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Ink-jet MFPs are for photos

When we decided to review a selection of ink-jet MFPs, we kept the filter wide open: we asked the vendors to send us the model of their choice, as long as it was an ink-jet, included a flatbed scanner, and was Mac-compatible. The five we ended up with vary quite a bit: the very affordable Lexmark X5470 ; the fax-focused Brother MFC-665CW ; the photo-centric Epson Stylus Photo RX580 ; and two photo ink-jets that incorporate slide and film scanning, the Canon Pixma MP960 and the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart C7180 . And even though all the models we looked at have their merits, we found that the Epson was the best bet for photographers, while the HP was the best all-around ink-jet MFP of the bunch.

Read the individual product reviews:

Lexmark X5470;  
Brother MFC-665CW;  
Epson Stylus Photo RX580;  
Canon Pixma MP960;  
Hewlett-Packard Photosmart C7180;  

I’ve been set up!

Four of the five MFPs have the same color scheme—silver and black. The Lexmark is unique, with a white and silver case. And although the Brother and Lexmark look smaller than the others at first glance, all of these printers take up roughly the same amount of space when their paper guides are extended and scanner lids are opened. If space is an issue, the Brother actually does take up about four less inches of horizontal space with the scanner lid open, and it isn’t as deep as the other MFPs.

All of the MFPs we looked at connect to your Mac via USB. This is the easiest connection, and in some cases the fastest, but if you need to share the device on a network, it would be best to get a model that includes Ethernet. The networked models we looked at—the HP and the Brother—offered 10/100 Ethernet as well as wireless 802.11g transceivers. The Lexmark offers 10/100 Ethernet and 802.11g wireless connectivity as options that cost $129 and $149, respectively, but we did not test them. Of the two ink-jet MFPs that shipped with built-in networking, the HP was far easier to set up than the Brother, which had PC-specific instructions for the wireless and less-than-intuitive instructions for the wired Ethernet connections. Once set up, both worked as advertised, allowing us to scan from the unit to our Mac and print from our Mac to the printers without a problem. Interestingly, the Brother was slower when connecting over the network, especially when scanning, while the HP performed the same or faster when connected in that way.

Fax facility

Three of the ink-jet MFPs, the Lexmark, the HP, and the Brother, feature built-in color fax machines, meaning that they can fax in color. However, the color capability is necessary on the receiving fax machine for this function to work properly. The Brother takes its telephone features the furthest, even allowing you to ditch your office phone by offering built-in voice mail, a telephone handset, and a speakerphone feature.

While these MFPs were able to send and receive faxes, the Brother and the Lexmark feature ADFs, making it easier to fax a small stack of documents. The HP, on the other hand, requires that you scan each sheet individually; you must lift the lid and lay each sheet on the flatbed—a tedious task for anyone who has a lot of faxing to do.

Camera cards

All of the ink-jet MFPs we looked at have card slots to fit most camera memory cards, but their photo capabilities varied greatly. All but the Lexmark offer preview LCDs, which make choosing, editing, and printing photos from your memory card much easier. Without a preview LCD, the Lexmark requires that you print out a proof sheet containing small circles (like the ones on standardized tests) under a thumbnail image of each photo on your card. You fill in the proof sheet with a pen or pencil to specify the photo(s) you’d like to print and the size and paper type. Once you’ve filled out the sheet, place it on the scanner bed, and the unit reads it and “fills” your order.

Three of the printers—the Canon, the Epson, and the HP—use six inks to print photos, adding light magenta and light cyan to the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks that the Brother and Lexmark use. The downside to having more inks is that the cost of replacing your ink tanks is higher, so if you don’t plan on printing photos on your MFP, you might want to consider a four-ink model. All but the Lexmark use individual ink tanks—so if you run out of magenta, for example, you replace only the magenta tank instead of a multiple-color tank in which there may still be plenty of cyan, yellow, and black ink.

Can you handle it?

