HL-2700CN, Color LaserJet 3500n, Magicolor 2350, C510n, C5300N, Phaser 8400/B

Introduction

Adding colour to documents has always come at a price in terms of time, money, or both. Colour inkjet printers are inexpensive and great for printing photos from a digital camera, but the paper and ink can cost an arm and a leg, the print times are often slow, and the text isn't up to laser clarity. But over the past year, prices have dropped and quality has improved to the point where it's now feasible to consider colour laser printing for homes and offices. We looked at six colour laser printers costing under £1,000: Brother's HL-2700CN, Hewlett-Packard's Colour LaserJet 3500n, Konica Minolta's magicolour 2350, 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 30kg, and they're all either grey or putty coloured. The Konica's 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.

Options, options
All these printers have a variety of extra options. You can expand all of them to handle more paper by using a different 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 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 I downsized the photo to 21.3MB. Although the larger file would spool and the printer would indicate that it was processing a job, after about two minutes the printer would revert to a ready state without ever spitting out 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 you to 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 waste toner bottle), the printers with the lowest ink cost per page were the Brother, Lexmark, and Oki Data. The most expensive was the HP, according to numbers supplied by the vendors.

All the pretty colours
We printed several different kinds of files and assembled a panel of experts to evaluate each printer's ability to reproduce accurate colour. Even if you're in the market for a colour laser printer, you'll probably have to print plenty of black-&-white text documents. We printed a simple Word document with a variety of text sizes ranging from 9pt to 14pt 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, with our jury 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 colour gradients. The Konica and 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 colours and photographic detail. When comparing the output to a colour-corrected print of the file, our jury rated both the Lexmark and 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 the text handwritten 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 greyscale photograph on each printer. All but the HP showed some kind of colour 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 colours in some of the transitional greys.

Speed rules
Although digital photography may not be a colour laser's strong suit, speed is. If you're printing large or multiple jobs, the speed of these colour lasers is nearly as important as their print quality. To see just how fast they are, we printed several types of files and recorded the time it took each printer to complete each job. I mostly send one- or two-page jobs to my printer, so I can really appreciate the following statistics: sending a one-page black-&-white Word document to the printer took 8 seconds for the Xerox, and 28 seconds for the HP and Oki Data; the rest fell somewhere in between.

To test the speed on longer jobs, we timed the printing of a ten-page black-&-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 one 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 inkjet printers, which let the computer do most of the heavy lifting in preparing data to print, a colour 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-placed Konica, which took 3 minutes and 36 seconds.

Setup and networking
All these printers were easy to set up. The Lexmark, Brother and Konica Minolta even shipped with the toner cartridges already installed. 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, but unfortunately it requires an external power brick to operate. The Xerox is the only printer that ships without network capabilities; therefore, it requires a USB connection, as opposed to an Ethernet cable.

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 technically wasn't 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.

See also Under the hood of a colour laser printer.

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