All things to all documents?

GCN Lab Review: Color multifunction devices can handle many tasks, but each has its strengths and weaknesses

IF YOU COULD CONSOLIDATE most of the office machines in your mailroom into a single unit, you probably would. That goes double if doing so could save money.

Studies have shown that it can. Research firm IDC estimates the savings could reach $3,700 per month if you replace printers, scanners, copiers and fax machines with a single multifunction printer (MFP), and that figure does not include productivity savings.

But putting all your eggs in one basket can also be dangerous. If the MFP is not fast enough, lines can form with people waiting to use it. And if print quality is not adequate, it will affect not only documents you print but also every scan you make and each fax you receive.

In other words, you need to make sure you've got a good basket.

Six companies sent their newest enterprise MFPs to the lab. We scanned hundreds of documents, received and sent countless faxes, and printed thousands of pages. We then examined each for color matching, overall quality and accuracy. We pitted MFPs against one another, sending extremely complex color and text documents into their memory to see how long each took to crunch the data and spit it out. We also evaluated extra features such as walk-up printing from USB drives and ease of use. Advanced features are no good if you can't figure out how to use them.

Finally, we assessed value based on price and performance in all other areas, with a focus on initial price and estimated cost per page based on consumables.

There were no real bad eggs this year ' the MFP world is growing up. However, there were plenty of surprises: The company whose printer won the review last year got the lowest scores this time because of some serious flaws in its latest model. And another company rose from the lowest tier last time and squeaked out an impressive overall victory.

Brother MFC-9840CDW

WE WERE IMPRESSED WITH the MFC-9840CDW as soon as it came out of the box. More than just a pretty design in dark blue, its brilliantly lit LED buttons directed us to important features, such as changing from fax to copy mode, without the need for any formal training. There is also a large LCD display that tells what mode the MFP is in along with the date and time.

In terms of extra features, the MFC-9840CDW has two that are rare on MFPs at this price.

The first is walk-up printing via a USB drive. By simply sticking the USB drive into the port on the front of the machine, you can print Word files, JPEGs or other text documents without having to log in to a network.

Our only problem is that the port is located far into the machine, which means some of the new, bulkier key drives can't fit in the hole. If the port were flush against the side of the unit, it would be perfect.

Nevertheless, it's useful for most drives.

Second, and even more impressive, the MFC-9840CDW acts as a wireless IEEE 802.11b hub, so you can send it documents to print or even fax from your laptop PC or handheld device.

On the negative side, the topside flatbed scanner sits right above another doorway that pops open all too easily. We could not figure out the function of the second hinge, other than to perhaps clear a paper jam. The problem is that when you open the scanner, it too frequently causes that second hinge to pop. More than once, documents flipped off the top of the machine and down the backside of the testing station because of this design quirk.

Even with the annoying hinge, the MFC-9840CDW was cruising toward an easy victory in this review. With printtimes of 1 minute, 34 seconds for a 30-page text document and 2 minutes, 1 second for a 30-page graphical one, it was certainly fast enough to earn top honors.

But it fell behind in color document quality.

Even before we did formal tests, we could tell the color was off compared with others in the review. Images were far too light and lacked red, which throws off the entire color spectrum. Light-colored text, such as yellow, was lost on white pages instead of providing emphasis for important documents. Although dark colors printed fairly well, the lack of total color quality earned the MFC- 9840CDW a grade of C in this area.

The MFC-9840CDW is an extremely easyto- use MFP with cool, usable features. And if accurate color isn't a high priority, the $849 government price might still be appealing.

Brother International, (908) 704-1700,

Dell 3115cn Multifunction Color Laser Printer

THE DELL 3115CN is a fairly plain MFP that comes with a great price of $899 directly from Dell ' and feds can get as much as 30 percent off that price.

It has an interesting configuration, with the scanner component placed high above the printer below. Some MFPs put the scanner too close to the printer output tray, which makes it difficult to see when the unit is finished printing and also limits collection space. But the 3115cn has more than a foot of clearance between them.

This makes the design a little tall, but width is usually the primary concern with MFPs, and the 3115cn can fit almost anywhere.

The 3115cn is pretty quick, printing our 30-page color test document in 2 minutes, 10 seconds and the 30-page text document in 1 minute, 8 seconds. The 3115cn could have been the quickest printer in the review, but at the beginning of every test, it had to calibrate itself, which took five to eight seconds and could not be avoided. Even so, it was speedy.

The biggest strength of the 3115cn is amazing text quality. We could not detect any flaws in hundreds of pages of text, even when going over it page by page with a magnifying photo loupe ' the only printer in the review to produce such flawless text.

Letters and symbols were completely crisp and formed without even a hint of a jagged edge. Without a doubt, this is the printer or fax you want to use for important text-only documents.

The color imaging on the 3115cn was adequate, and it aced tests that involved text placement, such as putting words around, through or over a graphic.

But the colors print just a little too dark, blackening fine details on some photos.

You don't get a lot of extras with the 3115cn, but if you mostly print, scan or receive black-and-white text documents, you won't find better quality at any price.

