Adding color to your work documents has always come at a price in terms of time, money, or both. Color ink-jet printers are inexpensive and great for printing photos from your digital camera, but the paper and ink can cost an arm and a leg, the print times are often slow, and the text is not up to laser clarity. But over the past year, prices have dropped to the point where it’s now feasible to consider color laser printing for homes and small offices. We looked at six color laser printers priced at around $1,000: Brother’s HL-2700CN, Hewlett-Packard’s Color LaserJet 3500n, Konica Minolta’s magicolor 2350en, Lexmark’s C510n, Oki Data’s C5300N, and Xerox’s Phaser 8400/B. All but the Xerox are network ready.
The Look of Things
Since none of these printers is designed to sit on your desktop, they don’t require dazzling good looks. They’re all fairly loud and large, weighing on average about 65 pounds, and they’re all either gray or putty colored. The Konica’s unusual design features an open tray that you load from the side; accessing this tray could be difficult in tight spaces. Also, all of the Konica’s connections (USB, Ethernet, and power) are on the side of the unit.
All of these printers have a variety of extra options. You can expand all of them to handle more paper by using a different paper tray. You can upgrade all but the HP with duplexing units that allow automatic printing on both sides of the page. And you can upgrade all but the HP with more memory. The more memory a printer has, the faster it can handle large and numerous print jobs. The Konica, Lexmark, and Xerox printers ship with 128MB of RAM, while the Brother, HP, and Oki Data printers ship with 64MB.
The only printer that had memory problems was the Oki Data. A 22MB Photoshop file would not print with the standard amount of memory until it was downsized to 21.3MB. Although the larger file would spool and the printer would indicate that it was processing a job, it never produced a page. A memory upgrade would have solved the problem.
The Real Cost
All of the printers except for the HP ship with low-capacity starter cartridges that require that you buy replacement toner sooner than you would with standard cartridges. Konica and Lexmark sell two replacement cartridges, with different capacities. The more expensive, higher-capacity ones are a better value. Taking into account the cost of the toner and inks alone (not the more durable components such as the fuser and the waste-toner bottle), the printers with the lowest ink cost per page (about 9 cents) were the Brother, Lexmark, and Oki Data. The most expensive was the HP, at a cost of 12 cents per page. These numbers were supplied by the vendors.
All the Pretty Colors
We printed several different kinds of files and assembled a panel of experts to evaluate each printer’s ability to reproduce accurate color.
Even if you’re in the market for a color laser printer, you’ll probably have to print plenty of black-and-white text documents. We printed a simple Word document with a variety of text sizes ranging from 9 to 14 points at best resolution, and had our panel rate the output. Although some of the text appeared a little lighter or heavier, all the printers received a Very Good score, and our jury was unable to pick a clear winner.
Next we challenged the printers’ ability to produce fine curved lines and gradients. Only the Lexmark scored a Very Good rating for both tasks. The Brother had some obvious bends within the curved lines and dropouts in the color gradients. The Konica and the HP produced smooth curved lines, but the smaller point sizes had some noticeable breaks.
We used our standard Photoshop test image, a picnic scene with many different elements, to judge the printers’ ability to produce accurate colors and photographic detail. When comparing the output to a color-corrected print of the file, our jury rated both the Lexmark and the Oki Data as Very Good. The Brother and, to a lesser extent, the Konica printed too red, and the HP’s reds looked almost pink. Concentrating on some shadow detail in a bowl of peppercorns and on handwritten text on a recipe card, our jury again thought the Lexmark and Oki Data devices fared well, rating them as Very Good.
Next we printed a gray-scale photograph on each printer. All but the HP showed some kind of color cast. Unfortunately, the HP print was so dark that it lost much of the photo’s shadow detail. The Brother print had a light green cast and some strange colors in some of the transitional grays.