All the MFPs we tested can hold at least 100 sheets of plain, letter-size paper. The Canon uses two trays—a top-loading sheet feeder and a paper tray beneath the unit. Together they can hold up to 300 sheets. With two trays, you can either load them with paper and not worry about running out for a long a time, or use different types of paper in each tray—for instance, plain paper in the sheet feeder and photo paper in the tray. This allows you to switch between document types without having to swap paper. The HP also has a second tray, but it is limited to just 20 sheets of 4-by-6-inch photo paper—not quite as flexible as the Canon but still handy.

Plan to scan

A printer with a flatbed scanner gives you more versatility in terms of what you can scan—magazines, books, or other objects such as leaves or hands. But the auto-matic document feeders on the Brother and Lexmark models make scanning multipage documents much easier. The HP and the Canon, being more photo-oriented, include an integrated transparency adapter built into the scanning lid. And although these units don’t support a large variety of film formats, they do allow you to scan multiple 35mm slides or negatives at 4,800-dpi resolution.

Speed it up

In terms of print speed, the clear winner was the Canon, which posted the best times in three of our four speed tests. It was able to print our one-page Microsoft Word document in just 9 seconds; the closest competitor was the HP, which spit out its one-page Word document in 16 seconds, followed by the Epson, the Lexmark, and the Brother at 21, 29, and 34 seconds, respectively. The Canon also took first place when printing our 22MB Photoshop image and in the ten-page Word document test. The only print-speed test it didn’t win was the four-page PDF document; at 1 minute and 54 seconds, the Canon was just two seconds behind the HP, which took home the gold in that contest. The Brother was the slowest printer in the one-page Word and the Photoshop image tests. It came in second to last in the ten-page Word test and the four-page PDF contest, with the Lexmark trailing it in both of those tests.

However, the Brother was the USB scanning speed champ, taking under a minute to scan both an 8-by-10-inch photo at 600 dpi and a 4-by-6-inch photo at 1,200 dpi. But when scanning over the network, the Brother’s advantage was diminished, with scanning times more in line with the rest of the pack.

Quality counts

To judge output quality, we assembled a panel of Macworld editors to rate the job each MFP did at printing, scanning, and copying a variety of documents. In the print-quality category, there was no clear winner. If you plan to focus primarily on photographic printing, you should note that the Epson earned the only Superior rating given in any test, for its beautiful 8-by-10-inch glossy print of our Photoshop test image. The Canon received a Very Good rating in this test.

All but one of the ink-jet printers earned a Very Good rating in our text-quality test. The Lexmark’s text was a little less precise, but it still received a rating of Good. In our fine-lines and graphics test, the HP and the Canon took top honors; there were no breaks in their curved lines and no visible banding in gradients and color blends. The Lexmark received a Fair rating because faint horizontal lines showed up in many areas of the print.

To judge scanning quality, our panel looked at two documents—a photograph scanned at 600 dpi and a test chart scanned at each printer’s highest optical resolution. In the photo scan, none of the MFPs wowed the jurors enough to earn more than a Good rating. None of the scans were so far out of whack that a little tweaking couldn’t help, but none looked as good as the original. The HP was the clear winner, however, in the chart-scan test, with sharp clean detail visible in areas that the Lexmark, for example, had a hard time capturing.

Of the two scanners with built-in transparency adapters, the Canon fared better than the HP. Though both digitized our test slides, the Canon’s scans had more-accurate colors and captured more detail. If you have boxes full of slides or film that you’d like to bring into the digital age, and you don’t want to purchase a dedicated scanner, then the Canon is the MFP for you.

Our panel of Macworld editors also looked at color copies of a magazine cover (we have a few magazines lying around the office) and evaluated how well the copy matched the original. The Canon and the Epson did the best job of color-matching and accurately reproducing details. The HP and the Brother both scored Good ratings, with just a little less detail and color accu-racy, and the Lexmark again earned a Fair rating, because of the same faint horizontal lines across the image.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

An ink-jet MFP can be a great space saver and incorporate all of the abilities of several devices in a comparatively inexpensive package. Which unit is right for you depends on how you plan to use it. If printing photos is your main focus, buy the Epson Stylus Photo RX580. If you plan to fax a lot, be sure to look at the Brother MFC-665CW. But if you’re looking for a solid jack-of-all-trades, check out the HP Photosmart C7180. We found that it had the right mix of features, speed, and quality.— James Galbraith

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