Six network printers vary in color, quality

Six network printers vary in color, quality

Network printers come in many sizes, as GCN staffer Linda Carpenter shows with the Epson Stylus Color 980 in her hands and the HP 8550 MFP behind her.

Xerox Phaser 850 is the lab's favorite, but the Epson Stylus Color 980 earns a mention for its low price and nice images


| GCN Staff

Despite the march of electronic commerce, hardly a contract is signed or a deal concluded without toner hitting paper at some point.

Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, the first signs of technicolor business printing are springing up. Spot color has been popular for some time, and full-color illustrations or photographs often convey business messages better than text. So standard black-and-white printing is slowly on its way out. Most new network printers have color capability.

The GCN Lab rounded up some of the top players in the network printer market for workgroups of 10 to 20. We found enough diversity among units for Microsoft Windows network operating systems to suit any office need.

We judged each printer on speed, output quality, price and management options.

The Phaser 850, formerly from Tektronix Inc. and now sold by Xerox Corp., was the highest-scoring unit in our comparison because of its stunning, near-photographic output.

Instead of standard toner, the Phaser 850 uses wax-like media. Although Xerox refuses to call it wax, the little sticks of toner look and work like giant crayons.

The printer melts the wax into a slushy medium that produces superb image quality. The downside is that this print is less stable than laser output and unsuitable for documents that will be written on or corrected.

We learned this the hard way after designing forms to be used as ballots for a contest. When judges tried to erase their pencil marks to make changes, they found that the print came off, too.

Pressing down hard generally causes smearing, although less than for early Phaser units whose output would stick to a copy machine feeder. Under normal use, the documents are stable enough, but real force will smudge the ink.

The Phaser 850 worked fast, printing a 15-page monochrome document in one minute, 54 seconds. A 27-page document with mixed-color text and graphics took a bit longer: 3:25. Standard letter paper is the only media size.

Because the printer has to melt the toner first, it was a bit slower than most of the others starting from a dead stop. It took more than three minutes to activate when fully powered off and nearly as long to wake up from power-saving mode.

Once the wax cools, be ready to wait a while before you can start printing again. But the Phaser 850 deserves an A and a Reviewer's Choice designation because, for jazzy-looking presentation documents, you can't beat it.

When we took the Epson Stylus Color 980 out of its box, we couldn't help but chuckle at the little $250 consumer unit, trying to compete with monsters that dwarfed it in both size and price.

Stunning upset

We soon discovered that David had tackled several Goliaths and didn't come out too badly.

The Stylus had an optional network card for plugging into a standard office network. Once there, however, its differences from the costlier network printers became obvious.

The main handicap was low paper capacity. The Stylus had only a top-loader that held about 70 sheets. A paper tray would have been better.

Furthermore, the ink cartridges had to be replaced far more often than those of the bigger printers, some of which could go for thousands of pages without attention.

Despite these negatives, the Stylus slugged it out with the big boys in every other area. It held its own in monochrome, chugging through the 15-page text document in 1:43. But it truly shone in color printing, where it crunched the 27-page mixed document in 3:44, considerably faster than two rivals costing thousands of dollars.

Ink-jet output usually is inferior to laser, but in this case, we couldn't tell the difference on black-and-white documents. And the Stylus reproduced photographs better than most of the laser printers, too. Loaded with expensive photographic paper, it churned out quality equal to that of the Phaser 850.

For a small workgroup that needs a color printer, the Stylus is perfect. Numerous users would quickly overload its capabilities, however.

The largest and most expensive printer in this review, the Hewlett-Packard 8550 MFP, came with a lot of extras. It was the only unit to blend network color printing with walk-up copying.

The combination makes sense, because a color laser has all the components of a copy machine, minus a scanning device. The 8550 MFP looks rather like a copy machine, too'the scanner sits on top of the printer.

The 8550 had the best management tools in the review, accessible via an LCD on the corner. The touch-screen accessed all functions such as paper size, light or dark adjustments, and security features. A security key could lock the unit completely.

The 8550 also had the largest paper capacity in the review. Reams of paper could fit into the two paper trays, in standard or larger sizes.

The unit's color quality was good, although the lab has seen better images from other HP printers. In view of the $11,800 price tag, we would have expected superior output. Ironically, the 8550 worked better as a copy machine than as a printer.

The 8550 lived up to the big-and-slow stereotype. Although it did well in black-and-white, spitting out the 15-page document in 1:19, it took more than five minutes to print the 27-page mixed document, the slowest of any unit in the review. Had its color quality been superior, this might have mattered less, but average color quality could not make up for the long wait.

Offices that produce a lot of documents and want to combine color network printing with copying might consider the 8550 MFP, but only if documents aren't often needed in a rush.

Set on stunned

The second Phaser printer in the review, the Phaser 1235, used standard laser technology and toner.

From a dead stop, the 1235 took a while to get going. When first turned on, it warmed up for a full five minutes. In power-saving sleep mode, it also took several minutes to wake up. Once alive and kicking, however, it turned out great quality.

Its images were the best of all the printers using laser technology and standard toner. The 1235 was also relatively fast for a large laser, printing the 15-page text document in 52 seconds and the 27-page mixed document in 4:37.

But its documentation caused us some headaches. When we first set up the 1235, it printed horribly. Text was unreadable and graphics smeary-looking. Xerox technicians could not resolve the problem, so a second unit was flown in. The second unit also performed badly, which initiated another round of talking to technicians. The second time we found the problem.

A tiny orange pin inside the unit held back the fuser'the part that heats the toner'for stability during shipping. This so-called arming pin had to be removed, which neither the technicians nor we had known about.

