Personal printers reviewed

Introduction

With decent-quality colour inkjet printers selling for under £100, what’s the point of monochrome lasers? Surely the bonus of printing in colour makes the inkjet triumph complete. Not at all – even in today’s colour-led world the greyscale laser stands firm in the face of bright inks.

Many people aren’t that bothered by colour. Digital photos can be hosted on a .Mac HomePage, with the best sent out for prints via Internet online ordering or a high-street digital photo lab. If all you need is a printer to run-out Word documents, spreadsheets, newsletters, correspondence, PDFs, labels, envelopes, emails and Web pages, a mono laser is a faster and (in the long run) much cheaper solution.

Even the entry-level lasers on test here churn out many more pages a minute than inkjets. And lasers produce superior text quality.

Most importantly, despite their appealingly low initial price, inkjets are expensive to run – demanding new inks and special papers more often than you care for. Expect to pay £20 to £30 for an ink cartridge, and around £60 for a laser-toner cartridge. You’re likely to get at least ten times as many prints from one toner as you’ll get from an inkjet cartridge. A mono laser means less expense, fewer trips to the shops, and less-fiddly setup.

Maybe the perfect setup is a quality photo inkjet (with direct CD-printing facility) for your colour needs, and a mono laser for everyday printing requirements.

If you have the space, it could be worth buying both. You’ll need to replace those ink cartridges less often because they won’t be used for black text, which may end up costing less in the long term.

We tested four mono personal laser printers for consumers and home-office workers. Prices range from £150 to £200 – proof that laser prices have tumbled in recent years, bringing this once office-only technology right into the home.

Each printer connects to the Mac via USB.
The HP and Lexmark printers boast USB 2.0; the Brother and Epson, USB 1.1. While USB 2.0 is much faster, the benefit in this application will be minimal. USB 2.0 is backwards-compatible with 1.1, so you don’t need a Mac with 2.0 to use them.

A couple of years ago, networks demanded an Ethernet connection for printer sharing. Now, simply turn on Printer Sharing in the Sharing System Preference for all to have access to the USB printer.

Setup was pretty easy for all of the lasers, with detailed manuals supplied as PDFs on CD. The Brother CD scores extra points for including a step-by-step Flash movie tutorial. Lexmark has something similar to help you swap out the toner cartridge. All the lasers were
up and running in under five minutes.

Design HP’s LaserJet 1015 and Epson’s EPL-6200L are both attractive in a confined environment because of their small footprint – minimal depth is a bonus in a crowded office. But in operation, with trays extended, both require a larger area. HP’s laser is stylish and dinky. Brother’s HL-1430 is the most standard-looking laser we tested. The Lexmark printer is more chunky, but rather dashing in black and silver, with electric-blue lights.

Quality Only the Lexmark E232 is PostScript compatible, allowing for faster printing, smoother graphics, and truer fonts in certain applications. The non-PostScript lasers are fine with Word documents, PDFs, emails, Web pages, etc, but not as adept when using professional layout programs such as Adobe InDesign or Photoshop.

All the printers here have a resolution of 600 dots per inch (dpi). Resolution refers to the number of dots in a square inch that the printer can output. More dots provide a finer level of detail, which is especially important with graphics. The HP laser features resolution enhancement that can boost output to 1,200dpi, and the Lexmark claims as much as 2,400dpi. We didn’t notice a great deal of difference between these results and the default 600dpi, but the option is worth having if graphics are going to be a regular feature in your output needs.

When printing from Microsoft Word and PDF, quality was pretty uniform across the lasers. If we had to pick a winner it would be the Epson, but by a minimal margin. Due to its Mac-only PostScript facility, the Lexmark laser easily beat the others on text quality when printing from InDesign, so choose this if your needs run to more than word-processing, email, Web and PDF.

We did experience some font problems with the Lexmark, but these were not replicated on other machines, so they were likely caused by the particular font setup on the initial test Mac. (In some ways the E232 was so much smarter than the others that only it got wind of a font problem.) The Epson was befuddled by one of our fonts.

Speed Speed won’t be an issue if you’re a light user. But output junkies will appreciate the performance boost offered by the Epson and Lexmark lasers – although the HP and Brother were no slugs. None of the lasers shamed its maker by underperforming greatly on its claimed per-per-minute speed. Indeed, the Epson was 10 per cent faster. See the speed table for a comparison.

We tested using a fast Power Mac G5 to gauge flat-out speed, but performance could slow if your Mac is older and with a lower-speed processor. Look out for the amount of RAM in each printer. The EPL-6200L was fast, but the G5 was doing most of the pushing. Connected to a slower G3 Mac, this laser is likely to slow considerably. The Lexmark has a welcome 16MB of RAM.
You can upgrade this to a whopping 80MB, but at a price that’s prohibitive. 16MB is more than enough.

