Toner flair is no labour

Introduction

People take more notice of colour documents, because colour sells. It is a proven fact that people react better to colour adverts and colour mailings. So why hasn’t everyone opted for colour? Of course, it comes down to cost, followed closely by speed – at least, until now. In this month’s tests we bring together comparable A4 business colour printers and their mono counterparts. The price differential between colour and mono is becoming negligible, with some colour models available for just above the £1,000 mark. Although this may suggest that mono lasers are on the way out, there are plenty of situations for which they are still the right solution. The products we looked at are aimed at small-to-medium-sized businesses. To be a viable business model, a Mac printer must have 10BaseT ethernet as standard. A number of printer manufacturers only recently began supplying network cards as standard, but the models in this feature all have 10BaseT. And any Mac office printer must also have PostScript compatibility, either using Adobe PostScript or emulating it. Some models tested use emulated PostScript 2, but most use real PostScript 3. Ink-jet set
The most affordable printers are ink-jets, which are often less than £200. However, the drawback is ink-jets are slower than lasers, quality can be sketchy and networking costs can be high relative to the cost of the printer. Colour ink-jet output on good quality paper can be comparable with high-quality proofing devices, but they are not as accurate with colour. Also, PostScript is rarely available for ink-jets, and, when it is, the solution is software-based, so slowing down the process even more. However, for low-volume, high-quality printing in a small office it would make sense for each person to have a colour ink-jet – even when you have factored in extras like PostScript software and special paper and ink. If money is less of an issue, there are always A3 versions of most printers. Although more expensive, they are usually faster and often have more graphics-oriented features. Though A3 printing can be useful in the office, in a graphics environment it can be essential. The ability to print a full-bleed A4 page is a popular feature. Some A3 models aimed at the graphics market can even print A3 at full-bleed, with crop marks. Some A3 printers can speed up printing significantly, by running out two A4 pages in a single pass. Most mono printers tend to be laser, after mono ink-jets fell by the wayside. The market was so competitive that ink-jet mono printers disappeared almost overnight. Of course, ink-jets can print mono pages, but the quality never reached that of a laser printer. A3 mono laser printers fall into two camps: business and graphics. The business models concentrate on speed while the graphics models are honed to print high-resolution images on large media. Some models can even print directly to polyester plates. These can be used in short-run mono and colour printing. However, the quality for colour printing is poor and only recommended for simple graphics, rather than pure photographic images. The mono A4 lasers we tested were basic models, but it’s easy to add functionality. All models can take extra paper trays, boosting paper capacity from 500 up to 2,000. User intervention can be cut further by designating one tray for letterheaded paper and another for labels, for example. Output trays are another useful addition, especially when there’s more than one group of people printing from the same printer. Some models, such as Lexmark’s,Optra allow you to designate different trays to different departments. And only the Lexmark models allow for a fax functionality to be added. Taking the same idea further, more specialized mono lasers offer optional collating, sorting and even stapling options. Additional fax and scanning facilities can turn them into the ultimate imaging solution – but with a price tag to match. Counting the cost
Cost of ownership is one of the main fears of people who would like to make the jump to colour. A colour job from a copy shop will cost around £1 a page. The quid-a-page charge is one that seems to have stuck in people’s minds – but it’s nowhere near this. Measuring cost-per-page is an inexact science at best. Ink/toner-useage varies enormously with each job, because ink-coverage is a variable. Colour printers are often used for presentation graphics, and these often weight in at 95 per cent coverage. Other jobs, though, will use far less. On top of this, the amount of ink used for similar jobs also varies from machine to machine. One common office use of colour printers is producing letters and compliments slips with company logos. This may mean you use certain colours faster than others. This will add to the expense, but it’s still cheaper than paying for fixed-run out-of-house printing. This is especially true when it comes to factors that are out of our control – such as the latest in the recent series of STD code changes. I wonder how many reams of letterheaded paper was ditched after the London dialling code moved to 0171 – only to be replaced next April by another change. Tektronix was at the forefront of encouraging people to make the colour-leap. In a revolutionary move, it decided to not charge for the black ink used in its solid-ink colour models – to salve the worries of those concerned about buying two printers – a mono model for text jobs and a colour model for graphics jobs. Laser foundation
Business printers mostly use laser technology – which is mature, so improvements are infrequent and rarely substantial. The first test we ran was printing stationary in black-&-white. All printers excelled on black-&-white quality, regardless of technology. Where the colour printers fell behind their mono counterparts was on speed and networking capability. Before laser printers, there really wasn’t any satisfactory way of printing from the Mac. Dot matrix and, later, thermal transfer, were the order of the day – before even ink-jets got a foothold on the market. But now laser technology is being given a run for its money by two relatively new technologies. Tektronix (soon to become a part of Xerox) has had its own solid-ink technology for a few years, which, in certain situations, can outperform laser printers. The other technology is LED (light emitting diode). LED printers are almost identical to laser printers, and – unless you are fond of dismantling printers – you may never realize you’re using LED to print. In the colour market, high-end proofing devices have traditionally used dye-sublimation to produce high-quality prints. Unfortunately, the cost is prohibitive. Such printers are fast disappearing, and being replaced by specialist ink-jet printers, such as the Epson Proofer. Following Xerox’s purchase of Tektronix, Xerox could – in theory at least – produce OEM printer-engines using the solid-ink technology. This would make the technology available to a much wider audience, and spread the word about solid-ink – something Tektronix has been attempting to do for years. With mono lasers, text quality is acceptable at 600dpi, although many of the printers tested are capable of 1,200dpi. Though this is twice the resolution, it doesn’t mean double the quality. Higher resolutions make a big difference only when printing half-tone images or graduated tones. The more dots you have to play with, the less banding will occur. Question of quality
