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PRINTS CHARMING

 

STANDFIRST

High quality lasers not much larger than a shoebox, colour inkjets capable of near photographic performance… Isn't it about time you upgraded your printer? Rick Maybury tests eleven SoHo models costing between £180 and £330

 

INTRO/COPY

Printers are minor masterpieces of mechanical and electronic engineering and one of the hardest working components in any computer set-up, yet we take them pretty much for granted these days. The fact they are usually so reliable is a constant wonder, especially when you take a look inside at all of the moving parts. They're incredibly cheap too, you can pick up a high-quality colour inkjet printer for less than £70 and high-performance laser printers, which as recently as five years ago were selling for £1000 or more, can now be purchased for under £200.  

 

With so many models to choose from buying a printer can be a nightmare but if you adopt a logical approach it's usually possible to come up with a fairly brief shortlist. The first step is to decide between the two main printing systems: inkjet and laser. Despite many major improvements in inkjet technology the best laser models still have a slight edge when it comes to text and documents, as long as they're in black and white. On the plus side laser printers tend to be faster and quieter than inkjets and are better suited to high demand applications. Colour laser printers are available but they are still expensive (the cheapest models now sell for around £850) and can be very costly to run.

 

Many recent inkjet printers are capable of near laser quality on text and documents but that normally depends on using specially formulated, low absorbency paper. However, even on cheap copier paper inkjet quality is good enough for 95% of routine printing jobs but the real selling point is that virtually all inkjets can print in colour, and increasingly 'photorealistic' colour, which makes them an ideal partner for digital still cameras.

 

The cost of inkjet consumables – replacement ink cartridges, tanks, glossy paper etc. – is worth keeping an eye on and the fact that they can be noisy and slow, especially when printing large or complex colour images. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of home and small office users inkjets represent the best value and greatest flexibility.      

 

Laser printer consumables are not cheap to run either, so always check on the cost of toner cartridges and how many pages they can print before they need replacing (or refilling). It's also worth finding out about servicing and warranties as major components in some models have a finite life. 

 

There's usually not a lot to choose between budget and midrange inkjets when it comes to black and white printing but points to consider are the price and capacity of the cartridges and tanks, and whether or not they can be refilled or sourced from third-party suppliers. Refilling inkjet cartridges is a touchy subject. Most manufacturers discourage the practice, some even threaten to void their warranties if a problem arises. It's a fair point and there are some rubbish refill kits on the market that can give disappointing results. However, in general on printers where the whole cartridge (i.e. tank and printer head) is a throwaway item, it is highly unlikely that using inferior refill ink could cause any damage beyond ruining the actual cartridge.

 

Colour cartridges is another matter and as a rule we suggest sticking to the manufacturers own products, especially for demanding work, like colour photographs. There's the added complication that in a combined colour cartridge one colour ink reservoir may run out before the others. If you are planning to do a lot of colour printing award extra points to models with separate colour tanks, that can be replaced as and when they run out. Most colour inkjets these days have the colour and black ink cartridges installed all the time but there are a few older or less sophisticated models where you have to swap cartridges. Bear that in mind if you're likely to want to frequently switch between colour and blank and white printing.

 

A growing number of printers are now fitted with USB (Universal Serial Bus) connectors, in addition to the industry-standard parallel printer port. USB simplifies connections, moreover USB printers and peripherals can be 'hot-swapped' (plugged and unplugged without re-booting the PC) but USB is only fully supported on Windows 98 and Mac PCs. Windows 95 is allegedly USB compliant but in practice it can cause a lot of problems.

 

Installation under Windows 95 and 98 is usually fairly quick and painless; most printers come with drivers on floppy disc and CD-ROM. A lot of manufacturers also bundle in a few extra goodies, like graphics and paint programs and utilities, cashback deals and discounts on consumables. It shouldn’t be a major influence in your buying decision but it is worth finding out what's on offer as it could tip the balance between two similarly specified and priced models.

 

As far as other features are concerned resolution or the ability of the printer to reproduce fine detail is often usually cited as a key parameter. However, for text and simple graphics 600 dots per inch (dpi) is more than adequate. Higher resolution -- 1200dpi and above -- is worth having on a colour printer that will be required to do a lot of photographic work. Print speed is only important if you anticipate a large workload, 4 to 6 pages per minute (ppm) is usually quite sufficient for most SoHo users. Colour printing is generally a lot slower, so if you expect to be doing a lot of colour work, check the specification. 

