For workgroups, HP and IBM deliver

In this issue and the next, you'll learn how the GCN Lab brought life-and eventually
clients-to monochrome laser printers on a network running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0.


As we tried to get the first six printers running for this review of workgroup models,
we sometimes thought NT must stand for "not today." We encountered rogue or
missing software drivers, erroneous installation instructions, client conflicts and
hardware failures. But in the end, most of the printers performed admirably on our battery
of tests.


One reason for the installation difficulties is that network printers today must juggle
multiple operating systems-flavors of Windows and Unix, and Apple Computer Inc.'s
Macintosh OS as well. Different network protocols and interfaces complicate matters
further.


Many of the instruction booklets had little or no information on Windows NT
networks-and NT 4.0 Server is nothing like NT 3.51. It has different printer installation
procedures and driver formats.


Once online, two printers emerged as the best of the bunch. Our Reviewer's Choice
designations went to Hewlett-Packard Co.'s LaserJet 5M and IBM Corp.'s Network Printer 17.


The LaserJet 5M fastidiously cranked out anything we sent to it, printing without
errors and sometimes beautifully. But getting the 5M onto the NT network was a bearish
task.


Windows 95, the client operating system, scoffed at every HP .drv driver file. The
LaserJet had to be lured onto the network with a bait-and-switch tactic. Although the
LaserJet 5M edged out the Network Printer 17 in quality, the IBM unit was superior in
features and price. It cranked out good reproduction, though its Printer Control Language
driver never worked properly. Only when we switched to a PostScript Level 2 driver did the
printer manage to complete the tests.


Five of these six 12- or 17-page-per-minute printers each cost less than $2,000
including network interface card. Considering their 600-dot-per-inch output (1,200-dpi for
the Lexmark), they offer solid workgroup value.


Low price may be enticing, but remember these monochrome models aren't appropriate for
high-volume network printing. GCN will review such printers in the next issue.


Each of these six holds only about 350 sheets; our tests cranked through a minimum of
5,000 pages. All the printers ran low on toner in that time and required a replacement
cartridge or more toner.


In general, features were similar. One printer might have a little more memory, another
might have an extra font or a hard drive to store many fonts. But the true differentiators
were output quality, software drivers and networkability.


The Epson EPL-N1200 came without any Windows NT 4.0 drivers at all. Epson sent us a
beta driver for the server, but even the Win95 drivers were not very successful with the
N1200.


Sample printouts of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet erroneously printed text beneath the
chart. Shaded areas did not print at 600 dpi but at 300 dpi or even lower.


Other output examples looked better, although the Epson tended to print darker than
other printers. The Lab's quality judges rated Epson near the bottom because of its
banding and dithering patterns.


At $1,389 including NIC, the Epson was the least expensive. Epson did not send a
network card in the test unit, but I borrowed one from its big brother, the EPL-N2000,
which will be among the nine printers in Part 2.


The N1200 has no paper tray. You pop open a front panel to slide about 250 sheets into
place. The lack of a tray causes problems whenever the N1200 runs out of paper during a
job. As you slide in a new stack, the printer grabs some sheets to restart printing. If
the new stack isn't ideally placed, it jams.


When toner gets low, the N1200 will print only one page at a time-no matter what the
job size-when the user presses a control panel button.


The low toner message appeared quite soon, but print quality didn't suffer for the next
50 pages or so.


Because the Epson came without a NT 4.0 driver, it had no NT 4.0 instructions on how to
get the hardware address onto the card. Instead of printing out a configuration sheet with
the information like the other printers, the Epson made the user press a small button on
the card itself.


HP's LaserJet 5M exhibited Hewlett-Packard's usual design finesse and would make a
welcome addition to any small workgroup.


Let me stress small, because installing the client drivers on a big network would tax
any administrator.


Installation of the printer itself was a breeze. The HP JetDirect Port almost
eliminates manual TCP/IP addressing and makes locating a networked printer easy.


One of the handy things about Windows NT 4.0 is its ability to load all client drivers
onto the server. When you install any printer on a client, the server dispatches the
appropriate files to it.


Unfortunately, this doesn't work with HP printers.


For some reason, the Windows 95 .drv files conflict on a client, with the result that
the printer can neither be seen nor installed. Windows 95 reports the .inf file is
corrupted and the client needs to be rebooted. Shut down and start up as many times as you
want-it still won't install.


To get the Mopier on the network, I installed it manually from the client. This worked
fine for the Mopier, which uses Version 3.0 of the installation files. But it did not work
with the LaserJet 5M's Version 2.20-the current version on HP's World Wide Web site.


I attempted to uninstall the drivers from the NT server with no luck. Microsoft really
should permit an NT administrator to unbond driver files from the client for manual
installation.