A diagram on the printer showed the pin being removed, but it was unobtrusive-looking, and the pin itself was only an inch long and buried near the back of the chassis.

Like a hand grenade, the printer worked a lot better once the pin was pulled.

When we finally got the Phaser 1235 working, it turned out to be one of the best office printers a midsized workgroup could ask for in terms of diversity and quality. It had two paper trays and could print on either letter or legal paper.

The Minolta-QMS Magicolor 6100 had some impressive features and some disappointing faults.

Its image quality was the second-best for laser printers in the review, easily topping the much more expensive HP 8550 MFP. Colors were vibrant and truly rendered, and the monochrome text looked clean.

Detailed examination showed more jaggedness than in the Phaser 1235's output, but we had to hold the images side by side to see the difference.

Toner management also was good. When we did have to replace toner, it was easy to open the front panel and insert the toner cartridges horizontally. The Magicolor was the easiest printer in the review to set up and maintain, and users should expect long intervals between maintenance chores.

The Magicolor worked fast, so long as color was not part of the mix. It burned through the 15-page text document in just about a minute, almost as fast as the superspeedy Phaser 1235.

But the Magicolor's color printing speed was dismal'just shy of five minutes to print the 27-page mixed document, only slightly faster than the sluggish 8550 MFP. The color images were of excellent quality, however, when they finally emerged.

The unit made a lot of noise, as if a squeaky fan belt were moving, even when nothing was being printed. Also, the open bottom where the paper tray slid in often induced unrecognized paper jams. The Magicolor kept giving us 'Load paper' errors, even though the real problem was that a sheet of paper had come out of the tray and was lying crunched up underneath. We discovered this shortcoming by accident.

The paper tray itself also was confusing, because it could load paper either straight-on or sideways. We had to learn to ignore the markings of the other orientation and set the holders in the proper position. Otherwise, the printer refused to work. It took two technicians 15 minutes to figure this out.

For excellent laser images, the Magicolor 6100 would make a fine choice, especially if you use spot color or can wait for photos to process.

Where's the color?

Even in offices where black-and-white text represents most of what's printed, a network printer should be able to deliver color when needed. It's a mystery why Samsung Electronics America built a solid network printer whose only significant disadvantage isn't the $500 price but its inability to print in color.

The Samsung QwikLaser 7050N did decent network printing at a good price. It was easy to set up and install but, more importantly, small and lightweight enough to move from office to office.

Besides working with Novell NetWare networks'unlike the other printers in the review'the QwikLaser 7050N was among the fastest. It only took 17 seconds to warm up. It printed 15 pages of fine text in 1:03, only a second slower than the Magicolor 6100 and almost a minute faster than the Phaser 850.

It was the fastest at printing the 27 pages of mixed images and text, completing the job in 2:04. One reason it finished so rapidly was because it could not print in color, but the monochrome images still looked good.

A paper supply gauge on the side of the paper bin slowly fell as we printed the 42 test pages several times, alerting us when it was time to put more in the easy-loading, 500-sheet bin. It was exactly like reading the fuel gauge on a vehicle. When the needle dropped to E, we needed more paper.

The QwikLaser 7050N had a well-designed, 100-sheet multipurpose tray that easily fed in letter paper or envelopes.

We hope Samsung will soon release a color version. Until then, the 7050N is a good choice as a small, affordable, easy-to-use network printer for offices that never need to print color. It got the lowest grade in the review only because of its lack of color, not because of any problem with its grayscale images.

As color network printers continue to advance, we expect to see more multifunction devices like the 8550 MFP and, we hope, smaller footprints.

Overall, we were disappointed by the slowness of most of the printers on heavily color-laden documents. A few of the printers performed acceptably, but there's much room for improvement. Even so, it's safe to say that the black-and-white printer is on its way to extinction.

face="arial,helvetica,geneva" color=#ffffff>Size and price don't
always correspond with the performance of these network
Magicolor 6100Phaser 850Phaser 1235QwikLaser 7050N8550 MFPStylus Color 980
VendorMinolta-QMS Inc.
Mobile, Ala.
Xerox Corp.
Stamford, Conn.
Xerox Corp.
Stamford, Conn.
Samsung Electronics America
Park, N.J.
tel: 201-229-4000
Hewlett-Packard Co.
tel. 408-343-5217
Epson America Inc.
Long Beach,
tel. 562-981-3840
Pros and Cons+
Excellent image quality
+ Good toner management
' Confusing paper load
' Slow color printing
+ Amazingly good image quality
Easy setup
+ Easy to load wax toner and paper
' Wax
' Long boot time
Fast print speed
+ Excellent output quality
' Long boot
' Poor documentation
' Controls confusing;
no calibration mode
Easy setup
+ NetWare-compatible
+ Fast boot
+ Paper gauge
' No color printing
+ Color copying and scanning
+ Best LCD
+ Largest paper capacity
' Largest unit
Difficult to assemble
' Expensive
Fast overall
+ Quietest and smallest
+ Great images for the
+ Easy to set up
' Low paper
Time from off to ready1
minute, 34 seconds
minutes, 5 seconds
minutes, 9 seconds
Print 15 pages of text1
minute, 2 seconds
minute, 54 seconds
minute, 3 seconds
minute, 19 seconds
minute, 43 seconds
Print 27 pages of color4 minutes, 55 seconds3
minute, 25 seconds
minutes, 29 seconds
minutes, 4 seconds
5 minutes, 35 seconds3
minutes, 44 seconds
Overall Grade<>
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src="/newspics/new_bangbuck.gif"> <>
Blue text indicates a desirable attribute or
best performance; red text indicates an undesirable attribute or
worst performance.

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