Black and white does all right

The top-scoring Kyocera laser printer, above center, is smaller but mightier than the Xerox (left) and Samsung (right) it edged out.

Henrik g. de Gyor

From left, are the Lexmark, HP and Toshiba entries.

Did you ever stand in line twiddling your thumbs while someone ahead of you printed out a 400-page budget request? The GCN Lab has good news for you. The wait is getting shorter.

Picking the best racehorse isn't easy. Six thoroughbreds running six consecutive races might bring in 36 different results. So when we tested six monochrome laser network printers, we timed the same test documents from the same server in each race.

All six of our test units arrived ready to drop into a network for sharing by workgroups of up to 25 users.

To gauge raw speed'the top priority at many offices'we timed results for a 30-page text document plus a 30-page graphics-rich document with some text.

Although speed was important, we also looked at output quality, any helpful extras, ease of setup and the price of each unit relative to its feature set.

Kyocera has always done well in our printer reviews, yet high price has kept its units from taking the top spot before. Company officials have told us that their printers last longer and therefore cost less over the lifecycle, but that's difficult to prove in the lab.

Out in front

This time there was no need for excuses. The Kyocera Ecosys FS-3820N has one of the lowest government prices in the review: just $910. And it has quality and speed as well as value.

It performed fairly well with the text document, printing 30 pages in one minute, 10 seconds. That put it in the midrange for text speed, although the field was pretty packed with only 50 seconds separating the worst performer from the best.

In mixed-media document printing, where the field was more spread out, the Kyocera clearly led. It chugged through the full 30 pages of complex graphical files in one minute, 13 seconds'just three seconds slower than straight text.

Office users will rarely encounter a line in front of the FS-3820N, no matter what type of document it's printing.

The FS-3820N tied with a Hewlett-Packard model in best-quality graphical printing. Its output hit all our shading marks correctly and wasn't too dark or too light.

The FS-3820N is not without flaws, however. Setup took a very long time. We even had to install a waste bottle, a sort of catheter for printers. When we turned the printer on, there was a wait of several minutes while toner was added to the print engine. If we happened to turn the system off at some point, the toner addition had to repeat. We timed it at more than seven minutes per shot'a long time to wait for a printer to warm up.
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Assuming you don't need to print first thing in the morning, the FS-3820N would make an excellent choice, especially if your office creates a lot of graphics-heavy documents. The Kyocera FS-3820N earned a Reviewer's Choice designation and an A- grade, which tied it for the highest in this review.

The thoroughbred Xerox Phaser 4500N had the easiest setup in the review. It was the only model we considered truly 'plug and print.'

The Phaser also has the best status monitoring display, which would make it perfect for a midsized office with new users unfamiliar with printer operation.

PC setup didn't even call for an administrator. Over a USB connection, the Phaser needed no driver disk'something every other system in the review required.

Attaching the Phaser to a print server on the lab network was a little more complex, but not by much. The first time we powered it up, it printed an 11-page instruction manual to walk us through all the features and printing menus.

This happened only the first time it was turned on, but reprinting the instructions could be forced if necessary.

The front LCD panel gives valuable information about the job being performed. Whereas every other printer merely says 'Working' or something similar, the Phaser 4500 gives the name of the document it is crunching, the current page and the total page count.

So it would be easy to figure out how long your wait might be. At a glance you could see how far along your job was or who had a job in front of it'not that you'd be waiting long.

The Phaser 4500 churned out our 30-page text file in 57 seconds and the graphical document in one minute, 49 seconds. Neither was the top score, but both were close to it.

Systems in this review that did well with text often did poorly with graphics, or vice versa. The Phaser, although not the top scorer in either category, had no negatives. We gave it an A- and the other Reviewer's Choice designation.

The Samsung ML-2151N was our top scorer for value. At just $549, you'd expect a lot less than you get.

The ML-2151N wasn't exactly a speedster. It finished the text document in one minute, 37 seconds, which put it last by several seconds. But it also completed the 30-page graphical document in the same time, which made it one of the fastest at graphics printing.

Basically, the ML-2151N printed at the same rate no matter what we threw at it. This made it seem slow for text documents but fast for graphical ones.

If you're willing to give up a little speed in return for spending half as much, the ML-2151N would fit the bill nicely. You could even buy two printers and split your work- group.

A nice extra, available at a touch of a button, is called Toner Save. When active, it placed less toner on each page. Output was still very legible, and most users probably wouldn't notice the difference.

The Samsung also can do duplex printing at the touch of another button. When we printed on both sides of the page, the paper came out halfway, then was pulled back in for printing on the other side. That slowed printing considerably but saved a lot of paper.

Those extras make the ML-2151N both thrifty and environmentally friendly. It earned a B+ and our Bang for the Buck designation.

The Lexmark T630n VE stood out in this review for its looks. Shiny red and green buttons replaced the standard gray ones found on most printers.

The drivers for the T630n, however, are not registered with Microsoft Windows XP, which gave a warning message even though they worked fine.

Performance was good at both text and graphics. The Lexmark printed the text document in exactly one minute and the graphical document in exactly two minutes. It was a good middle-of-the-road performer and earned a B.

When we unpacked the Toshiba e-Studio 400P, we wondered whether Toshiba was borrowing parts from Lexmark or vice versa. Both systems have the same Christmas tree-colored buttons.
We did find differences when it came to performance, however. The e-Studio 400P performed a bit better than the Lexmark but cost a lot more.

The 400P could print our text document in 53 seconds, seven seconds faster than the Lexmark. The graphical document came out in one minute, 53 seconds'again, seven seconds faster.

There was also a slight difference in quality. The Toshiba had the best-looking text output in this review. But that difference was almost too slight to perceive. We used a photo loupe and a magnifying glass to find the best, most crisp output among the six printers we tested, and the Toshiba just barely took the edge.

The 400P costs about $500 more than the Lexmark, so choosing between them would depend on your needs.

For a bit more money you could get a slight bump in performance and quality with the e-Studio 400P. Whether slightly better-looking output and seven fewer seconds to print would be worth $500 is up to you and your agency. The e-Studio 400P earned a B grade.

The Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 4300n blazed in what we first thought would be a stellar performance, leaving every other printer in the dust at text printing. Yet it was the slowest with graphics and also had the highest price.

It finished the 30-page text document in just 46 seconds, the best score in the field and seven seconds faster than its closest competitor.

Graphics, however, bogged the 4300n down. It took two minutes, 40 seconds to finish our graphical document, more than double the time of the fastest system.

On the positive side, the HP tied with the Kyocera in graphics quality, hitting all the preset marks in terms of shading and contrast.

As the most expensive printer in the review, at $1,849, the LaserJet earned a B- grade with one stipulation: If your office prints mostly text-only documents without graphics and you don't mind paying a bit more, this is probably your best choice.

GCN lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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