HP, Lexmark and IBM earn top ratings

Printer driver and installation glitches plagued the nine high-end
network laser printers the GCN Lab reviewed for this issue. But several behaved themselves
as good network citizens, and three delivered top-notch results.


IBM Printing Systems Co.'s Network Printer 24 and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s
LaserJet 5si Mopier were essentially twins, and so were their outputs. Both won Reviewer's
Choice designations.


The Mopier came with two add-ons to make it a multiple original print
device with copier features. The more stripped-down IBM had a stripped-down price.


Lexmark International Inc.'s Optra S 2450N won Lexmark its first-ever
Reviewer's Choice designation for strong paper handling, a fast engine and excellent
output.


The lab focused on monochrome output, but two models were color printers
that exceeded our 10-page-per-minute minimum print speed in monochrome mode. Neither
Panasonic Peripheral Computer Co.'s KX-P8475 nor Tektronix Inc.'s Phaser 560 performed as
well as expected, but the Phaser initially handled the color category admirably.


Although the Panasonic and Tektronix printers could output full color,
we tested them as monochrome printers just like the others in this comparison.


The remaining four printers suffered from driver or network problems,
although Kyocera Electronics Inc.'s FS-3700 outperformed its FS-1700 cousin [GCN, July 21,
Page 33].


Installing the final Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 drivers for Epson America
Inc.'s EPL-N2000 didn't improve much, and QMS Inc.'s 2060EX Print System bombed on certain
test print jobs. The HP LaserJet 4MV lacked up-to-date drivers.


These 15 printers revealed hurdles printer manufacturers will have to
jump for strong network printing--and pitfalls within the Windows NT 4.0 Server operating
system, too.


Here's what printers need to serve well on networks running Windows NT:


Clear instructions. Considering all the operating systems
around--network and client--it's tough to make printers work with everything. But it's not
too tough to write clear instructions. Documentation should not confuse the administrator
or present sweeping generic outlines with few specifics. All printer manufacturers should
organize their documentation better.


Easier TCP/IP addressing. Network administrators shouldn't have
to resort to arcane character-based commands to set network interface cards' IP, net mask
and gateway addresses. Manufacturers should write applications that do the chores and test
to see if cards are set correctly.


Not all users or even administrators know the secrets of IP addressing
or the ins-and-outs of connecting printers to servers. These tricks should be clearly
explained, step by step, for every network and client operating system.


Drivers that work. Faulty drivers have become the bane of an
administrator's existence. Too many printers are rushed to production before drivers are
ready, and even tried-and-true drivers may fail to install properly in network
environments. Then there are the drivers that don't exist. Printer makers should test
drivers thoroughly in all environments--especially the current versions of Windows 95 and
NT.


Over the past four months, as we received each printer and set it up in
the lab, we used it steadily for real-life jobs. Each printed out a minimum 5,000 sheets
of paper if it was able to do so.


We devised a series of test documents. Document 1 (see next page) might
not look like an everyday item, but it had elements of every kind of print job. Documents
2, 3 and 4 were examples of jobs you might pull from the World Wide Web or produce in
house.


Now on to the nine network laser printers:


The Epson EPL-N2000 was almost exactly like the QMS 2060EX Print
System. Epson completed a Windows NT 4.0 driver just prior to deadline, but it did not
correct the output problems we saw with the beta version.


Epson officials said that although the driver worked on networks, it was
only for NT 4.0 clients. There are no plans to develop a network-specialized driver, they
said.


GCN's panel of judges gave low marks to the Epson's output. One judge
called it "dark and splotchy." The printer did not fare well with Microsoft
Excel documents. It overprinted text beneath charts and gave gray areas a coarse dot
pattern.


The Epson had no network installation instructions. The N2000's
removable paper tray held 500 sheets. You could add add 100 more pages--including
tabloid-sized paper--through a front panel.


The HP LaserJet 4MV had no driver problem but had drivers only
for Windows 3.x, Novell NetWare and Apple Macintosh.