 

Finally a word or two about multi-function machines that can also copy scan or fax documents. They make a lot of sense if you need the extra facilities, or were planning to buy separate peripherals and need to save desk space. However, in some cases the copier or scanner facility does not work as well as a separate device or has limited functionality, so make sure you know what you are buying.  

 

THE TESTS

 

INKJET PRINTERS

 

CANON BJC-6100, £210*

The BJC-6100 is pitched as a business printer and that's undoubtedly an application it is very well suited to since text quality is excellent and it is fast scooting along at a respectable 9 pages per minute in black and white. The quality is so good that you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between print from this machine (on inkjet paper) and documents from a decent mid-range laser. Colour printing is also quick and although the quoted resolution figure looks impressive the results are unremarkable. Some 'banding' (horizontal lines left by the printer head) was evident on our test prints and saturated reds look a bit heavy-handed. The scanner option is an interesting extra though the necessary cartridge actually costs more than some budget flatbed scanners these days. Other plus points include a fair sized paper hopper, USB connectivity and Mac compatibility. Running costs are reasonable and the colour tanks can be individually replaced. Build quality is very good; it looks and feels like a tough customer that will earn its wages in busy office environment.

 

THE FACTS

Inkjet, 9ppm, 1440dpi, 130 sheet-feeder, colour scanner (with optional cartridge) parallel, USB, Windows, Mac

Dimensions:            475 x 325 x 205mm

Weight: 6kg

90%

 

 

EPSON STYLUS PHOTO 750, £208*

There's little doubt which sector of the market Epson is targeting with this colour inkjet printer and if you haven't figured it out then the word 'Photo' in the model designation should leave you in no doubt. The feature list is fairly straightforward, print speed appears quite modest at 6ppm but there's little difference between monochrome and colour print speeds. Resolution is 1400dpi, which is above average. The machine uses an advanced 6-colour printing system, geared towards colour imaging on good quality paper. Unfortunately this appears to have made it rather fussy and text on standard copier paper looks a wee bit ragged, with some slight splattering and hairy edges evident around heavily inked areas. Colour printing is a job this machine does supremely well however, it was easily the best in this roundup by quite a margin. It manages to reproduce fine detail and textures without any difficulty, colours are vibrant and natural looking and there's no visible banding or pixellation. It is quiet, easy to use with helpful utility software popping up on the screen to keep you informed, and it comes with an impressive bundle of software. This includes Adobe PhotoDeluxe, SmartStitch and Print Adventure Sticker, designed to make you use up colour ink cartridges and glossy paper at an alarming rate. However, if photo printing is your main interest, make sure you see this one first!

 

THE FACTS

Inkjet, 6ppm, 1400dpi, 100-sheet feeder, parallel, USB, Windows, Mac

Dimensions:            429 x 261 x 167mm

Weight: 5.2kg

92%

 

 

HP DESKJET 970cxi, £279*

The 970cxi colour inkjet is part of HP's Professional Series range and as such is intended for more demanding, high volume office applications. The smooth styling and eye-catching cosmetics are a big improvement on previous models. In addition to faster than average print speed (up to 12ppm), USB connectivity and Windows/Mac compatibility, it comes with a useful automatic two-sided printing facility. Resolution is a capable 600dpi and it uses HP's advanced printing technologies, based on cartridges with a higher than usual number of nozzles spraying finer drops of ink. Running costs are only a little above average but it's worth it because the results are very impressive. Text is as close to laser quality as we've seen on any inkjet machine. Colour prints are very good indeed with lots of fine detail, bright lifelike colours and no significant grain or texturing, though we were a little disappointed to see some very fine lines on the image, apparently left by the paper feeding mechanism.  It is easy to set up and use and very quiet in operation, barely a whisper in fact. A solid, workmanlike printer and a viable alternative to a laser for demanding jobs, where quality is paramount.

 

THE FACTS

Inkjet, 12ppm, 600dpi, 150-sheet feeder, double-sided printing, parallel, USB, Windows, Mac

 95%

 

LEXMARK Z51, £168*

Personality is not a trait normally associated with desktop printers, but the Lexmark Z51 colour inkjet has it in spades, it's a real character! Every time you start a print job a multi-tabbed dialogue box pops up on the screen and a painfully chipper American voice announces 'Printing Started', and 'Printing Complete', when the job has finished, the Z51 then literally spits the paper out. The manufacturer's thoughtfully fitted an extra long paper tray to catch the paper as it flies out of the machine. It is generously specified for such an attractively priced machine with a resolution of 1200dpi and 10ppm print speed. A USB port is fitted and it comes with Corel Printhouse Magic 4 for creating greetings cards and banners. It should be reasonably cheap to run since it uses a fairly standard cartridge format, though the all in one colour cartridges can be quite pricey. Monochrome quality is satisfactory definition is good but very fine text can be uneven. Colour printing is excellent, colours are faithfully rendered and you would have to look very close indeed to spot any pixellation or patterning. Great value and a good colour performer. 