Colour quality is more difficult to quantify. Some printers with relatively low resolution are capable of good-looking results, because of the technology employed. For example, dye-sublimation printers tend to use just 300dpi, yet the images produced are of photographic quality. This is because with colour, it’s sometimes better to have inks that bleed into each other, unlike with mono lasers, where higher resolutions produce sharp edges. A degree of dot-mixing occurs in colour laser prints, but not much; the quality is mostly a result of higher resolution. Colour-matching and calibration are the important considerations with professional-level colour printing. In the business-printers market, it’s less mission-critical, but even PowerPoint presentations should render company logos in the correct corporate colours. And what about speed? To measure this accurately, it’s important to separate the speed of the printer from the speed of the Mac or the speed of the network. There are a couple of tricks to secure such results. To find the engine speed, you must eliminate the time taken for processing. This is done by printing 11 pages, but starting the stopwatch after the first page drops. This produces an accurate engine speed. The time a printer takes rasterizing a PostScript file and warming-up its engine is also relevant. To eliminate processing time, stop the print queue. This gives the computer time to collate the print information. Then start the stopwatch – at the same time as starting the print queue. This doesn’t eliminate the variation of network traffic entirely, but, unless you have an extremely busy network, it shouldn’t make much difference. Colour printers have to lay down four colours, which most of them do by printing each in a different pass. Others – such as the A3 Lexmark range – print the colours in a single pass. This technology hasn’t filtered down to A4 models yet, but when it does it will improve their speed. However, there is one benefit to multi-pass printing systems: faster mono printing. Because mono requires only a single pass, a printer capable of four colour pages per minute can squeeze out 12 mono pages in the same time. Single-pass colour printers are no faster, even when printing mono images. All the models under the A4 business-printer banner use laser or LED technology, with the exception of the Tektronix Phaser 840. The Tektronix solid-ink technology is, for the moment at least, unique to Tektronix. The qualitative differences between solid-ink and laser prints are not as pronounced as they were three or four years ago. Early colour lasers tended to experience problems with trapping that caused shadowing on lines on colour backgrounds. This problem has since been resolved. From a maintenance perspective, it’s cleaner working with solid-ink rather than toner. Solid-ink printers use wax blocks – a little like giant crayons – that are melted before being transferred to the page. There’s a tray to collect excess wax, but that’s about it for parts. Compared to colour lasers – particularly carousel-loading toner cartridges – solid-ink is simplicity personified. Mono-laser is the most mature technology that underwent our tests. Resolution is optimum and speed is fast enough for most uses, and so it’s the add-ons that make the difference. Whatever you need, there’ll be a solution – from faxing to scanning and collating to sorting, most manufacturers have a wide range of add-ons. There are so many configurations, we were only able to test the most basic. However, a couple of manufacturers appear to have especially flexible options. Lexmark’s Optra starts with a small and innocuous printer but, with additional paper trays, duplex units and output trays, can evolve into a monster. Its attractive styling is spoilt by these additions, but it does make for a flexible printer. Xerox supplied both a mono (DocuPrint N17) and a colour (DocuPrint NC60) printer. The mono was predictable, and did the job well, but the colour was a different story. The engine was a relic of the bad old days of colour-laser printing – seemingly dozens of consumables, such as fusers, toners and fuser oil. Modern colour lasers – like those from QMS and Tektronix – have shrunken the need for abundant user-replaceable parts, but the Docuprint NC60 demands technical know-how just to replace the photocopier-like toner cartridge. This aside, the DocuPrint N17 is a fine printer, and, at £899, it’s pretty good value. Although mono laser printing is a mature technology, it is only as glitch-free as the manufacturers permit it to be. Macworld’s criteria for inclusion in this group test was that the machines are Mac-compatible and come with ethernet as standard. The reason we requested ethernet as standard is because printers should be simple enough for anybody to install, not just experts. But to our horror, many of the models sent to us came with ethernet cards in a separate box. Then, piling agony upon frustration – the printers still refused to work, even after ethernet was installed. Drivers were installed and manuals scoured, but to no avail. Piling irritation upon agony and frustration, we discovered that some models had no Mac or ethernet support, and others provided Mac drivers only on floppy disk. We opted to not embarrass the guilty manufacturers, in the hope that they’ll not waste our time – and yours – and provide truly Mac-compatible printers next time. Let this be a lesson to you: make sure the printer you buy doesn’t arrive in kit form, and always double-check that it really is Mac compatible. With printers, the key decision is choosing whether to go with colour or mono. Colour can be luxurious, but is more expensive to run and buy. Mono is simple and reliable – yet for many jobs it no longer cuts the mustard. Interestingly, Tektronix has built a bridge between mono and colour technologies – in the shape of a £400 colour upgrade for its £1,000 mono Phaser 740L. But if mono is all you need, it has never been cheaper. Mono laser printers with ethernet, PostScript and page-per-minute speeds of more than ten, come in at well under the £1,000 mark. If you need quick, crisp text – and not much else – you can’t go wrong with any any of the lasers tested here. Text is universally sharp on all the printers we looked at, whether at 600dpi or 1,200dpi. If you want to use a mono printer for graphics, look at an A3 model. If you want to print invoices and letters, choose by price or available add-on features.
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