HP's Web site had no usable drivers, either. The Windows 95 drivers on
the Web site for the 4MV were only for use in Asian countries. As a last resort, we used
drivers for the 4MV built into Windows 95 and NT. For many applications, those drivers
could not print multiple copies. That required clicking the Print button over and over for
multiple copies.


We've noticed this problem with other HP printers and built-in PCL
drivers. HP has updated many of its drivers, but the 4MV doesn't yet have them.


Judges were disappointed with the output quality, commenting on the
4MV's heavy vertical banding. This LaserJet could, however, print 11- by 17-inch tabloid
paper from an oversized tray.


In comparison, HP's LaserJet 5si Mopier is the ultimate printer,
but not one that every office needs or can afford. Besides a bevy of good features such as
two-sided printing, stapling, collating and three in-bound paper trays for 3,100 sheets of
paper, the Mopier works fast. When I clicked Print, the Mopier often warmed up and printed
a page almost instantaneously.


The software drivers--once loaded--gave easy access to all features. It
was remarkably easy to turn features on or off. Illustrations showed examples, so we were
sure to get the features we wanted.


The Mopier's drivers did not like the lab's Windows 95 client, bombing
on .drv files. But manual installation circumvented this.


Judges thought some of the Mopier's photographic output looked
washed-out. Although the Mopier's printouts always ranked among the best, judges noticed
some banding.


The Mopier's original toner cartridge lasted throughout the 5,000-sheet
test. This was impressive, because several of the Mopier's tests involved two-sided
printing. The Mopier had five face-down mailbox trays but no real lock to keep someone
from removing pages from the bins. If you staple pages, you're limited to the stapling
bin.


The Mopier came close to being a copier, even though every page was an
original print. Isn't it about time these two space hogs merged? HP has a winner in this
first-generation hybrid and another Reviewer's Choice award.


The IBM Network Printer 24 also earned the Reviewer's Choice.
This time around, its PCL drivers mostly worked.


The printer earned top marks across the board except in one test. Its
PCL drivers scoffed at certain areas on an Adobe Acrobat .pdf test document file, dropping
a bit-map image and a bit of text.


Overall, judges were impressed, saying the IBM tended to pick up subtle
details and to make the smoothest transitions.


You could stack a two-paper tray base and mailbox/stapler/duplex unit
onto the Network Printer 24 to get the equivalent of a Mopier, and the NP 24 would cost
half as much as the high-end HP and be just as fast. It also doesn't take up as much room.


Although the Kyocera Ecosys FS-3700's 500-page paper feeder added
to the footprint, it was still the smallest printer of all.


The output of the 18-ppm FS-3700 was heavy and dark.


But the FS-3700 didn't suffer from any network interface card blues.


Although each balk forced a shutdown to recover fully, the FS-3700
balked only three times in the 5,000-page print job and stayed connected to the network.


The FS-3700 could send output face-down to the top or face-up to a tray
in back at the push of a control panel button. The button did not work midjob.


After about 100 pages fed into the face-up tray, the printer started to
jam. As each page slipped out the back, it encountered a little friction from the stack of
paper and stopped midprint. The output tray should be as empty as possible to avoid jams.


The Reviewer's Choice Lexmark Optra S 2450N had a speedy 24-ppm
engine that cranked out 1,200-dot-per-inch output that judges considered among the best.


Some printouts had too much toner, but the 2450N's print quality was
crisp overall and provided more detail than HP's and IBM's, especially for photographic
output. One judge said, "This printer tended to hold the lighter and darker areas
better; the others made things appear muddy."


The 2450N faltered on the Excel worksheet. All the grid lines and rules
printed, but lightly. Text in shaded areas appeared dark.


The 2450N fell halfway between the IBM and HP in features, with
two-sided printing and the only envelope feeder in the review. Both features worked well.


I had a little trouble networking this printer. When I deleted a
previously tested HP 1250N's port from the network, all Lexmark ports disappeared.
Interestingly, when I re-established the 2450N's port, the 1250N's reappeared.