Although digital photography may not be a color laser’s strong suit, speed is. If you’re printing large or multiple jobs, the speed of these color lasers is nearly as important as their print quality. To see just how fast they are, we printed several different types of files and recorded the time it took each printer to complete each job. If you mostly send one- or two-page jobs to your printer, you’ll really appreciate the following statistics: sending a one-page black-and-white Word document to the printer took 8 seconds for the Xerox and 28 seconds for the HP and the Oki Data; the rest fell somewhere in between.
To test the speed on longer jobs, we timed the printing of a ten-page black-and-white Word document. Interestingly, the Xerox, first to print a single page, came in last here, at 1 minute and 17 seconds. The Lexmark, which took nearly twice as long as the Xerox to print the first page, won this round in 33 seconds, followed closely by the Brother at 36 seconds. Our 22MB Photoshop CS document, printed at each printer’s best-quality setting, proved to be a killer for the Oki Data. Unlike ink-jet printers, which let the computer do most of the heavy lifting in preparing data to print, a color laser printer relies on the onboard processor and memory for much of that work. The Oki Data, with 64MB of RAM, was just a little underconfigured for this test. Downsizing the image to 21.3MB let this printer complete the test in a respectable 1 minute and 54 seconds. The HP shone in this test, printing the file in only 52 seconds, more than four times faster than the last-place Konica, at 3 minutes and 36 seconds.
Setup and Networking
All the printers were easy to set up. The Lexmark, the Brother, and the Konica even shipped with the toner cartridges already installed. The rest shipped their toners or ink cartridges in separate bags. Only the Oki Data printer’s installation caused me to get toner on my hands.
All of the network printers support DHCP, for automatically assigning IP addresses. But the Brother and the HP are the only printers that support Rendezvous, Apple’s zero-configuration networking feature. This lets users view the printer status page in Safari (from a menu-bar pull-down menu) without needing to know the printer’s IP address.
The HP is the only network-ready printer that comes with an external print server, which was a breeze to configure. The server plugs into the printer’s USB port; unfortunately, it requires an external power brick to operate. The Xerox is the only printer that ships without network capabilities; it requires a USB connection. (For $300 more, you can get a network model.) Xerox says a change in the way Panther handles USB printers caused a driver problem we encountered: the documents would print and they looked fine, but in the Print Center window the Status column wouldn’t clear the job after completion, and the print icon in the Dock also indicated that the job was still printing. Xerox gave us a new driver that worked just fine; it should be available from the company’s Web site by the time you read this. And though the Xerox isn’t technically a network printer, we were easily able to use Panther’s print-sharing utility (via the sharing icon in System Preferences) to print to it from another Mac on the network.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Any of these printers would be an acceptable choice for printing heavy text and occasional color graphics. But we recommend the Lexmark C510n for its generous RAM configuration, expansion options, great print quality, and rapid speed.
Under the Hood
The printers in this roundup use several different technologies to produce color laser output. Most are standard four-color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) laser-toner printers.
Here’s how this technology works: A laser, directed by moving mirrors, draws an electrostatic image on an imaging drum. The first color attaches itself to the charged areas of the drum, which applies toner to the sheet. The sheet then goes to the fuser, which melts the toner and fuses it to the paper. The process repeats for the remaining three colors in the sequence.
The Oki Data uses the same basic system, but instead of a laser it uses a stationary array of digital LEDs to charge the drum. Oki Data says the benefit of LED technology is that it’s solid-state, so the print head doesn’t have any moving parts that can get out of alignment.
The Xerox doesn’t use toner at all, but solid ink, similar to a crayon. You drop the waxy ink sticks into their keyed slots. A heater melts them down and uses ink-jet technology to apply the melted ink to the page. Solid-ink technology has its benefits: It uses fewer costly consumables such as cartridges or drums, and it doesn’t have any moving parts to break down. Also, you don’t have to worry about disposing of or recycling empty cartridges. On the downside, the printer can take longer to warm up from an off state; it emits a smell (like a candle burning); and, most important, the ink isn’t fused to the paper, but rather sits on top. Although this allows the Xerox to print on a wide variety of media, you can scrape off the ink with a fingernail or a pen. If you expect your prints to be manhandled, you may be better off with a toner-based printer.