When ink met paper: network printers

From top: Toshiba e-Studio30P, Xerox Phaser 5400N, and Samsung's ML-7300N.

From top: Tally's Xpress T9021, Lexmark W820n, and HP LaserJet 9000dn.

Monochrome units for workgroups marry print quality with speed for the user in a hurry

Hands down, a printer is the most-used peripheral on agency networks. Even a large workgroup of users can share one or two of the printers in this review without stepping on each other's toes.

When the GCN Lab put out the call for fast, monochrome network printers for 20- to 30-user workgroups, six vendors submitted models.

Our two top testing criteria were print quality and speed.

The faster a printer can crunch pages, the fewer impatient users that queue up waiting for pages. Other criteria factored into the overall grades included typical number of pages before toner replacement, cost-performance, and ease of setup and maintenance.

The Toshiba e-Studio30P was an impressive network performer. Its 300-MHz onboard processor and 32M of memory, expandable to 384M, blazed through text and graphics jobs. Although not quite the fastest printer in the review, its excellent balance between speed and price earned it the top spot with an A grade and a Reviewer's Choice designation.
Our 30-page text document emerged in one minute, nine seconds. A 30-page document heavy on photographs, line art and computer-generated pictures took only 16 seconds longer.

The e-Studio30P was extremely easy to set up and worked well with both PCs and Macs in the lab. Its toner cartridge lasted for 10,000 pages on average, a relatively long life that is expected of a workgroup printer. The large, 600-sheet paper tray accepted an entire ream of paper plus a bit more.

Most of the printer trays in the review could hold 500 sheets, but we found that the e-Studio's 600-sheet capacity let us easily slide in a paper stack without having to wedge in the corners and risk creasing them.

The one negative we noticed was that the e-Studio30P printed periods and commas with slight imperfections generally visible only with a magnifying loupe, though sometimes we could see flaws with the naked eye. Most users would never notice them.

Ordinary toner

The Xerox Phaser 5400N was the first Phaser we've tested that didn't use Xerox Corp.'s solid-ink technology. The 5400N had ordinary toner like that of the other printers in the review.

For its price, the Phaser was among the fastest performers. It crunched the 30-page text document in 51 seconds. With the 30-page mixed-media document, it finished in two minutes, 32 seconds. It was slightly faster than the Toshiba at text but a lot slower at graphics. The 266-MHz processor and the 32M of RAM, expandable to 192M, seemed to be optimized for text processing. The 500-sheet tray could hold an entire ream of paper.

The main problem we found was an error whenever we tried to print the mixed-media document more than once from a system running Microsoft Windows 98. The error occurred even if we paused for a minute or so between prints. The second time through, only half of the document would emerge.

Xerox engineers took our test document and recreated the error, which they attributed to the Adobe PostScript Level 3 page description language and the way Microsoft Word spools graphics to a printer. Because the Phaser 5400N had flash memory, the engineers could correct the error and ensure that it wouldn't happen to others. We fixed our test unit by flashing the memory with the new data, and we gave the printer a Reviewer's Choice designation.

Wedding bells

The Samsung ML-7300N produced the best text output in the review, and it was also the cheapest: a good marriage of quality and price. The Samsung earned the lab's Bang for the Buck designation and a high overall grade, too.

The main quality factor that distinguished the ML-7300N from the other printers was thicker ink deposition on the page. Text looked darker and more readable, even with very tiny point sizes and unusual fonts. In standard Courier and Helvetica fonts, the ML-7300N's output looked as good as or better than typewritten pages.

When we laid the output of all the printers side by side, our eyes gravitated first to the Samsung pages.

Its speed was good, though eclipsed by most of the other printers. The Samsung processed the 30-page text document in one minute, 34 seconds. It's possible but unlikely that a line would form at its print station.

For graphics, the ML-7300N ran nearly as fast as the more expensive printers, finishing the 30-page, mixed-media document in two minutes, 32 seconds.

Graphical quality was not as good as text quality, however, mostly because the heavier ink deposition tended to overwrite small details of complex images. As a functional printer for text output, the ML-7300N would be a winner. It's available on the General Services Administration schedule for less than $800.

When we started testing the Tally Xpress T9021, we saw that it performed exactly like the Samsung 7300N. Tally had built it from Samsung's print engine.

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We decided to see whether the Samsung drivers would work with the Tally printer, and vice versa. A desktop PC noticed no difference between the two units.

The Xpress T9021 shared the Samsung ML-7300N's advantages and disadvantages. It printed highly readable text at the expense of detailed shading on graphics.

The Xpress T9021 also had the same 10,000-sheet average capacity, but Tally representatives said a replacement toner cartridge was priced at $108, which they said would make the cost of ownership slightly less.

On GSA schedule, a Tally cartridge costs about $40 less than a Samsung. Over the long haul, it would probably even out, because the Xpress T9021 costs more on GSA: $1,052.

Also, though neither company would likely recommend this substitution, the Tally toner cartridge fit inside the Samsung printer and worked just fine. The Samsung cartridge wouldn't go into the Tally.

The Tally came with helpful network installation videos on CD-ROM.

Tall and tan

The Lexmark W820n printer was one of two in the review designed for larger workgroups. The W820n was only slightly bigger than the Xerox but taller because of two standard 500-sheet paper trays stacked underneath. Total capacity was 1,000 standard sheets, or 500 each of two paper sizes or types.

The Lexmark was one of the fastest printers in the review at straight text, finishing the 30-page text document in 47 seconds. It was slower with the mixed-media document, finishing in two minutes, 33 seconds.

It did take the longest to start working, however. A single page took an average 20 seconds to appear. Most of the other printers averaged about 10 seconds.

The print cartridge was supposed to last for 30,000 pages. Our tests did not ap-proach that number, but after nearly 1,000 pages the quality never slipped.

Of the two high-capacity printers in the review, the Lexmark would probably be the better choice. It was fast at text and fairly good with graphics. The price tag of more than $3,000 would be acceptable for larger workgroups to avoid frequent paper loading and toner replacement.

The Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 9000dn, like a character in a Greek play, was powerful but had a tragic flaw.

Testing started out smoothly enough. We had the 9000dn up and running on the network in about 10 minutes. It could go from a sleep state to ready almost instantly, and it booted in 36 seconds'impressive for a printer of its size. A printed page appeared in just nine seconds.

It was very fast with text, running through the 30-page document in just 45 seconds and edging out the Xerox for first place. The only negative appeared to be a $5,699 price tag.

But an Achilles' heel turned up with graphics processing.

The 9000dn took a lengthy six minutes, 16 seconds to print the mixed-media document, although it had the best graphics quality of all the printers in the review. Pages were crisp, properly shaded and very detailed. There were no smudges or errors during repeated printings.

Three paper trays came standard for 1,100-sheet capacity.

The 9000dn would be a fine choice for a large workgroup that prints text documents almost exclusively and is willing to pay for speed. Just bear in mind that any user who does graphical printing is going to create a bottleneck.

GCN Lab assistant Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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