Dell, (888) 999-3355,

Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet CM4730f

Hewlett-Packard, (800) 289-6947,

Lexmark X502n

IT IS WITH A HEAVY HEART that we write about the X502n. The last time we did an MFP roundup, the Lexmark X762e blew away every other model and captured the Reviewer's Choice designation, so we were expecting great things. But the X502n only has one feature of note: extremely fast text printing. In almost every other area, it's average at best.

The interface is confusing and hard to read, and it is not even synced with the messages displayed on the LCD information screen.

At one point, it kept telling us that to continue doing a task, we had to push the Set button. But despite closely examining the tiny print under the equally tiny, non-illuminated buttons, we could not find it. Eventually, through trial and error, we discovered that we were supposed to push a button with a check mark, which we assume must have been the Set button.

The X502n did impress in terms of raw speed, except with color.

It finished printing our 30-page text document in 1 minute, 3 seconds, which was five seconds ahead of its closest competitor.

But it bombed on the 30-page graphical document, finally finishing in 4 minutes, 4 seconds, two minutes behind every other model.

Output quality also was an issue, with text coming out slightly jagged around the edges, if only when you look closely. Colors were also a bit off from original documents scanned or printed with the X502n.

On the plus side, if you are looking to become more environmentally friendly, the X502n tends to go into power save mode after only about five minutes of being idle.

This, however, adds to print times while the system wakes up, though we were careful not to let this affect our speed tests.

Even with a low government price of $713, the X502n has too many flaws for us to recommend it. There are other inexpensive MFPs in this review that perform a lot better in all areas.

Lexmark International, (800) 539-6275,

Oki Data C5550n MFP

LAST YEAR, OKI DATA had the worst MFP in our roundup with its cobbled-together ES162n. But a lot can happen in a year, and this year, the C5550n did well enough in every test to snag our Reviewer's Choice designation.

Although it did not win any specific category, it has no notable flaws and did everything well.

The C5550n is extremely easy to use and complements some of its notable features with a clean interface.

For example, you can scan either letter- or legal-size documents, and if you want to print those documents on another paper size, the C5550n has preset buttons to let you do so. One button converts legal documents to letter size (78 percent original size), and another goes in the other direction, expanding letter-size documents by 178 percent to fit on legal paper.

These one-touch features can eliminate a lot of guesswork and save time and paper. It can even handle printing 47-inch-long banners with little user intervention.

The C5550n was relatively fast, printing our 30-page text document in 1 minute, 24 seconds and the 30-page color one in 2 minutes, 17 seconds. These times would have been faster, but during long print runs, the C5550n had to pause to adjust its internal temperature, something we could not avoid through repeated speed tests. But those are not bad times overall.

In terms of color quality, the C5550n was the second best in this review and the best of the printers that use standard toner rather than solid inks.

Speaking of toner, you need to be careful when installing cartridges because there is nothing other than a color code to prevent you from putting yellow into black or red into cyan. Overall text quality was good. Although you can tell that the C5550n is optimized for color printing, text is adequate.

All-around good performance, ease of use and a reasonable government price of $1,499 mean that this MFP should be a good fit for most agencies.

Oki Data Americas, (800) 654-3282,

Xerox Phaser 8860MFP Solid Ink Printer

IF YOU ARE LOOKING for graphical quality, the 8860MFP is without a doubt the way to go.

Everything about this MFP seems designed to produce beautiful, brilliant and accurate colors using solid-ink technology with cartridges that look a bit like blocks of crayons when you load them.

And the hard wax blocks are different shapes, so you can't load ink into the wrong slot without a sledgehammer.

Initially, it takes about 14 minutes for the MFP to heat the ink, but once it's at the right temperature, the 8860MFP is fast.

The unit has bright, illuminated buttons that make switching modes easy, and it is the only MFP in this review whose LCD panel can tell you about the document the system is working on. If you are printing, it will tell you the name of the document and what page is being worked on.

Color scans and prints are beautiful, easily the best here. Photographs look like the originals, whether they are printed or scanned. Whether the color images are light or dark does not matter. They all look good coming out of an 8860MFP.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on graphics makes the 8860MFP a less-than-perfect text printer.

The 30-page text printing time of 2 minutes, 3 seconds is about a minute more than that of the best printers in this review.

The text was extremely jagged, the worst in the review. To be fair, it's not that easy to tell that the text is jagged just by looking at the output, but the difference is clear when it's placed alongside that of a printer with perfect text reproduction, such as the Dell 3115cn. This happens whether you are scanning or printing text or receiving a fax. It looks adequate, but it could be so much better.

Another sticking point with the 8860MFP is the high initial cost of $3,999, though Xerox says it is a better value in the long run because the new generation of solid ink has a lower cost per page. Customers can print color documents for the same price as identical documents printed in black and white. Each box of color ink sticks are priced at $72, a box of black ink at $216 and have a high page yield of 14,000 prints per box.

The company says that if you run four reams of paper through the system each month, the 8860MFP is cheaper.

After that, you should be saving money. And in our tests, the ink blocks did last a long time, so the cost per page is likely fairly low.

If you need or want brilliant colors in your scans, faxes and prints, the 8860MFP should be your choice. More traditional workgroups that use color only occasionally or don't print frequently can get a more well-rounded unit at a lower initial cost.

Xerox, (800) 275-9376, office

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