Paper pushers put through paces

Lab compares six color network printers for text, graphics, price and speed

If your office pushes a lot of paper, a speedy network printer probably matters to you as much as the ink in your ballpoint.

The GCN Lab put out a call for fast network printers, and this time we added a splash of color. Each printer not only had to be fast, it also had to reproduce photographs and charts in full color.

The addition of color puts a lot of strain on a fast print engine. This year, five vendors stepped up to the challenge.

We rated each model for speed in printing a 30-page text document and a 30-page, mixed-media document with color photographs and charts. We then judged the quality of text and graphics output, the ease of setup and the convenience of on-board displays. Finally, we compared prices and relative performance.

The Lexmark C750n was the least-expensive printer in the review and in many ways the most impressive. It ran a few seconds behind the fastest models for both text and graphics, but it still had good times in both categories. It averaged 3.6 seconds per page'about 20 seconds slower than the fastest printer in the review, but almost 10 seconds faster than the slowest.

A 30-page document loaded with photos, charts, line art and graphs averaged 7 seconds per page. That made the Lexmark almost the slowest in the review, but the gap between it and the fastest was only 14 seconds. Such differences were minor in view of the size and complexity of the test document.

Print quality was where the Lexmark got a leg up on the competition. When we compared its text pages against those from any of the other printers, the C750's output was invariably easier to read. Every guest tester we invited to the lab immediately chose the C750's output as best. We gave it an A grade and a Reviewer's Choice designation.

After that, it was merely a battle for second place.

Looking good

Lexmark didn't skimp on toner. Black letters were dark and easy to read, and they had a glossy shine easily distinguished against a white background. Even with darkly printed text, the Lexmark boasted a 60,000-page-per-month duty cycle, and it appeared to be built to last.

In graphics printing, it came close to being the top performer. Photographs really popped. Again, the glossy finish helped. Scanned photographs looked truly photographic even on standard printer paper with default print settings.

Calibration helps

The only printer that could beat the Lexmark at quality graphics was the Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet 4600dn, and the differences were slight.

The Lexmark C750n's tendency to deposit a lot of toner worked against it on darker graphics. Sometimes tiny details came out clearer on the LaserJet 4600dn.

The LaserJet's color balancing was close to perfect. While the printer idled between tests, it would trigger a calibration cycle. At first this annoyed us because it threw off our test timing, but once we saw the output, we could tell why it was working so hard.

The LaserJet calibrated itself when turned on, as well as every eight hours, after every 1,000 sheets and whenever a print cartridge was replaced.

We had chosen some of the images in our 30-page graphics document for their minute flaws. Other printers finessed those flaws, but not the 4600dn. What we saw on a correctly color-calibrated screen was pretty much what we got on paper. And the 4600dn was fast, assuming we didn't try to print during a calibration session.

Our 30-page, mixed-media document emerged in three minutes, 14 seconds, making the LaserJet the fastest graphics printer in the review at an average 6.46 seconds per page.

For text printing, however, it was the slowest. Even so, at an average 3.86 seconds per page, you would be unlikely to stand in line at the output tray.

The 4600dn had the best LED panel, which showed at a glance how much toner remained in each of the four color drums.

A few features worked against the 4600dn, notably halo reduction, which is supposed to help text printed over graphics to blend better by removing the subordinate colors at the edges of letters that touch same-color graphics.

The HP used cyan and magenta to make black letters, as well as black toner. So when we printed black text onto a blue sea, cyan was reduced or removed near the edges of the letters.
That made the text difficult to read as there were no outlines around letters.

Fast, accurate color printing earned the 4600dn high marks and a Reviewer's Choice designation, despite its slower performance on text documents. For offices that print lots of graphics, the 4600dn would be the best choice in the review.

Text leader

The Xerox Phaser 7700DN was a racehorse. Although the LaserJet beat it by a few seconds on graphics, nothing could touch it on text printing.

The Phaser turned out our 30-page text document nine seconds faster than the next closest printer and 20 seconds faster than most. The output looked fine even when pages flew out at an average of one every 2.9 seconds.

One clue about the breakneck speed could be the nonglossy look of the text. Letters appeared a little dull on paper but were easily readable. Some of our guest testers liked the nonglossy look better, especially under bright lighting, because the letters did not cast reflections. So this issue might be a matter of individual preference.

The Phaser was also excellent at graphics printing, pushing through the 30-page, mixed-media document at an average 6.6 seconds per page. It fell behind the 4600dn by so little it was difficult to measure.

The Phaser's output looked average overall but more than acceptable. Its LED told us which page in a document was currently printing and how many pages were left. We found that a huge help in testing, and it probably would be appreciated in a large office where people often have to wait for others' jobs to finish.

The Phaser was expensive'about double the price of any other printer in the review, and $4,600 more than the cheapest. As the fastest text printer, however, it might justify its cost because more users could share it.

Toshiba's printer slogan is 'Don't Copy. Lead.' We were therefore surprised to discover that the Toshiba e-Studio20CP was a carbon copy of the Lexmark C750n, scoring identically on all tests. Toshiba officials confirmed to GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser that Lexmark was the original equipment manufacturer.

Same except the price

The only difference we could see between the Lexmark and the Toshiba was that the latter has a list price $1,650 higher. It's a solid printer and very fast.

The Oki Data Oki C7200 was the first product that Oki Data has submitted to the lab for review. The company is now actively pursuing the government market. As a first-timer, the C7200 wasn't bad, although it did a lot better with text than graphics.

Our text document printed in an impressive average 3.2 seconds per page, and the text was readable. The Oki was, however, the slowest and also the poorest at graphics. It seemed to have a color-calibration problem, because every photo we printed came out too yellow.

Skin tones in photos hinted at a case of jaundice. The jaundice was especially apparent when we placed the Oki output next to that from other printers in the review.

Perhaps Oki tried to compensate for the extra yellow by darkening images, but that didn't help much.

Setup also was more difficult than average. We had to lock the toner cartridges in place and then upend them in the printer, but they didn't lock all the way with the toner doors closed. Then we had to unlock the doors and push to make the cartridges fall into place as the toner dropped out. We did this wrong the first time around, and our shoes ended up taking a bath in magenta toner.

The C7200 performed reasonably well and had the smallest footprint in the review. If your graphics work is occasional and you need a fast printer for a small space, the C7200 should work just fine.

One of the most interesting things about this review was the improvement we saw over the previous year. It is now quite easy to make photograph-like prints on ordinary paper.

And these printers are extremely fast'in some cases faster by minutes than their predecessors last year. If prices continue to drop as they have, look for color printers to go mainstream in every office.

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