Laser printers on the spot

Hewlett-Packard's Color Laser Jet 4650n, priced at $2,000, prints 22 ppm for both color and monochrome, with an 85,000-page monthly duty cycle.

Color laser printers can add speed and capacity to small offices

With prices dropping and image quality rising, the low-end color laser printer is coming into its own, competing with the ubiquitous ink-jet printer that has long been the mainstay of the spot-color market.

Laser printers are really very little different from any other electrostatic-based copiers or printers.

At the heart of each machine is a photo-sensitive drum that is initially given a static electric charge by either a corona wire or a small charged roller.

A tightly focused beam of light is then shone on the rotating drum, with the light being switched on and off rapidly to match the electronic signal carrying the image information.

Exposing portions of the charged drum to light discharges those areas.

The drum continues rotating past a mechanism that lets the remaining charged areas pick up a coating of toner consisting of pigment and tiny plastic particles.

The toner is pressed onto the surface of an oppositely charged piece of paper, which is passed to hot rollers that fuse the toner with the surface of the paper. This is why the paper is always warm and why the pages don't smudge the way ink-jet pages will if handled immediately after printing. Meanwhile, the drum continues rotating and is completely erased by a bright light, ready for the next image.

LED printers are also laser printers, but instead of the complicated and expensive mirror assembly to direct a single laser beam, the less-expensive LED laser printers use a strip of tiny light-emitting diodes that are nothing more than tiny solid-state lasers.

Times four

Color printers work exactly the same way except that they do everything four times, and the combination of four colors'cyan, magenta, yellow and black'produces all other colors.

Some printers have four separate toner and print units on a wheel, while others put all four toner colors on a drum before printing. The most expensive printers will have four complete drum and toner units.

The printers listed in this guide range from single-user units to those suitable for a small office network.

LED printers cost less than single-laser printers, but they are less flexible and provide lower print quality.

Pay attention to two often-neglected factors.

First, the cost of printing in color depends more on the cost of replacement toner cartridges and their print capacity than it does on the cost of the printer itself.

It's vital to remember that printer manufacturers have embraced the 'razor blade' marketing model, in which they sell the machine at a bargain price and make their money on the blades, in this case the toner. There's certainly nothing wrong with this approach as long as you understand that it applies to laser printers as well as ink-jet printers.

Second, it is tempting to look at the quality and price of these printers and think, based on the pages they can produce per minute, that some can be used for high-volume printing, but the critical factor is always the monthly duty cycle.

For example, the Konica Magicolor 3300 can print 26 ppm. But running that for 10 hours a day, six days a week, 26 days each month would mean printing 405,600 pages per month.

That's a good output for a sub-$2,000 printer, certainly comparable to some expensive network printers. Unfortunately, the monthly duty cycle for this printer is only 60,000 pages, so it just isn't engineered to run continuously.

Going from a $1,000 printer to a $5,000 printer, print quality for average documents is remarkably similar, so choose based on the factors you find most important.

Remember also that the black-and-white duty cycle and print speed will likely be very different from the numbers for color pages.

Finally, toner prices can vary greatly even within a single vendor brand. It can be difficult to determine just how many pages you can print on average from a single load of toner, but unless you only print a few hundred pages each month, you should try to include this additional cost factor in any purchase decision.

Comparative costs

Ask the vendor for an estimated cost per page. The number will only be approximate and may be slanted in their favor, but comparing the numbers provided by different vendors can be useful. And they are likely to be accurate if you only use a limited amount of spot color because the estimates are based on a low percentage of color-toner usage, typically 15 percent to 20 percent.

If you are printing photographs, you need to estimate 400 percent coverage per page'100 percent for each color and for black.

Don't be too quick to reject ink-jet printers as an alternative to laser printers. Although the cost of laser-jet ink is higher per page than that of laser toner, the initial cost of the printer is lower. Also, the print quality of the average ink-jet printer is remarkably good and, because you aren't keeping a fuser hot, it uses considerably less electricity.

It isn't a slam-dunk either way. Although a laser printer is generally the best choice, an ink-jet printer does have a place in some office applications, especially if you are more concerned about power consumption than about cost per page.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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