I finally installed the Mopier drivers mapped to the LaserJet 5M address, then replaced
the Mopier drivers with ones belonging to the 5M-my bait-and-switch tactic.


Thereafter, the 5M behaved nicely. GCN judges considered its output superior in many
instances and cited its crisp photo output.


The IBM Network Printer 17, like every other printer in this review, had driver
problems. For some reason, the PCL version just would not initialize properly. A few
documents would start to flow, then output would degrade.


The first page just might print out in its entirety. The next might have only the top
third of the page, then we would see a few pixels at the top or maybe a 112- by 1-inch
reproduction of the page in the top left corner.


We printed each sample document using PCL, as with the other printers, except for one.
Document 1-the ultimate test-simply would not print out on the IBM under PCL without
error.


The PostScript driver fared better. On Document 1, the PostScript driver did not allow
full edge-to-edge printing. Across the board, however, the PostScript driver worked
without a hitch. Judges commented on how crisp output appeared, especially sharp lines.
The IBM also excelled at smooth blends and gradations of gray.


Rated at 17 ppm, it often cranked out 18 pages in 60 seconds. Considering its low price
and feature set, the IBM Network Printer 17 earns good bang-for-the-buck marks.


The Kyocera Ecosys FS-1700, despite the "17'' in its name, produced only 12 ppm.
Output-no matter what speed-was difficult for this printer.


Although the company touts it as environmentally sensitive, the Ecosys laid down thick,
dark toner. GCN's judges said halftone screening was poor and gradation banding obvious.


Kyocera's Windows NT directions were hard to follow. Even when connectivity was
established, the NIC occasionally dropped its connection. Swapping cables didn't help.


A status light on the network card kept flashing green, indicating it was talking to
the network, although print jobs were backed up and the administration utility claimed the
printer was not on the network.


Sometimes the Kyocera would stop printing between jobs and have to be turned off and
back on.


An audible paper-out alarm sounded constantly until someone pressed the cancel button
on the control panel.


The Kyocera did have a speedy first-class printer utility. The drivers seemed to
function fine, but a couple of hiccups appeared here and there on documents, such as gray
patterns behind numbers.


Lexmark's Optra S 1250N, at the low end of a new line of printers from Lexmark
International, was a good printer and the only one in this group with true 1,200- by
1,200-dpi output.


Its rounded design looked attractive, but judges consistently rated the Optra's output
third or fourth.


Getting the Optra on the network went fairly smoothly. The Mark Vision control utility
worked but seemed a little rough around the edges.


In initial testing, the Optra S could never print any of the test pages from a client
running Windows 95 without dropping portions of a page.


It appeared that the Win95 driver shipped with the Optra S conflicted with Windows 95B,
also known as OSR2.


Shortly before press time, Lexmark posted new drivers to its Web site, and they helped
the unit complete most tests successfully. However, the 1250N dropped almost all the
hairline rules and the entire grid pattern on the Microsoft Excel document.


The Xerox DocuPrint 4517 arrived with a bad 125M hard drive. Once that was removed-it
isn't essential for operating-the network card refused to accept the assigned IP address.


Like the Kyocera and the Epson, the Xerox needed a command prompt and the arp -s
command to alter the IP address. The documentation was less than helpful.


Once you send an arp -s command, you should wait about a minute and then ping the
address from Windows NT to see if there's a response. For example, you would enter arp -s
01-23-45-6A-7B-89 12.234.567.89 to assign network card 01:23:45:6A:7B:89 to address
12.234.567.89.


A minute later, you would enter ping 12.234.567.89. If that address responded, NT would
tell you how many milliseconds it took. If the address was not active on the network, you
would receive a time-out error.


The Xerox documentation didn't say anything about pinging. Instead, it said to turn off
the printer, wait a moment, turn it back on and print out a configuration sheet to see
whether the address had taken hold.


Even under that procedure, the NIC refused to go along. I finally managed to assign the
IP address to the NIC. I removed the entire logic board, set a jumper on the NIC to a
different position, replaced the logic board, turned on and initialized the unit, then
turned it off, removed the board again, restored the jumper to its original position and
installed the logic board yet again.


When Xerox sent a new hard drive, it worked fine.


The DocuPrint 4517 could do edge-to-edge printing with generally good performance.
However, its PCL driver garbled much of the text in Adobe Acrobat .pdf documents and
balked at any combination of bit-map and vector images within the same document.


The Xerox was the most expensive of the workgroup printers because of its 10-box secure
output bin that lets individuals retrieve only their own documents.


The base printer without extra memory costs about $1,250.


GCN Lab assistant Donovan Campbell contributed to this report.


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