New workgroup printers mean color for all budgets

Lexmark C760n printer

Good output quality'particularly in text printing'and a low sticker price make the Brother HL-2700CN a solid bang for your buck.

The Xerox Phaser 7300/N is a high-priced, high-quality color workgroup printer that could easily serve larger offices.

Government offices can now be a bit more colorful. The walls might remain off-white'or even battleship gray'but the documents circulating inside them need no longer be confined to black and white.

Until recently, color laser-quality printing has been an expensive option, even for midsize workgroups. With mid-level printers costing $5,000 or more, even on the GSA schedule, color was a difficult budget item to justify.

Today, however, printer companies have made great strides in narrowing the price gap between black-and-white and color printing. Network color printers for midsize workgroups can be found for less than $1,000, and even the most expensive models come in at less than $4,000. And with 10,000 or more page runs before the toner needs to be replaced, the supplies are affordable too.

Considering the advantages of color printing, even spot color, there is no reason not to adopt a color printer over a black-and-white model for the next upgrade cycle. Color graphics and charts are much easier to read when actually printed in color, and the ability to print a photo and have it look like the original image is priceless.

For this review, GCN Lab asked leading printer companies to supply a printer for a typical government office workgroup, in which 20 to 30 people share a single printer. Printers were graded on their speed of black-and-white printing, speed of color printing, output quality, ease of setup and price. Six companies rose to the challenge. Kyocera Mita Corp. was also asked to participate but was unable to get a printer to the lab by deadline.

In the end we found that the best color workgroup printer may still be the most expensive one, but midsize offices can find exceptional values.

How we tested

We began by evaluating how easy it was to set up each printer. We used the bundled network setup software to configure the products in our lab. Then we went through various functions, such as paper handling and supplies menus. We were looking for intuitive interfaces and rich feature sets.

We conducted performance testing using two documents. The first was a 30-page black-and-white text document. The second document was a 30-page mix of text and color graphics. Some pages had text wrapping around graphics; others were all graphics.

To ensure a fair evaluation, we connected each printer to a test system via a USB 2.0 port. This enabled us to test raw speed regardless of network status. We also measured the time it took each product to print the first page of the text and graphics, as well as how long it took each product to warm up after they were powered on.

We evaluated output quality by comparing printouts to one another and examining them in light of the known image properties of each graphic. We examined text for readability or printing errors.

What we found

Having spent several weeks with these printers, we were pleased to find there's something for everyone in the workgroup printer market. Our favorite printers were the pricey $3,899 Xerox Phaser 7300/N and the moderately priced $1,635 Lexmark C760n (which actually has an even lower base price'$1,299). Both performed exceptionally well and were easy to set up. Ultimately we liked the Phaser 7300/N's output quality better than the C760n's.

But perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the $650 Brother HL-2700CN. It's a workgroup printer that doesn't come with the horsepower of the Phaser 7300/N or Lexmark C760n but produces good printouts. We found its text quality to be the best in this review. If yours is an agency on a budget (and whose isn't?) and you print more text than graphics, the Brother printer is a good fit.

As with everything in technology these days, the product you choose will come down to how you'll use it.

Brother HL-2700CN

Pros: Inexpensive, high-quality printing

Cons: Slow color printing

The HL-2700CN is the least expensive printer in our review, costing $3,000 less than the most expensive offering here. It delivers surprisingly high-quality output and decent speeds when working solely with black-and-white text. Its Achilles' heel is that it's slow when printing graphics.
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The HL-2700CN is rated at up to eight pages per minute for color printing and was able to push through our torturous 30-page text/graphics document in four minutes flat'close to its maximum rated speed.

In terms of quality, the HL-2700CN had the best text reproduction in this review. Letters were crisp, easy to read and very dark. Even when looking at text with a magnifying glass, letters were continuous and well-defined. When you place the text output of the HL-2700CN alongside the output of the five other printers, your eye will gravitate to the Brother printout.

For color printing, the quality was not as good. Images were a bit faded, especially in colors that were supposed to be darker, such as midnight blue. But the color was passable, especially for users who only need spot color. Artists and publication-producing offices might not want to use it, but most users probably won't mind.

Setting up the HL-2700CN was extremely easy and didn't even require a CD for USB setup, only for network access. Also, the top display on the unit shows you at a glance the current levels for black and color toner, so you won't ever get caught short for want of yellow or magenta.

The HL-2700CN is an awesome text printer and not bad at color. For the price, it is an excellent way to get your feet wet in color printing. At $650 each, you could purchase several for the cost of a single unit from another company.

Hewlett-Packard 4650n

Pros: Detailed color printing

Cons: Slow, expensive, difficult setup

The HP 4650n is a large network printer that turned in some rather disappointing print times.

