Laser class

Introduction

Because of cost and speed restrictions, colour has never been an office printing solution – but at last this is changing, because finally the technology is affordable, reliable and fast. Here, we examine colour printers aimed at graphics and office professionals. The cost of workplace colour printing has always been prohibitive for many offices. Colour printing will always cost more than mono, but the gap is narrowing to the point at which colour is becoming too tempting to pass-up. Some manufacturers are also striving to make colour printers affordable enough to offer as a mono as well as colour solution. Xerox, for example, offers free black ink with its solid-ink Phaser 860 DP. Attempting to arrive at a meaningful per-page cost for each printer is very difficult. Although most manufacturers offer such a costing, these cannot be compared as like-for-like figures. We could in theory have run all printers on test for a month until the inks ran dry, but at best the results would provide nothing more than a rough guide. This is because there’s no way to determine what constitutes a standard page for any given work environment. In a solicitors office, this is likely to be a page of 10-point Times New Roman; in a marketing department it may a page of colourful charts; while in an art department it’s likely to be a mix of text and high-resolution graphics. Although there can be no definitive per-page costing, there are things that are within your control that help you secure value for money. For instance, toner cartridges often come in two capacities: regular and long life. Although long-life cartridges can be scarily expensive, they’ll save you money in the long run. For example, a regular colour cartridge for the Xerox 7700 prints around 4,000 pages, and costs £96. While the high-capacity cartridge costs £170, it prints 10,000 pages – giving you 40 per cent more toner for your money. Technology
The three technologies on test are laser, LED and solid ink. Each is unique but has one notable thing in common: they’re faster than ever. Until recently, some laser printer could manage four pages per minute (ppm) only – too slow for most office or professional environments. This tardiness was due to the four colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) – being printed in separate passes. However, all current colour-printing technologies offer single-pass solutions, meaning it’s virtually as quick to print colour as it is mono. It’s the higher-end models that tend to offer single-pass functionality. Ultimately, this development will sound the death knell for mono lasers. Laser
As paper is passed through the printer, a laser electrically charges the areas on which you wish to print. This charge attracts the toner, which is actually a finely powdered plastic. This is heated, melted and then fused with the paper. Colour lasers usually repeat this process for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, so registration – or positioning – of each colour is important, meaning accuracy is more critical than speed. LED
This stands for Light Emitting Diodes – the same technology as first seen in old calculators and watches. LED printers work in much the same way as lasers, but instead of a laser charging the paper, the LED does. The benefit of LED is speed: because LED components are in a line, single-pass printing is made possible, meaning print speed is dramatically faster than with many laser printers. Solid-ink
Printers using this technology use a wax-based ink that is directed to a drum, in much the same way that inkjet printers squirt-out ink. The image is then transferred to the paper in a single pass. Solid-ink is a fast process, and used to be the speediest of the laser-class technologies – but the others have now caught up. Quality
Different printing methods give differing results. In the past, this difference could be striking, but now it’s less marked. LED printers were always great at getting pages out quickly – but at the expense of image quality. Laser printers were characteristically slow, but quality was high. The Tektronix (now Xerox) solid-ink models gave glossy results, but the finish was too shiny for some users. Now, you’ll be hard pushed to separate the LED output from the laser prints, and while solid-ink output is still the glossiest, this is far less so than before. Print quality was measured using a sliding scale (see Quality scores), with full points being awarded for a perfect print, and points deducted for flaws. Evaluation of output was blind, with the judges unaware of which model output which test page. Speed
The fastest model on test was the Lexmark C910, cranking out a massive 30ppm, one page faster than its quoted speed. This is an amazing feat, one made possible by the LED’s single-pass mechanism. Measuring speed can be as difficult as measuring ink usage. Printer manufacturers often cite a time for the first page to be output – but, without knowing what was on the page, this is meaningless: It could be a single full-stop, for all we know. The way we measured speed was to sub-divide our tests into two areas: first page to print, using our test pages in both mono and colour; and the time taken for the rest of the pages to output, again in mono and colour. The mono test-page is a single page of text in Word. The colour test-page, though, is a highly complex postscript file full of graduated tones and overlaid fine lines. The file is small, but the resulting output stretches the capability of the internal RIP (Raster Image Processor). Having used the same colour “printer killer” file for the past five years, I have seen the processing times plummet from over 20 minutes to under 40 seconds. If your printing needs involve the one-off output of unique pages then the improved first-page-to-print speeds will make a big difference. If, however, you work in an office that’s more likely to output 100 copies of the same document, then it is the ppm figure that will be of more interest to you. Design
The design score awarded to printers is less to do with the aesthetics of the casing, and more concerned with usability and features. Many of the printers on test boast features such as built-in Web servers for remote configuration, and monitoring of printing activities. This is a fantastically convenient way of administering printers. Now that most Mac networks use TCP/IP, it’s also a breeze to set up. Probably the most convenient aspect of this is the fact that printer drivers can be downloaded from the printer’s dedicated Web page – you never again need hunt for the installation disk. Duplex (double-sided printing) is offered as standard in some models. This is one of the more useful features, especially for making mock-ups and marketing materials. An A3 printer can produce fantastic-looking custom marketing-material, saving you money on expensive litho printing. The hidden extras
Under the hood Some printers on test use identical print engines. However, the engine is only half the story – with the controller, connectivity and RIP being equally – if not more – important. For example, both the Minolta QMS Magicolour 3100 and the Epson Acculaser C4000 use the same print engine. However, the PostScript interpreter is different in each. Epson uses an Adobe PostScript 3 RIP, while QMS uses its own-brand PostScript-compatible RIP. The difference is evident in the first-page-to-print times: in tests, the Epson output its first colour page in 39 seconds, compared with four minutes on the QMS. Features The more office-oriented the printer, the more office-like its features will be. For instance, the fastest A3 models are designed to cater for busy offices, and most come with options such as collation, duplex and stapling. These are optional though, so if you don’t need a feature you don’t have to pay for it. Warranty
Despite being much simpler to use than older-generation colour printers, all printers remain insanely complex inside. Changing ink cartridges and remedying paper jams are one thing, but if something serious goes wrong, you’ll need a printer-engineer to fix it – preferably for nothing. This is where the warranty comes in. Warranties are a way for companies to add value to their products. One printer may be slower than another, but if it offers two years’ extra warranty than the faster model, this is something to be taken into account.
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