Reliable type

The Dell W5300n monochrome printer has a 500-MHz processor, up to 338M of RAM and a 225,000-page monthly duty cycle. It starts at $999.

Xerox's DocuPrint N4525, which starts at $4,899, connects via multiple interfaces, and features automatic duplexing, an internal hard drive and a 250,000-page monthly duty cycle.

Network printers have speed, quality and features you can count on

Printers have come a long way since the days when lumbering impact printers attached to mainframes and standalone PCs pumped out ASCII text symbols on reams of paper that jammed almost as often as they ran freely.

Reliable, high-quality, high-speed printing has become fairly commonplace. But there's always room for improvement'and, increasingly, the use of color.

Typical speeds of the monochrome units listed in this guide (see chart, Page 32) are between 35 and 50 pages per minute; the best color units tend to run slower due to the complexities of bringing crisp color and graphics to the page. Most color lasers top out at 35 ppm.

Speaking of color, while sales of networkable color lasers are rising fast, they haven't yet caught up with monochrome models. As I have mentioned in previous guides, monochrome text printing still covers the requirements of most of-fices; when occasional color graphics or photos are called for, an inexpensive color laser or even ink-jet printer will do. But as more sophisticated document management tasks increase, the use of color laser printers might be advisable.

Whether you require color or monochrome printing, the functions and features you should look for are basically the same.

All network printers come with a built-in network interface card or some other means of connecting to a network. Network interface support should definitely include 10/100-Mbps Ethernet connectivity, given the universal popularity of this network technology.

IEEE 1284 bidirectional parallel port connectivity is another important interface, followed by USB connections. For additional flexibility, check for support of other network protocols such as token-ring, serial port, LocalTalk or AppleTalk. If you are interested in wireless networking, look for IEEE 802.11b WiFi or Bluetooth interfaces.

If your printer supports multiple interfaces, it should also support Automatic Interface Switching, so it can switch to the interface selected by the host computer.

Network lasers require powerful print engines with fast RISC processors to provide fast enough output for multiple users on the network.

Color is complicated

The color lasers in the accompanying chart tend to come with faster processors than the monochrome units, because more speed and power is required to handle the extra millions of instructions required for complex image and color graphics management.
Compared with desktop printers, network printers are built to last. Besides robust print engines with plenty of RAM and built-in single-pass technology, other mechanical components used by all printers are built to withstand years of regular use with relatively infrequent downtime.

A standard measure of a printer's ability to handle lengthy service schedules is its monthly duty cycle, as measured in number of pages printed before it must be taken out of service for repair and maintenance. Many of the models listed here boast duty cycles of 250,000 or more pages per month.

As a general rule, the more RAM your printer can hold the better. And while not necessarily a re-quirement, a hard drive will store more fonts or typefaces, queue up multiple print jobs, or store additional drivers if necessary.

Print resolution of 600 by 600 dots per inch is more than adequate for most tasks. If a printer's specs list a resolution of 1,200 by 1,200 dpi, chances are it is 'enhanced' by techniques that help smooth the edges of images on the page and is not a true resolution at all.

Such standard print languages as the various versions of HP PCL or Adobe PostScript should come bundled with your printer. Most of today's printers offer both.

What sets the best network printers apart from the pack is the ability to handle large volumes of paper without a blink, hitch or jam.

The first and most obvious paper-handling feature is the ability to print two sides of the paper without manual intervention. Automatic two-sided printing should come standard, or at least as an option, with any network printer worth its salt.

Second, make sure the printer has enough paper trays to handle all the sizes and stock of paper you generally use, and that enough extra input trays can be added that constant re- loading is unnecessary. Lexmark International Inc.'s C912fn color laser comes with input trays that can handle up to 5,300 sheets before reloading. Input capacity of at least 2,500 sheets is desirable for most network printers.

The printers in this guide can handle a variety of paper sizes, ranging from envelope to letter, but only a few can handle tabloid-size, 11- by 17-inch paper stock. If you need this feature, look to a printer such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s monochrome 9050dn and color 5500hdn or IBM Corp.'s Infoprint 1357n, which not only can handle 12-inch by 18-inch paper, but can also print banners up to 36 inches long.

Big paper cost

Expect to pay more for a printer capable of handling tabloid-size or banner print jobs. Oki Data Inc.'s C9500dxn Pro Studio Edition comes standard with a 12-inch by 18-inch extra-tabloid feature and can print 13-inch by 47-inch banner sheets, but it comes at a premium price of $8,788.

Only a few network printers come standard with such finishing options as hole punching, stapling and stacking. But most can provide them as options.

Virtually all the printers listed provide automatic setup routines that make them a breeze to install on almost any network by almost anybody, including relatively inexperienced administrators.

In addition, most have built-in Web pages that let you easily check their status from any computer on the network and provide relevant information about particular print queues.

High-quality remote management software has become the crown jewel of most printer manufacturers' bundled software. Since network printers by definition are remote'that is, located some distance away from a host computer'some type of remote management is a definite requirement.

J.B. Miles writes from Honomu, Hawaii. E-mail him at [email protected].


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