Made in the shade: multifunction printers

The Brother MFC-9420CN isn't as high-end as the other MFPs we tested, but neither is its price tag. It's a good system for smaller workgroups.

The Lexmark X762e was our favorite enterprise MFP, a solid performer capable of top-notch print quality, particularly with color.

The HP Color LaserJet 4730x MFP is fast and loaded with features, but if you print color images, you might be underwhelmed.

The OkiData ES1624n MFP prints brilliant color, but has ease-of-use issues.

The Toshiba e-Studio351c doesn't quite live up to its steep price.

Studies have shown that multifunction printers can save organizations money. Research firm IDC Corp. of Framingham, Mass., estimates the savings could amount to $3,700 per month when you replace printers, scanners, copiers and fax machines with a single device, then factor in productivity savings.

But because an MFP represents a sizable single purchase, regardless of the fact that you'd spend more if you bought the components separately, mainstream models have been slow to adopt cutting-edge technology, most notably color.
[IMGCAP(2)]
Color can convey a lot more information than black and white alone, but until recently most agencies were restricted by cost to black-and-white printing. In the past couple years, however, the cost of color printers has dropped as quality has risen. So it makes sense that the ultimate symbol of office convenience, the multifunction device, is also moving to a color standard.

What we did

Judging from the five enterprise units we gathered for testing in the lab, the future is certainly going to be colorful. We gathered impressive units from Brother International, Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark International, Oki Data and Toshiba. These are not MFPs that sit on your desk, but systems that serve an entire office, with features for organizing and securing documents. Xerox, Sharp and Kyocera were also invited to submit new color MFPs for testing but could not get units into the lab by our deadline.

Because MFPs are shared among office groups, where some people are more interested in scanning and faxing and others in color printing, they need to be fast. A slow MFP means long lines waiting for output. We tested each unit's performance using two 30-page test documents, one with straight text and one heavily mixed with both text and detailed graphics.

Color print quality also has to be good'otherwise why bother with it? We evaluated the output of each unit against one another as well as against several of the original photographic images that appeared in our test graphics document.

In addition, we scanned a series of images with each MFP to test for accuracy. And we tried each unit's document handling features to gauge ease of use and whether the features, such as electronic file cabinets, delivered value to the user.

In general, we found that color print quality varied quite a bit from unit to unit, not only in terms of how quickly an MFP could churn out graphics, but also in the quality of the images they reproduced.

That said, text quality was fairly standard among MFPs, with one notable exception, but text print speeds varied greatly.

You can spend several hundred to several thousand dollars on a multifunction printer to serve your work group. The more you pay, the more features you get, many of which'such as document control features'could be important in government agencies.

In this crowd of MFPs, our favorite was the Lexmark X762e, which was not only fast, but printed exceptional text and images. Even its scanner and fax components were top-notch. If, however, you're not sure yet whether an MFP makes sense for your agency, you might want to look at the economical Brother MFC-9420CN. It doesn't blow the doors off other MFPs in our review, except when it comes to price. At just $799, you could buy this MFP, attach it to your network, and start to measure the benefits. At the very least, you won't be disappointed in its color printing capabilities. Read on for more.

BROTHER MFC-9420CN

Pros: Unbeatable value

Cons: Slow print speeds, very basic feature set

Features: B

Speed: C

Setup: B

Color quality: A-

Value: A

It's easy to tell what the MFC-9420CN is supposed to do because Brother always puts a huge poster-sized sticker on the front of its units listing the various speeds and feeds. Although the stickers have usually been accurate in the past, this time the print speed numbers seemed off.

According to Brother, the MFC-9420CN should print up to 30 pages per minute in black and white and eight pages per minute in color, which isn't bad for a system with 64MB of internal memory.

While our test unit was able to reproduce our 30-page graphical document in four minutes and a second, for a top speed of 7.6 pages per minute, it took just as long for the unit to print a plain-text document. Now, even 7.6 ppm color was below average for the MFPs we tested, but 7.6 ppm in black and white was shockingly slow. We retested several times and got the same results. In short, the MFC-9420CN won't win any races and probably isn't the best choice for large workgroups'printing could become a real bottleneck in your workday. Four minutes for a 30-page color document might be tolerable, but not if your file is the fifth 30-page document in the queue.

That said, the MFC-9420CN does produce good color, a fact that might outweigh speed issues if your agency prints color infrequently. Printer images are highly accurate, although the system is skewed slightly to print images brighter than the originals. This means the unit accurately rendered most fine details in our test files, details that other MFPs left in the shadow. But in some cases, when the original images were on the bright side, those details nearly washed out.

A quick note if you print something in between text and color, namely grayscale graphics, such as incoming faxes: The magenta toner obviously gets priority over the others, which was evident in our grayscale test images.

They came out with red tints to the point that some looked pinkish. This was evident even with black-and-white line art, although not in straight text printing.

