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Color laser MFPs: Speedy, precise, and pricey

Your MFP choices used to be pretty simple: you chose a monochrome laser MFP for nice text and copies but boring everything else; or an ink-jet MFP for a welcome splash of color—but diminished speed and copy quality. Ink-jet MFPs have proliferated, offering some nice advantages for a lower price. Now that color laser MFPs are available for less than $1,000, ink-jet MFPs have some serious—if pricey—competition.

Two of the three color laser MFPs we tested, Brother’s MFC-9420CN and Epson’s AcuLaser CX11NF , occupy the high end of the sub-$1,000 category, offering a fairly wide range of print, scan, copy, and fax features. HP’s Color LaserJet CM1017 MFP costs the same but weighs a little less than these two; it also lacks fax functionality but adds some nice photo features.

Read the individual product reviews:

Brother MFC-9420CN;  
Epson AcuLaser CX11NF;  
HP Color LaserJet CM1017 MFP;  

More for the Money

If you’re shelling out roughly $700 for a color laser MFP (compared with $200 to $400 for an ink-jet model), you’ll naturally expect to get more for your money. We looked for faster print times, crisper text, and comparable graphics quality (ink-jet photos tend to look smoother than laser photos). We also expected scans and copies to look better—ink-jets tend to exaggerate the flaws of lower-resolution images.

Here’s what we found: With laser MFPs, you’re definitely getting more machine. Prepare to clear some space in your office for these taller, heavier units, and include clearance for raising the scanner cover, opening various access doors, and letting air run across the vents that cool the oven-hot unit. The HP model requires some additional clearance to accommodate the output tray that extends from its front.

Setting up the machines via USB is as simple as setting up any printer: you install the drivers from the CD and then plug the printer’s USB cable into a free USB port on your Mac. The CD that we received with the HP didn’t work with Macs, so we had to download the drivers from HP’s Web site. According to HP, this problem was detected before any units were shipped to stores, and units purchased today should include the proper software in the box.

Installing to an Ethernet network generally involved simply following the directions, but the process was a bit trickier in some cases. The Brother network installation, for instance, includes an automated polling feature that set off alarms on our network.

Doing everything, succeeding sometimes

Epson’s AcuLaser CX11NF is the best color laser MFP we’ve tested, combining strong speed with good overall output quality and ease of use. While the Brother is sometimes faster, and the HP is sometimes easier to use, neither was as strong overall as the Epson.

The Brother was often the fastest in our timed tests, but the output it produced was not always the best. It churned out a ten-page Word document in just 33 seconds and a 22MB Photoshop image in 38 seconds—noticeably faster than the Epson. But while it managed to print plain text very well, its photographs and other images lacked sharpness and color saturation. Its scan speeds (62 seconds to print an 8-by-10-inch photo at 600 dpi, and 91 seconds to scan a 4-by-6-inch photo at 1,200 dpi) lagged behind the Epson’s, but the prints generally looked equally good. Running the same tests via Ethernet actually made the unit slower, because the printer divides its available memory among all the functions instead of devoting it all to the task at hand.

The HP machine’s output quality is as good as or better than its Brother competitor’s, but it’s so slow that it might as well be an ink-jet. It comes with an 8-ppm (page per minute) engine, compared with 31 ppm for the Brother and 25 ppm for the Epson. Not surprisingly, the HP needed 93 seconds to print our ten-page Word document and over three minutes to print our 22MB Photoshop image. The HP’s scan times followed suit, taking up to three times as long—and in the case of our 1,200-dpi scan, an agonizing 6 minutes and 42 seconds. Printing and scanning the same documents via Ethernet took less time, but the HP was still the slowest laser MFP overall. That’s too bad, because its print quality is nearly as good as that of the Epson.

Copy ’til you drop

Everyone likes color copies. All the color MFPs we tested offer the usual host of features and copy fairly well (though copies were somewhat fuzzy and off color compared with the originals); the big difference lies in how they handle the documents. Both the Brother and the Epson have automatic document feeders (ADFs) with their own scanner heads, so you can copy multipage documents and even legal-size ones. Those two models could easily handle the demands of a busy office. The HP has no ADF, only a letter-size scanner platen (which the Brother and the Epson also have), so it’s limited to occasional, very light-volume copying.

Early MFPs evolved from fax machines. Even though e-mail and the Internet have supplanted faxing to a large degree, both the Brother and Epson units still offer a full array of fax features (although we wish their control panels were better organized). Both offer 33.6-Kbps modems. The Brother offers a broader array of fax features than most people will use, including 216 speed-dials (compared with 60 for the Epson) and 64MB of storage space (the Epson has just 8MB). It also offers scheduling, batching, and forwarding options and a rudimentary machine-generated cover sheet. Both offer support for color faxing to another compatible (color) machine. You can also fax directly from your Mac, as well as from the machine itself.

More functions, less confusion

Whether you enjoy using an MFP often boils down to the ease of using its software and hardware controls. Brother’s ControlCenter2 software and HP’s Director software both let you launch scans from your computer via presets or customizable buttons. Both worked well, although their scanning features were limited. Their control panels demonstrate the importance of careful design: on the Brother, selecting one of the large buttons labeled Scan, Fax, or Copy is easy; finding the right buttons to proceed further is less obvious because they are scattered across the panel. The Epson has the same problem. The HP has the right idea: segregate the buttons for each function, and offer a large, flip-up color LCD to make reading menu choices easier. It even makes photo processing easy, offering two slots for memory cards and control-panel features for previewing and choosing images to print.

Macworld’s buying advice

Color laser MFPs represent the future, merging the crispness and speed of the laser with the color capability previously available only on an ink-jet. In the end, the machine that best balances all these expectations is the Epson AcuLaser CX11NF. It’s fast, it produces the best output overall, and it’s generally easy to use. The Brother MFC-9420CN costs the same but falls short in output quality. I wish I could recommend the HP Color LaserJet CM1017 MFP as a fax-free alternative, because it’s so easy to use and its output is good, but it’s too slow.— Melissa Riofrio

[ James Galbraith is Macworld ’s lab director. Melissa Riofrio is a freelance writer specializing in printers and MFPs. ]

Epson AcuLaser CX11NF
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