Value Lasers work out much cheaper than inkjets as you have to replace the consumables less often. While it’s impossible to state a true figure due to people’s wildly differing print needs, we’ll have a stab at estimating the average life of an inkjet cartridge at around 250 pages – less if you’re a photo fiend. After you’ve reached this number, you may need to buy more than one cartridge. The cost per page at that attrition rate is around 16p.

The smallest page yield of a new full laser cartridge is 2,000 (HP) – rising to 6,000 (Brother). Obviously, the fewer times you have to change your cartridge the less it will cost you in the long term. Calculating page-cost for these lasers we have relied on each manufacturer’s claimed toner-cartridge yield at an average 5 per cent coverage, and costed for long-term usage by working out the cost per page for a mammoth 50,000 run.

Cheapest by far was Brother, with each page costing 1.4p. This laser’s large-capacity full toner cartridge is the reason cost per page is so cheap. The most expensive was HP, which worked out as twice as much as the Brother – but still a lot cheaper than an average inkjet.

Many lower-cost laser printers come with starter cartridges that last half as long as a regular cartridge. Granted, if you don’t print much that first cartridge could last you a while; but if you know you’ll be printing at least 100 pages per month, factor in the cost of an early replacement. Of course, if you get a great deal on the printer, your overall cost may still be quite affordable.

The Brother and Epson lasers require a separate drum for the toner to fit into; the HP and Lexmark printers include an all-in-one toner/drum. This means that every 20,000 pages you must replace the drum as well as the toner. At a rate of 50 pages per day that means replacing the drum once a year – but many home users won’t output anywhere near that number, so will have to worry less about this. And, don’t forget, despite the need to fork out £95 on a new drum every 20,000 prints, the Brother is still much cheaper per page than the HP laser that rolls the drum and toner together.

You can save cash by hunting around for better prices on toners and photoconductor drums than
the RRPs quoted here. Check the ads at the back of Macworld; try Westlakes (www.westlakes.uk.com) and Printware (www.printware.co.uk).

If you want the best of both worlds and can afford the extra, look into inexpensive colour lasers. Prices start at £649, but bargains can be found. We recommend Lexmark’s C510n and Oki’s C5300N (Reviews, Macworld, August 2004).

Cable not included Printer manufacturers save on costs by omitting USB cable. If you can’t use the same cable you had for your last printer, shop around. Maplin (www.maplin.co.uk) sells USB adaptor cables from £1.99, although some shops charge as much as £15 for a short cable.

Brother HL-1430
Epson EPL-6200L
HP 1015
Lexmark E232
Price£151£144£199£145
Contact 0870 830 40370870 2416 9000845 270 42220870 4440 044
Webwww.brother.co.ukwww.epson.co.ukwww.hp.co.ukwww.lexmark.co.uk
Specifications
Speed (claimed)14ppm20ppm14ppm21ppm
Toner life (starter) (pages)3,0001,5002,0001,500
Toner life (full) (pages) 6,0003,0002,0002,500
Toner price (full) (pages)£59£64£59£55
Drum life (pages) 20,00020,000Included with toner30,000
Drum price (inc. VAT)£95£65Included with toner£42
Cost per page1.4p2.4p2.8p2.2p
Resolution (optical)600dpi600dpi600dpi600dpi
Resolution (enhanced)n/an/a1,200dpi2,400dpi
Standard RAM4MB
2MB16MB16MB
Max RAM4MB2MB16MB80MB
Standard paper capacity 250150150250
InterfacesUSB 1.1; parallelUSB 1.1; parallelUSB 2.0; parallelUSB 2.0; parallel
Media types Paper, envelopes, transparencies, labels.Paper, envelopes, labels.Paper, envelopes, transparencies, cardstock, labels.Paper, envelopes, transparencies, cardstock, labels.
Size (w-x-d-x-h) mm 360-x-370-x-235378-x-275-x-274370-x-230-x-208249-x-396-x-353
Weight9.2kg7.9kg5.9kg10kg
Pros Low cost per page over long term.Fast, with top text qualityStylish and dinky; simple setup. PostScript; speedy; top quality; options.
ConsText quality suffered at small sizes; slowest on test by a whisker. Some font issues; quirky design. Pricey per page over the long term.More expensive than others, both in initial cost and price per page. Not as compact and lightweight as others.
Star rating6.96.95.98.9
Verdict Beige, but not boring. The HL-1430 is a top-value laser, especially if you print a lot of pages – thanks to its super 6,000-page-yield full toner cartridge. This compact printer won’t take up much space, or much of your time. The small amount of memory (2MB) of the EPL-6200L may slow down jobs on older computers. With trays tucked up, this personal laser takes up little space, but the LaserJet’s slow speed and costly pages means it’s not for people who print a lot of pages per day. Bigger, but better. The E232 combines speed and quality with affordable price-per-page costs. The PostScript support is unique at this price point. And it looks kinda cool, too.

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