Things started to go badly for the 4650n right out of the box. Despite following the included setup instructions, we had a hard time getting the printer installed correctly. When we turned it on, the HP 4650n reported that only two of the four toner cartridges were installed. After opening the printer and reinserting all of them, it then said that three of four were correct. This continued a couple more times, with different cartridges reported missing until all four came online.

The 4650n was slow with both text and graphics, coming in fifth of sixth in both speed tests. But color quality helped elevate our opinion a bit. The 4650n was able to correctly reproduce fine lines, even on very dark or light images.

However, this excellent image reproduction did not apply to text output. Text was faded compared to others in this review. It was as if the 4650n was trying to save toner by skimping on the text, then applying it to color and graphical output.

The 4650n would be a good printer if your work revolved around producing finely detailed color output. But slow speeds and poor text output make it a bad choice in a mixed printing environment, which is where most of the printers in this class will likely end up.

Lexmark C760n

Pros: Fast color printing, good output quality

Cons: Somewhat slow text printing

At $1,635, the Lexmark C760n is priced more like an entry-level printer, yet it offers both speed and quality rivaling units costing a thousand dollars more.

The C760n blazed through our 30-page graphical document in just two minutes and 51 seconds, making it the fastest color printer in the review by a full 38 seconds. That means there would be little chance for lines to form at the C760n's output trays even in workgroups that do a lot of color printing.

In text printing it was not quite so fast, but the difference between fast and slow for text printing is a lot smaller. It was 22 seconds off the leader in text production after printing the document in one minute and 32 seconds.

The C760n produces excellent text output, second only to the Brother printer. Its color printing was good, though a bit washed out.

For blazing fast speeds and decent all-around output, the Lexmark C760n won't disappoint. We also found it among the easiest printers to set up. Agencies will want to consider it for its overall quality and reasonable price.

Samsung CLP-550N

Pros: Fast boot time, inexpensive

Cons: Slow for both text and color printing

The CLP-550N is one of the first color laser printers we've seen from Samsung. And as a first effort, the printer is not too bad. It has some nice features, such as a fast, 18-second warm-up time. It's ready to go when other printers are still running minute-long self-checks and calibrations. It also prints in duplex mode if desired, so you can print out double-sided pages and save paper.

But when it comes to performance, the CLP-550N was dead last in this review. It printed our text document in nearly two minutes, taking last place in that category. And it printed the graphical document in six minutes and 16 seconds, which was significantly slower than the other printers.

Output quality was passable for both black-and-white text and color. The most obvious flaws were in color printing, where blues were muted, and most images had a tinge of magenta. There were no dramatic flaws in the CLP-550N's text output, but it didn't stand out from the pack either.

A minor point, but one worth noting, was that the paper out tray was a mess, indicating a flawed design. The other printers ended up with their output in a neat stack, but the CLP-550N's printouts came out in jagged pile. We wouldn't call the CLP-550N a bad printer; it was just outclassed by the others in this review.

Toshiba eStudio 180CP

Pros: Good quality text and graphics

Cons: Slower than average print speeds

The Toshiba eStudio 180CP is a good printer that didn't stand out, but didn't disappoint either. Its text performance'one minute and 23 seconds'and text/graphics performance'four minutes and nine seconds'were fair, and the eStudio 180CP produced good text and graphical images, just not as good as our favorite printers.

The eStudio 180CP's $999 price tag is higher than some and lower than others. And the product's setup wasn't as intuitive as our two Reviewer's Choice picks.

The eStudio 180CP is good'but not great. It would be a reasonable choice for a midsize office that prints in both color and black and white and needs presentable output quality.

Xerox Phaser 7300/N

Pros: Best color quality, fast printing

Cons: Most expensive printer tested

The Phaser 7300/N from Xerox proves that sometimes you do get what you pay for. The 7300/N is the most expensive printer in this review, coming in at $3,899 (Xerox is offering rebates that can knock a few hundred off that price), but it was also the top performer in several areas.
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For such a versatile printer (it can print anything from postcards to oversize documents), the 7300/N was easy to set up. It took nearly two minutes to get warmed up from a cold start. But once it was ready, the 7300/N blazed through our documents.

It churned out our 30-page text file in a little more than a minute after spitting out the first page in an amazing eight seconds. Although the Lexmark C760n was faster in our text/graphics tests, the 7300/N printed the 30-page color document in about 3 and 1/2 minutes. We especially liked the product's built-in LCD screen, which displayed which document was currently printing. The 7300/N was the only printer we tested that had such a feature.

As for print quality, the Phaser 7300/N was the breakaway winner for graphics. Color documents seemed to pop right off the page, and photos and diagrams displayed accurately whether the source images were dark or light.

Overall, the Phaser 7300/N is great for those who require the best color printing available in this class and have the budget for it. Based on its speed and graphics quality, the 7300/N earns our recommendation.

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