 

THE FACTS

Colour inkjet, 10ppm, 1200dpi, 100-sheet feeder, parallel, USB, Windows

Dimensions:            380 x 330 x 200 mm

Weight: 5kg      

90%

 

LASER PRINTERS

 

BROTHER HL-820, £182*

At less than £200 the HL-820 seems almost too good to be true but if there's a catch, we couldn't find it. True, the specification is fairly modest but then Brother is not trying to pretend it is anything other than a basic Windows printer. Resolution is quoted at 600dpi, which is fairly ordinary by today's standards but it's all you need for documents. Text output is crisp and clean, and fairly fast at 8ppm. The sheet feeder holds up to 200 pages and it comes with 2Mb internal memory as standard, this can be easily upgraded by the user with SIMMs modules. Running costs should be a little lower than average since the drum unit uses a replaceable toner cartridge, that has enough of the black stuff to print around 2400 pages of A4 text (5% coverage). Drum life is estimated at 20,000 pages. The only slight criticism is that it's quite noisy – for a laser printer -- when it in use, with a fair amount of clunking, clicking and motor whine but that should be put into perspective and it is actually a good deal quieter than many inkjets.  No frills, no gimmicks, just a plain, honest Windows laser printer, at a terrific price.

 

THE FACTS

Laser, 8ppm, 600dpi, 200-sheet feeder, 2Mb, parallel, Windows

Dimensions:            390 x  245 x 365mm

Weight: 7kg      

95%

 

 

CANON LBP-660, £233**

The LBP-660 has been around for a little while, during which time it has proved immensely popular, and it's not difficult to see why. To begin with it is a very compact shape, it's almost cubic, with no sticking out bits to get in the way. Second, it's about as simple as it is it possible for a printer to be. It doesn't even have an on-off switch or power-on indicator, let alone any of the usual lights and buttons. It's a bit disconcerting at first but you soon get used to the fact that it just sits there quietly, minding its own business, until it is needed, when it springs into life. Everything is controlled from the desktop graphical interface, otherwise known as the Windows Printing System. Installation is effortless and the printer is easy to set up and use. The printer uses the common Canon EP-A toner cartridge, which is good for around 2500 copies; replacements are readily obtainable and sensibly priced. Resolution is 600dpi at 6ppm; text is clean and well defined. Halftones look a bit contrasty but there's still plenty of detail. A quality compact printer with an impeccable pedigree, worth considering.      

 

THE FACTS

Laser, 6ppm, 600dpi, 100 sheet feeder, parallel, Windows

Dimensions:            336 x 321 x 249mm

Weight: 7.2kg

93%

 

 

EPSON EPL-5700, £277

The EPL-5700 is billed as an entry-level laser printer, for personal use, small workgroup and SoHo applications. We have no arguments with that, but it rather undersells this high quality machine, which is capable of excellent results. Print speed is a tidy 8ppm with stated resolution at 600dpi, various hardware and software enhancements bump up the printer's ability to handle fine detail, putting it in the same ballpark as printers with up to twice the resolution. It's a fair size though, and the front-loading paper cassette sticks out quite a way, so it might be just a bit too big for a crowded desktop. Incidentally, an optional 500-sheet paper feeder is available; this sits underneath the machine. It's quiet, well behaved and very easy to use, thanks to the supplied desktop utilities. Print performance is excellent, the best in this group in fact with really solid, sharply defined characters, down to the smallest font size. Halftones are pretty good too, though it pays to fiddle around with the settings, as images printed on the default can look a bit contrasty. The EPL-5700 is a little dearer than average but if print quality and the ability to tackle tough jobs is important, this is the one to go for.

