We’re all busy tackling several projects at once, so naturally we expect our machines to multitask as well as we do. That’s why multifunction printers (MFPs), sometimes called all-in-ones or multifunctions, are growing in popularity.
An MFP combines print, copy, scan, and sometimes fax functions in one occasionally large or odd-looking package. This combination—long a staple of the PC universe and increasingly common in the Mac market—is especially attractive for personal use, small or home-based businesses, and even busy satellite or executive offices.
Today’s MFPs perform better than ever, and they’re becoming more acceptable for people who want a graceful, versatile, and integrated printer, scanner, copier, and fax machine but who don’t have the money and space for separate single-function machines.
Macworld looked at some new sub-$1,000 color laser MFPs and a selection of their lower-cost, ink-jet counterparts—all of these multifunctions can print, copy, scan, and (in some cases) fax in color. (For a review of the color laser MFPs, see
Color laser MFPs: Speedy, precise, and pricey )
When you shop for an MFP, keep one thing in mind: What an MFP provides in convenience, it sometimes lacks in capabilities. A particular MFP may excel at faxing but may offer only lackluster printing, or vice versa. In any case, color is the way to go.
Ink-jet MFPs represent the largest and most popular category of all-in-ones on the market. They cost less initially—the models we review here cost between $100 and $400—and until recently, they were the only option for color output in this price range. They’re compact and easy to move around, which is useful for the small office-home office crowd. Print quality has improved over time as well; you can print crisp text (though special paper usually plays a supporting role) and nice-looking images. And ink-jets can produce lab-quality photos, something laser printers can’t quite match.
However, ink-jets MFPs tend to print slowly, and quality often suffers when you print lower-resolution images through the copy, scan, or fax functions. Also, the cost of replacement inks can quickly overtake the cost of the unit, making an ink-jet best suited for lower-volume use (say, for an individual or a very small office).
Color laser MFPs may cost more, but they address many of the shortcomings of ink-jet multifunctions. They’re generally faster and have better print quality overall, especially on copies and prints of scanned images. They’re also designed to handle higher volumes—thousands of pages per month, as opposed to hundreds on an ink-jet. While these machines cost more up front, replacing toner and other consumables usually costs less over time. But even if price is no object, space or logistics might be. Color laser MFPs are much bigger and heavier than ink-jets, and they could easily overwhelm a closet-size office or a cubicle. However, for high-volume use, they are the better choice.
Function, not price
Because MFPs vary widely in how well they handle certain tasks, decide which are most important to you and then shop accordingly. If you need the absolute best and most fully featured printer or scanner, for example, you may be better off getting a stand-alone unit.
All MFPs print capably and accommodate standard paper sizes (letter and legal, as well as envelopes and other small pieces). Two-sided printing, or duplexing, features vary: Some printers handle it manually; some, automatically; and a few, not at all. If you print documents that have more text than images, or roughly a fifty-fifty mix, you might be better off with a laser printer. Its text quality will be better than that of an ink-jet, and its image quality, while not quite on a par with what you’d expect from a photo lab, will probably be quite pleasing. An ink-jet may give you better-quality photos, but ink-jets are slower at this task than lasers. Volume is the final factor; the more pages you print per month, the more you need a laser.
When it comes to copying, it’s about letter versus legal, as well as volume. Most MFPs come with a flatbed scanner that takes only letter-size documents (the machines with legal-size flatbeds are wider), but some models have a second scanner head that works with an automatic document feeder (ADF), so you can make a copy of a legal-size contract, say. If you make only occasional low-volume, letter-size copies, then you can probably do without an ADF.
Pay for what you need
The typical office scanner’s functions—scanning to fax, copy, or e-mail, or to send through an OCR (optical character resolution) app to get editable text—involve resolutions ranging from 200 dots per inch (dpi) to 600 dpi, well within the optical resolutions of most MFPs’ scanners. What’s more, some of these scanners’ interpolated resolutions are sometimes as high as 19,200 dpi (though 9,600 dpi is more common), which is more than enough for scanning photos, maps, and other detailed images. All the MFPs offer some variety of scanning, OCR, or photo-editing software, ranging from rudimentary to full-fledged. Don’t base your purchase on the bundle; you can always buy your own applications.
E-mail and the Web have certainly cut into fax traffic. Even though you might talk yourself into wanting a fax machine just in case you need it someday, think seriously about whether you’d use it enough to justify the cost. If you’d use it only for faxing signed documents a few times a year, you might be OK visiting a local copy shop and paying a dollar or two per page.
If you know that you need a fax, then you’re in luck: many MFPs, especially laser ones, are highly fax-capable and usually offer an abundance of features. Conveniences include programmable speed dial—some machines will let you store dozens or even hundreds of numbers. For businesses that rely heavily on faxing, fax transmission during off-hours can save time and phone charges, while polling (one fax machine asks—or polls—another fax machine to send it a fax) and forwarding (that is, sending incoming faxes automatically to another fax machine) make managing incoming and outgoing fax traffic easy. Fax storage capacity lets you hold faxes until you want to print them, preventing incoming faxes from spilling all over the place. Color faxing is a fairly new and fun feature, but of course it works only if the recipient has a compatible color machine.
Many of the ink-jet MFPs, and some color laser models, come with slots for digital camera memory cards. These slots simplify the transfer of digital photos to your computer, where you can use software (bundled with the MFP) to fine-tune your images. Some models even have control-panel LCDs so you can preview and print photos without your Mac. If you’re really picky about your photos, choose an ink-jet MFP, which will give you better over-all results.
Color MFPs are even more enticing now that laser models are available. While many people might be content with a smaller, simpler ink-jet machine, the speed and higher-volume capabilities of lasers are giving busy offices better options than they’ve ever had before.— Melissa Riofrio
Hewlett-Packard Photosmart C7180
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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