The Brother MFP comes with a 33.6-kbps fax module tied to its scanner, so you can scan a document and then send it out via the phone line. And although the scanner is functional, it does not have any of the whistles and bells of higher-priced MFPs, such as the ability to scan documents to an electronic file cabinet.
Of course, the MFC-9420CN also doesn't have a high-end price tag. At just $799, it's a good value for smaller workgroups, especially those that print less frequently but need quality output. You would be hard-pressed to cobble together a bunch of standalone components and spend less.

Brother International Corp., Bridgewater, N.J., (800) 276-7746, www.brother.com


HP COLOR LASERJET 4730x MFP

Pros: Feature rich, very fast printing

Cons: Average color quality

Features: A+

Speed: A

Setup: A

Color quality: B

Value: A-

For such a large free-standing unit, the LaserJet 4730x is surprisingly simple to set up. In fact, you basically roll it out of the box, remove some safety tape and you're good to go.

You don't even have to pull safety tabs on the toner cartridges. When you initially power the unit, the toner cartridges retract their tabs automatically. As such, adding paper into one of the three paper trays is about the most complicated thing you will need to do.

There are also a ton of features that help you get your money's worth out of this high-end, $5,199 unit.
One of the unique features is that the MFP is, in addition to the standard fax, copier and printer, also an electronic filing cabinet. When you print a document from your PC, you can assign it to an electronic mailbox in the printer. Mailboxes can be made public or private, with private ones requiring a password to gain access.

Documents that need printing all the time, such as sick-leave forms, vacation requests or reimbursement spreadsheets, can be put into a public mailbox simply by printing them and assigning them to the box. Then whenever anyone needs one of these commonly used forms, all they need to do is open the public mailbox using the printer's large touch screen, select the document they want and print it on the spot. There is no more wasted paper and no more begging the HR administrator for a form.

Private mailboxes are accessed locally the same way, but require a password. You can even assign passwords to individual documents and the MFP will wait to print them until someone standing at the printer types it in, a boon for agencies concerned about document security in shared environments.

Our test unit only had 256MB of memory to store documents, which goes a long way but would eventually run out unless older documents were deleted. However, you can map a network drive to one of your agency's storage servers from the printer and print documents to that, eliminating the printer's storage restriction. Printer memory can also be expanded to 512MB.

Printing was very fast in our testing, as was scanning. The HP tied for quickest output on our text document, churning out 30 pages in one minute and eleven seconds. It was also speedy handling our graphics document, finishing in two minutes and 38 seconds.

In terms of print quality, the 4730x performed well. Text was easy to read and even light-colored text printed nicely. However, photos printed darker than we would have liked, with fine details getting lost in shadows. Images had a bit of a shine to them, which made them look good, but not nearly as good as images the Oki Data ES1624n created. HP's special ColorSphere toner, which has rounded color particles, was supposed to produce superior color output, but it never manifested during our tests.

If you support a large workgroup and are looking for an MFP that adds a ton of features to your network, the 4730x would be a good choice. If you put a premium on color image quality, keep in mind there are better models out there.

Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., (800) 727-2472, www.hp.com


GCN LAB REVIEWER'S CHOICE: LEXMARK X762e

Pros: All-around good performer, amazing text reproduction

Cons: Takes a while to set up

Features: A

Speed: A

Setup: A-

Color quality: A

Value: A-

The Lexmark X762e free-standing unit comes in many pieces that need to be assembled. This isn't a difficult process, but it's very time-consuming and can be complicated because the picture-only instructions are not very detailed.
[IMGCAP(3)]
Once you get the scanner, fax and copier together in one piece, hold onto your hats, especially if you print in color. Photographs in our test document came out exactly like the originals. The X762e reproduced details such as a man's reflection on glass in perfect detail, whereas most of the other MFPs we tested either washed out or darkened such details so that we couldn't see them.

But what was really surprising was the quality of the text the unit churned out. Every other MFP produced adequate text, but the X762e created text that jumped off the page. It proved the exception to the rule that all printed text looks the same.

What's more, the X762e was nearly as fast as the HP, finishing off our 30-page text document in one minute and 34 seconds. And it was the fastest MFP for printing graphics, rendering our complicated 30-page graphical document in two minutes and 17 seconds.

Like most of the higher-end MFPs, the X762e has a large touch screen for giving commands to the unit. However, the brains of the X762e are a little bit smarter than most. You can set up chains of command to help automate your workflow. Let's say that, as part of your job, you scan a daily 10-page report and then print and collate 30 copies for people in your agency. You can set this process up and store it in the 256MB of onboard memory. Then when you arrive at the machine, you simply tap the screen and tell it to run your standard process. It will do everything that you put into its script, without your having to touch the machine again until it's finished. And the 600MHz processor makes sure that tasks are completed in the blink of an eye.

