Color Balance

Color Balance

IBM's Infoprint Color 8 can print 8 ppm in color with 600- by 600- dpi resolution. It's priced at $1,850.

Xerox's $2,699 Phaser 1235N can print 12 ppm in color at 1,200 by 600 dpi.

The Lexmark C750n can print 20 ppm in color and features automatic duplexing and optional high-capacity trays. It's priced at $3,399.

The range of ink-jet and laser printers covers a spectrum of choices

It's difficult to go wrong buying a color printer these days. Whether you choose an ink-jet, electrophotographic laser, LED laser or solid-ink model, you're almost sure to be happy with its performance.

But with a wide range of printers and prices to choose from, it's worth the effort to find the one that's best for your office.

In looking for models that would fit the needs of typical workgroups and small departments, I set an arbitrary price limit of $4,000.

I came up with 24 midrange color printers from 14 manufacturers, all of which have a built-in 10/100-Mbps Ethernet network interface card. Some also have options for token-ring interfaces.

Except for a handful of inexpensive ink-jet models that come with few or no extras, most of the printers listed in the accompanying chart come with options such as automatic duplexing'printing on both sides of the page'extra paper feeders, hard drives and other features.

Slow and steady

Network printers in this price range typically aren't speed demons. Lexmark International Inc.'s C750n laser is the fastest of those in the chart, printing 20 pages per minute in both color and monochrome. Konica Business Technologies Inc.'s digital LED 7812n model and Xerox Corp.'s speedy Phaser 1235N laser follow, with respectable 12-ppm color and 20-ppm monochrome ratings.

But speed isn't everything. Crisp resolution, flexible I/O options and enough RAM to process detailed graphics are equally important.

Remember that speed ratings are ballpark figures; they vary depending on whether the testing is done in draft, normal or fine mode, as well as on the relative percentages of color and text.

Tiny dots

All the printers featured here offer standard, or default, resolutions of at least 600 by 600 dots per inch, which provide excellent color and monochrome renderings from laser and LED printers. Ink-jets should produce at least 720 by 720 dpi'higher for photo printers'because the tiny sprays of ink tend to become absorbed by the page. This results in text and graphics images that, at equal resolution, aren't as well-defined as those produced by lasers.

In any case, both ink-jet and laser manufacturers offer edge-enhancement software that can boost image clarity far beyond the nominal rating of the printers, sometimes as high as 2,400 by 2,400 dpi.

Except for relatively inexpensive networkable ink-jets such as Canon U.S.A. Inc.'s $349 S360 and Epson America Inc.'s $449 Stylus Color 980N, virtually all the printers listed come with robust RISC processors, usually at about 200 MHz, for speeding up print jobs.

For the fastest printing, look for a unit with expandable RAM. Adding RAM will add significantly to the base unit's price but will likely be worth it when lengthy documents with mixed graphics and text are queued up.

In deciding what type of printer to buy, consider the differences in the technologies.

Ink-jets. Generally, networkable color ink-jets aren't as fast as lasers, and their print engines aren't as robust. Their relatively limited duty cycles'the number of pages they print without maintenance'could limit most of them to occasional or backup production work.

The cost of consumables, such as ink cartridges and treated paper, also tends to be high, and ink-jet feature sets tend to be more limited than those for lasers. Ink-jets don't render text images quite as well as lasers.

But they excel at photo-quality graphics and cost much less than comparable lasers. And although most of them aren't as fast as lasers, they are fast enough for small print jobs.

Any of the ink-jet models listed here will do if you want color printing with a low initial purchase price and, given the right paper stock and software, the potential for dazzling color graphics and photo-quality images.

Lasers. For all practical purposes, electrophotographic laser, LED laser and solid-ink printers deliver similar benefits and drawbacks for workgroups and small departments.

Most come with fairly robust print engines, expandable RAM and options such as automatic duplexing, hard drives and a choice of high-capacity input and output trays. Many can be outfitted with scanning, collating, stapling and other productivity devices.

The base price tends to be higher than it is for ink-jets, but the cost of their consumables tends to be lower, leading to lower per-page print costs and lower total cost of ownership over time.

Generally speaking, for a higher initial price you'll get faster printing and better text rendering from a laser-class color printer than a color ink-jet. But, with the notable exception of solid-ink printers, you'll probably have to trade off true photo-quality color output.

Here are a few more points to consider before you lock into a particular product:
Ease of setup. Network printers are tricky to set up. Make sure your printer comes with software that will walk you through the steps.

Management. Your network printer should come with high-level software such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s JetAdmin or Lexmark's MarkVision, along with Simple Network Management Protocol software that lets you manage it remotely from any console on the network.

Duplexing. Two-sided printing is essential in some offices. You can opt for duplexing with many of the printers listed, but it will add between $500 and $1,000 to the price.

Network and other connectivity options. All the printers in the chart come with built-in 10/100-Mbps Ethernet support, but if you're running token-ring make sure this option is available. At least one Universal Serial Bus port and a bidirectional parallel port also should come with the printer.

Languages. A good printer should include support for Adobe PostScript 3 and HP Color PCL 5C emulation, with automatic sensing and switching.

Drivers. Make sure that all the drivers you'll need are immediately available. The printer should include driver support not only for Microsoft Windows operating systems, including XP, but for IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Unix workstations. Check your vendor's Web site to see if driver upgrades are readily accessible.

Color control. Color control software such as Xerox's TekColor should be bundled with your printer to assure automatic adjustment of photos, graphics and text for the best color reproduction. Look for such features as standard RGB'known as sRGB'to match your color monitor. Various third-party photo-editing programs also supply a nice touch.

Cost comparisons. Think about the total cost of ownership of your printer over a two-, three- or five-year period. Consumables and per-page costs can add big dollars to even an inexpensive printer purchase over its lifetime.

Warranty and tech support. At least a one-year, on-site warranty with online Web technical support is best for a network printer used frequently. Consider buying extended service contracts if you have lots of printers to manage.

One final point: Many of the printers in this guide represent only part of a manufacturer's much larger family of printers. If you require more features or options than those available in the units listed, check vendor Web sites for other models.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@gte.net.

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