Monochrome Laser Printers

Introduction

Inkjet printers are inexpensive and print great photographs, but their text isn’t as sharp as laser printers’ output – and their expensive inks make the cost per page too high for an office full of people to be printing email and expense reports on a daily basis. The prices of colour laser printers have come down considerably, but if most of the documents you print are of the general office variety – primarily text, and some graphics – the price and features of a small workgroup monochrome laser printer are hard to beat.

This month, we look at four network-enabled monochrome laser printers priced at or below £500: the Brother HL-5170DNLT, the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1320n, the Lexmark E332n, and the Oki Data B4350n. The standouts were the Brother, for having the most features and being the least-expensive printer, and the Lexmark, for its outstanding print quality.

The setup
Although they’re designed to support small workgroups, each of these printers is compact enough to be used as a desktop unit. The HP’s cube design takes up the least amount of desk space – about 14 inches square. With its additional paper tray attached, the Brother is almost 14 inches high – it’s the tallest by nearly 4 inches, but it should fit into most workspaces.

The Brother and the Oki Data sport conservative beige-&-grey cases, while the HP mixes in some dark grey for a little flair (Oki Data has also recently introduced a black version of its printer). The Lexmark makes a statement with its black-&-silver case and the bright blue power button on its front.

Setup and installation of each printer was straightforward, though we did get a little toner on our hands as we tried to install the Oki Data’s toner cartridge. The Brother, Lexmark, and Oki Data printers use separate toner-cartridge and image drums, while the HP combines these into one piece. All the printer makers offer standard and high-capacity toner cartridges; the higher-capacity cartridges have a lower cost per page.

Looking just at the toner costs and the number of prints each toner cartridge can make, as reported by the printer makers, the HP appears to have the highest cost per page – though it gets cheaper using the high-capacity version. Factor in the cost per page of the imaging drums, though, and all the printers come in at about 2 cents per page when using high-capacity cartridges.

The Oki Data’s software setup isn’t very Mac-like. The box contains two CDs with different part numbers but very similar descriptions and contents. And the files on the CDs are not clearly marked. For example, the PDF manual, named B4xUGen.pdf, was near the bottom of one CD’s 74 top-level files and folders.
Once turned on and connected to the network via Ethernet, each printer was able to automatically retrieve an IP address.

All but the Oki Data work with Apple’s Rendezvous networking technology, which allows you to choose the printer and then view and manage it via Apple’s Safari Web browser without needing to know its IP address. The Oki Data was also configurable via a browser, but you’ll need to know the IP address and then manually enter it into your browser’s address bar. Each printer includes a USB 2.0 port for non-networked printing. The Brother and the Oki Data also provide connectors for Wintel PCs.

All of the printers are easy to use. The HP, Lexmark, and Brother printers have a few buttons and indicator lights that show print-job status and alert you to paper jams and other problems. The Oki Data has an LED that shows the printer’s status.

Feature presentation
In terms of features, the Brother has the most complete list. Like the HP, the Brother offers a built-in automatic duplexing capability (for printing on both sides of a page).

Although it takes longer to print in duplex mode, doing so can save a lot of paper. The Brother also comes with a second paper tray, doubling the others’ 250-page capacity, so you won’t have to fill the paper trays as often, and you can have two types of paper in sizes as large as legal (8.5-x-14 inches) available to you at the same time.

You can use one tray to hold cover stock or higher-quality paper that’s suitable for presentations, and fill the second tray with less-expensive paper for everyday, or draft, printing. Additional paper trays are available as options from Oki Data and Lexmark. Though HP doesn’t offer an optional paper tray for the 1320n, it also sells the LaserJet 1320tn, which includes an additional 250-sheet paper tray, for £70 more. All the paper trays were standard, with easy ways to insert envelopes or smaller paper.

One day my prints will come
All of these printers are PostScript Level 3 compatible and offer some form of a high-resolution print mode. The HP and the Lexmark offer a 1,200-x-1,200dpi resolution, the Oki Data can print at a resolution of 600-x-1,200dpi, and the Brother is a 600-x-600dpi printer that claims to provide 1,200dpi-like print quality through hardware interpolation.

If you’ve ever tried printing something out at the last minute before running into a meeting, then you know that a printer’s speed is important – you don’t want it to take its sweet time spitting out your document. We tested the print speeds of each printer using their default amounts of RAM.

The all-around fastest printer in this group was the Oki Data. It was able to print our ten-page Microsoft Word test document in just 35 seconds and our four-page PDF file in one minute. The HP, the Lexmark, and the Oki Data tied for first place in the Word test, but the Lexmark took about nine seconds longer than the Oki Data in printing the PDF document.

The HP came in a distant last on the PDF test, taking three times as long as the Oki Data to complete the task. The Brother took the longest to print the Word document, but it finished the PDF about a minute faster than the HP.

Each of the printers comes with 32MB of RAM, except for the HP, which comes with 16MB. This may explain its slowness when printing the PDF. You can add much more RAM to any of these printers, which should make printing large files with lots of PostScript data faster.

Fine prints
A strength of laser printers is the clear text they produce, and none of these models failed to impress. One editor thought that the Lexmark’s text was too heavy, but the majority found the density very appealing.

The panel was a little more split when rating the printers’ graphics output. The Lexmark received the highest marks for its ability to produce fine, curved lines and smooth gradients. The Lexmark’s prints were still darker than the others, but most jurors thought that this helped to create depth and enhanced printed photos.

The HP and the Brother earned Good ratings. They both had more vertical banding in the gradients and lower contrast than the Lexmark. The Oki’s graphics prints, with some slight kinks in curved lines and both horizontal and vertical banding in images and gradients, were rated as Flawed.

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