The 1,200-by-1,200-dpi scanner was quick and accurate. To test it, we scanned and swapped our product submission form with Lexmark officials through a X762e. The form was easily readable, as were all the test documents we ran through the system.

With a government price of $5,399, the X762e is among the more expensive MFPs, but if you're looking for a cut above standard text quality, plus good graphics and top-of-the-line automation features, the X762e is a real winner.

Lexmark International, Lexington, Ky., (800) 539-6275, www.lexmark.com


OKI DATA ES162n

Pros: Brilliant, accurate color reproduction

Cons:z Complex setup, clumsy output tray

Features: B

Speed: B-

Setup: C-

Color quality:A+

Value: B

The ES162n looks like an MFP from years past in that the unit is cobbled together from a bunch of disparate parts. Every other unit in the review was either a slick one-piece unit or at least had parts that looked like they might fit together.

Putting the ES162n together tested the lab staff's collective skills in building equipment. There were enough cables coming out the back to resemble a patient on life support. The end result looked like it might be missing some duct tape and bailing twine. Oki Data company officials said the $3,199 price included setup by trained technicians. We feel sorry for the poor saps who earned degrees in advanced ES162n setup, but at least they have job security.
[IMGCAP(4)]
When we got to the actual testing, it was nice to see that looks can be deceiving. The ES162n produced the best color images in the review'nobody else was even close. The super-glossy output that was supposed to be evident in the HP MFP was present in the Oki Data MFP. In fact, photos printed on the ES162n looked like they had come out of a photo printer, even on standard office paper. When we examined color output from the ES162n sitting beside output from all the others in the review, our eyes jumped to the ES162n pages every time.

Speedwise, the ES162n was good, but not blazingly fast. It crunched our 30-page text file in two minutes and 28 seconds. For graphics, it took a lot longer, finishing the 30-page test in three minutes and 47 seconds.

We ran into an odd problem with the paper output tray, which was slanted at a fairly high angle. When we initially set up an MFP, we run about 100 color and black-and-white pages through it to burn off any toner splashes that might have occurred during setup and get it ready for official testing. We kicked off the ES162n's warm-up and left the lab for a bit. When we returned, we found paper on the floor and in the return tray.

Running a partial warm-up again to try and solve the mystery, we observed that because the return area was so steep and fairly far below the actual output slot, pages coming out of the printer bent and caught on pages that were already lying there. This pushed paper up and sometimes out of the printer.

The unit came with a tiny extension that we snapped onto the end of the printer, but it could not completely eliminate this problem.

We also weren't terribly impressed with the system's small LCD screen that tells you what it's doing. It provides very basic information, such as the fact that it is printing but not what page it's on or the name of the document.

For the price, the ES162n is a bit of a disappointment, unless of course you require an MFP capable of highly accurate and beautiful color printing. If glossy images are important to you and a scanner and fax machine are nice extras, then you're not likely to be disappointed. But we're not sure photo printing is the right reason to buy an MFP.

Oki Data Americas, Laurel, N.J., (800) 654-3282, www.okiprintingsolutions.com


TOSHIBA E-STUDIO 351c

Pros: Accurate color, good extra features

Cons: Very expensive, fuzzy text

Features: A

Speed: A-

Setup: A

Color quality: A

Value: C+

The Toshiba e-Studio351c was the most expensive unit in the review, with an $11,895 price tag. While the unit performed well in all our testing, it did not outpace the competition enough to warrant the huge difference in price. In fact, it lagged the competition in some areas.

The e-Studio351c free-standing unit sits on rollers with hidden metal handles that made it easy to roll the unit from our loading dock to the fifth-floor lab. The handles retract into the machine when not in use.

The printer's user interface is a huge touch screen. Using the screen, you can type in a password that will allow you to accept privately printed documents. You can also 'print' important documents to an electronic file cabinet from your PC. This is not unlike the HP, although the Toshiba's interface is a lot more complicated.

On the plus side, when you send a document to a file cabinet, you can specify that you also want it to print out. On the negative side, finding documents in the file cabinets is not intuitive and it took several minutes to find a document we had supposedly filed.

It took the e-Studio351c just one minute and 11 seconds to crunch our 30-page text document, which tied it for first place. It was slower when printing the 30-page graphical document, finishing in an average of three minutes and 18 seconds.
[IMGCAP(5)]
Graphically, the e-Studio351c prints accurately and can capture very fine details when scanning. It renders line art perfectly. In our tests, images were rendered accurately, although not with the photographic sheen of the Oki Data model.

The Toshiba had some problems with text printing, however. Text printed in light blue came out fuzzy. Gray text was particularly bad, with all the letters looking jagged to the naked eye.

Overall, the e-Studio351c is a decent unit, but not necessarily worth the price. There are other full-featured systems out there for considerably less.

Toshiba America Business Solutions Inc., Irvine, Calif., (800) 468-6744, www.copiers.toshiba.com

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above