for $190) and Lexmark (a 550-sheet tray for $199). Though HP doesn’t offer an optional paper tray for the 1320n, it also sells the LaserJet 1320tn, which includes an additional 250-sheet paper tray, for $100 more. All the paper trays were standard, with easy ways to insert envelopes or smaller paper.
All of these printers are PostScript Level 3 compatible and offer some form of a high-resolution print mode. The HP and the Lexmark offer a 1,200-by-1,200 resolution, the Oki Data can print at a resolution of 600 by 1,200, and the Brother is a 600-by-600-dpi printer that claims to provide 1,200-dpi-like print quality through hardware interpolation.
|Resolution*||Paper Capacity||RAM (maximum)|
|Brother HL-5170DNLT||600 X 600||500 sheets||32MB (160MB)|
|Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1320n||1,200 X 1,200||250 sheets||16MB (144MB)|
|Lexmark E332n||1,200 X 1,200||250 sheets||32MB (160MB)|
|Oki Data B4350n||600 X 1,200||250 sheets||32MB (272MB)|
* Maximum hardware resolution (not interpolated by software), in dots per inch.
Mono a Mono
If you’ve ever tried printing something out at the last minute before running into a meeting, then you know that a printer’s speed is important—you don’t want it to take its sweet time spitting out your document. We tested the print speeds of each printer using their default amounts of RAM. The all-around fastest printer in this group was the Oki Data. It was able to print our 10-page Microsoft Word test document in just 35 seconds and our 4-page PDF file in 1 minute. The HP, the Lexmark, and the Oki Data tied for first place in the Word test, but the Lexmark took about 9 seconds longer than the Oki Data in printing the PDF document. The HP came in a distant last on the PDF test, taking three times as long as the Oki Data to complete the task. The Brother took the longest to print the Word document, but it finished the PDF about a minute faster than the HP did.
Each of the printers came with 32MB of RAM, except for the HP, which came with 16MB. This may explain its slowness when printing the PDF document. You can add much more RAM to any of these printers, which should make printing large files with lots of PostScript data faster.
|10-Page Word Document||4-Page PDF Document|
|Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1320n||0:35||3:19|
|Oki Data B4350n||0:35||1:00|
|< Better||< Better|
Best Results in Bold
A strength of laser printers is the sharp, clear text they produce, and none of these printers failed to impress. A jury of Macworld editors found that each of the four printers produced excellent text. One editor thought that the Lexmark’s text was too heavy, but the majority found the density very appealing. The jury was a little more split when rating the printers’ graphics output. The Lexmark received the highest marks for its ability to produce fine, curved lines and smooth gradients. The Lexmark’s prints were still darker than the others, but most jurors thought that this helped to create depth and enhanced printed photos. The HP and the Brother earned Good ratings. They both had more vertical banding in the gradients and lower contrast than the Lexmark. The Oki’s graphics prints, with some slight kinks in curved lines and both horizontal and vertical banding in images and gradients, were rated as Flawed.
|Text Quality||Graphics Quality|
|Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1320n||Excellent||Good|
|Lexmark E332n||Excellent||Very Good|
|Oki Data B4350n||Excellent||Flawed|
Best Results in Bold
Macworld’s Buying Advice
All of these printers produced excellent text, but the Lexmark E332n led the rest with its ability to produce the best graphics in a timely fashion. Even though the Brother HL-5170DNLT’s graphics printing was not quite as stellar as the Lexmark’s, its low price, duplexing capability, and extra paper tray make it the best value of the bunch. The HP LaserJet 1320n has a nice, compact design; good overall print quality; and built-in duplexing. But it costs more and has a lower paper capacity than the Brother. Unfortunately, the Oki Data B4350n’s fast print speeds were not enough to offset its lack of Rendezvous support and its low image quality.Brother HL-5170DNLTHewlett-Packard LaserJet 1320nOki Data B4350nEditors’ Choice: Lexmark E332n