 

THE FACTS

Laser, 8ppm, 600dpi, 150-sheet feeder, 4Mb, parallel, serial, Windows, Mac

96%

 

 

HP LASERJET 1100A, £335*

The 'A' in the model number signifies that this compact desktop laser printer comes with a clip-on scanner/copier attachment, hence the slightly higher than average price. The module clips on to the front of the unit, it's not a very elegant arrangement, it makes the thing look almost pregnant, but if you have only occasional need for copying/scanning then it starts to make sense. The printer specs are fairly straightforward; print speed is in the order of 8ppm with resolution of 600dpi. The scanner is capable of 300dpi (monochrome), which is fine for copying, and sending documents to the PC for faxing or reading. It is easy to set-up and use and quiet in operation. Running costs are fairly average, toner cartridge are capable of around 2500 copies. Print quality is very good indeed, blacks are solid and there's a wide range of graduation in halftones, copies and images show a lot of fine detail. It's a quality machine, great all round performance and some useful extras, but if you don't need the scanner and copier facilities look out for the plain vanilla version (LaserJet 1100), which costs around £60 less.

 

THE FACTS

Laser, 8ppm, 600dpi, 125-sheet feeder, 2Mb (16Mb max), parallel, copy & scanner attachment (300dpi), Windows

Dimensions:            367 x 402 x 378mm

Weight:             8.7kg

95%

 

OKI OKIPAGE 8P, £216*

The first thing that strikes you about the Okipage 8P is how small it is. The footprint is no larger than a sheet of A4 paper and it weighs next to nothing. There are very few frills, but that's to be expected. It has been designed as a personal desktop machine so it is easy to install and use, and very quiet in operation. The small size has imposed some limitations and the toner cartridge is only good for around 1500 sheets, but they are fairly cheap to replace. Print speed is 8ppm and resolution is quoted at 600dpi. Text print quality is good, blacks are solid and it copes well with very small typefaces. It has a fair stab at halftones, there's fair range of contrast but the picture is heavily pixellated and end up looking a bit like coarse newspaper photographs, with every dot clearly visible. Nevertheless, for routine jobs, such as printing letters and documents, it is perfectly adequate, and the small size is a big bonus if you are running out of room.

 

THE FACTS

Laser, 8ppm, 600dpi, 100-sheet feeder, 2Mb (6Mb max), parallel, Windows

Dimensions:            310 x 190 x 170mm

Weight: 4.5kg

90%

 

 

SAMSUNG ML-5100A, £200*

Samsung has a well-earned reputation for value for money products and the competitively priced ML-5100 Windows laser printer is no exception. The feature list isn't especially extensive but there are one or two handy extras like the USB port and software enhanced resolution, up to 1200dpi. The sheet feeder can hold up to 150 pages and the 4Mb memory can be upgraded to 36Mb using standard SIMMs modules. The one-piece toner/drum cartridge has a 5000 page capacity; replacement units are reasonably priced. The 5100 is easy to set up and use, it's no slouch, managing 8ppm, and it is very quiet. Print quality was fairly average on our sample; very fine text tended to lack the solidity and depth of some of its rivals, though the actual definition is good. It's a decent enough little machine, and the price is fair but it lacks the sparkle of some of the competition.

 

THE FACTS

Laser, 8ppm, 600dpi (1200dpi enhanced), 4Mb (36Mb max), parallel, USB, Windows

Dimensions:            345 x 364 x 224mm

Weight: 7kg

85%

 

TALLY T9308 £280**

The T9308 appears to have a good deal in common with the Samsung ML-5100A, in fact the basic specification and print engine are virtually identical It's a reasonably compact size, just about small enough to put on a large desktop and when in use it is quiet. Resolution and print speed are more than adequate for SoHo and light business work and connectivity should be a problem as it has both parallel and USB ports. Installation proceeded without a hitch and the machine can be up and running in a couple of minutes. Text print quality is satisfactory, larger characters are crisply defined though really fine copy can look a touch lightweight. Halftones are a little bit muddy with fine detail lost in darker areas. Print capacity is good and you can expect to get upwards of 5000 copies per drum/tone cartridge. The T9308 gives a good account of itself, it's reasonable value for money and performance is okay. It is a glitz-free middle of the road design that gets on with the job, but considering the similarity with the Samsung machine, not especially good value.

 

THE FACTS

Laser, 8ppm, 600dpi, 150-page sheet feeder, parallel, USB, Windows

Dimensions:            330 x 355 x 220mm

Weight: 7kg

85%

 

NB. * street prices, inc. VAT, source Insight/Technomatic/Simply etc. ** manufacturer's suggested price

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1999 0710

 


 

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