The Panasonic KX-P8475 was basically the same printer as the
Tektronix Phaser 550 [GCN, July 21, Page 33], because Panasonic builds the Phaser 550 and
560 for Tektronix. But the KX-P8475 and its components didn't appear mature. The printer's
directions were confusing and incomplete.


Software drivers were the basic PostScript Level 2, but did not have
instructions for NT 4.0 driver installation. The drivers did install and NT seemed to work
with them, but the Panasonic couldn't turn out a complete job--only NT test pages.


Neither the disk nor documentation listed NT 4.0 drivers. The
documentation advised making manual adjustments to the driver files from a text-editing
application but did not say how to edit them for NT 4.0. The Panasonic Web site had no
drivers at all.


The Ethernet card, actually a Tektronix PhaserShare card, appeared to
install, and a printer test page from the NT server cranked out fine--but not from the
Win95 client. After a full reset of the server, printer and client, the network card lost
its IP address and had to be reinitialized.


After another setup, both server and client printed a test page. But
subsequent attempts to print anything failed. Sometimes the PhaserShare card lost its IP
address, other times it didn't. In the end, I judged the card at fault and resorted to
parallel printing just to be sure.


The Panasonic was the only printer of the 15 that went through two black
toner cartridges and needed a third to finish printing about half the 5,000 pages. That
heavy toner outlay might be why judges called the Panasonic's output dark and lacking in
sharpness.


The QMS 2060EX Print System came nested in two boxes. The outside
box opened on the top and the inside box opened at the bottom. Much of the documentation
arrived on a CD-ROM, and all the drivers and software on a second CD-ROM. Network
installation required constant switching from one CD to the other.


Documentation in a book or manual would have been easier, because
following the flow of directions meant jumping around. The online documentation in Adobe
Acrobat format was misleading because of pagination errors.


Windows NT 4.0 did not appear among the supported operating
systems--only Windows NT 3.5, not even 4.0's predecessor 3.51 version. Even after I
successfully followed the NT instructions as provided, the printer's own software could
not find the printer on the network. When I got the printer onto the network and was
printing to it, its own administrator utilities refused to see it even after being given
the IP address.


In the end, I followed setup procedures similar to the non-HP and
non-Lexmark printers and ignored QMS' instructions. The QMS refused to print CorelDraw 7.0
documents. The only way to get a test print was to save the file as a .tif. Any .tif sent
directly to the printer had to be 300 dpi or less. Documents with higher resolutions would
disappear.


Judges said the QMS output varied from dark and coarse to sharp. One
judge preferred its output of Defense Secretary William Cohen's photo, even at 300 dpi.


The Tektronix Phaser 560 was a leap forward for the color printer
company and came close to earning a Reviewer's Choice designation. But it couldn't match
the other printers' speed and had some paper-handling problems.


About 25 sheets jammed in the first 2,000 printed. Company officials
told me the Phaser 560 tested was a preproduction unit and that production models do not
jam.


After I turned the printer off to replace the black toner cartridge, it
would never come back on. It had been connected to two surge protectors and, at the time
of failure, the lab had not experienced any power anomalies. This Phaser 560 had a faulty
power unit. The lab has had no such problems with at least five other Tektronix printers
examined in the past.


The Phaser 560's output was good. Judges were impressed with the shaded
areas on Microsoft Excel documents. Unlike the monochrome printers, the Phaser varied the
dot-scatter pattern in black-only print jobs so gray areas appeared more uniform.


Both the Phaser and the Panasonic printed mixed horizontal and vertical
text unevenly. Horizontal words were too light; text in vertical format appeared dark and
blurry.


Still, Tektronix has made a lot of improvements over the Phaser 550.
Setup was much easier.


The 550 had come in two large boxes. All components--including paper
trays--were inside plastic bags, packed with foam padding and inside boxes. It took about
45 minutes to get the unit unpacked and ready.


In contrast, the 560 came in a single compact box with fuser and imaging
unit already installed. We just popped in the four toner cartridges, added paper and
plugged in.


If you're considering a network laser printer with color as an option,
look closely at the Phaser 560.


GCN Lab assistant Donovan Campbell contributed to this report.


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