Ricoh and Xerox deliver fast color in a big way

Pricey and speedy models break the tabloid barrier

The past couple of years have seen the consolidation of color laser printers as affordable, reliable mainstream machines, delivering a big boon to office workers who need to produce attractive, informative business documents. The next frontier is color machines that can print on tabloid or larger paper (up to 12 inches by 18 inches), offering the versatility to produce posters, technical illustrations, double-sided saddle-stitched booklets, and similar complex documents.

For this review, I looked at two new oversize color printers with revved-up engine specs: Ricoh’s Aficio CL7300D and Xerox’s Phaser 7400DN, both specified for between 30 ppm (pages per minute) and 40 ppm on text and color. To provide performance and cost perspective, I looked back at two similar machines, Lexmark’s C920dn and Oki Printing Solutions’ C9600hdn, that Melissa Riofrio and I reviewed on Oct. 3, 2005.

The new Ricoh and Xerox machines run fast, are a pleasure to operate, and generate creditable prints. But I uncovered some important differences. The Ricoh’s print quality is a smidgen better, but aggressive pricing from Xerox plus faster performance give the Phaser 7400DN a slight lead overall.

Ricoh Aficio CL7300D

The Ricoh Aficio CL7300D is easy to set up and use. For one thing, the company includes instructions for both dealer and owner, plus a long, detailed maintenance manual. Moreover, the color-calibration sheet has instructions printed right on it. (I didn’t need the sheet because the automatic calibration function worked well.)

This printer gets mostly good marks for mechanical design. It weighs more than 200 pounds, but deep handholds at each corner (replaced on duplexer-equipped models, like the one I tested, with a sturdy steel bar on one side) make it easy to lift. The paper trays adjust smoothly and have stops to prevent them from being dumped on the floor. The three trays come in handy for letterhead, second sheet, plus plain paper for internal documents. The imaging components inside the front door are somewhat inconvenient to remove and replace, but the huge toner tubs drop easily into place under a flap on the right side.

Ricoh’s control panel menus are logically organized so a beginner could probably figure out how, for example, to print a password-protected document. But the two-line LCD doesn’t accommodate much hand-holding such as prompts. The printer’s internal Web site, in contrast, provides pages and pages of admin features to authenticate users and control access, set up various error-notification schemes, and configure network parameters.

Minor complaints: The printer comes with single-use paper-size labels for the paper trays, so if you change sizes you’ll soon resort to sticky notes. Also, with two internal trays, the CL7300D is so tall that when I put it on a workbench I had to climb on a chair to see the control panel LCD; consider a rolling base instead, which costs $175. And one of the jam-clearing doors only opens 45 degrees, which makes for an awkward reach.

The Ricoh falls slightly behind the Xerox on text-printing speed, churning out plain text at 26.1 ppm, compared with the Xerox’s 27.4 ppm; it falls further behind on graphics, at 6.6 ppm versus the Xerox’s 8.5 ppm.

We scored performance and tested print speed using each printer’s Adobe PostScript driver’s default settings. It might be possible to coax better performance or better print quality from the machines by juggling driver settings before each job, but because the printers do not have equivalent nondefault settings, I stuck with the common denominator settings.

On print quality, the Ricoh beats the Xerox. It produces matte black text with a crisp, sharply focused look, not letting heavy text blob together nor dropping fine detail on light text. It prints color swatches spot on, although density does drop off somewhat in the middle of large areas. It also shades color and grayscale photos well, although a dot pattern visible in grayscale photos interferes a bit with rendering detail.

Ricoh’s Aficio CL7300D costs $5,095 in the configuration I tested -- $1,746 more than the Xerox Phaser 7400DN. The Ricoh does come with an extra internal paper tray plus a hard drive, but when you equip the Xerox with those useful items, the Ricoh still costs $748 more.

Ricoh’s consumables, however, are a bargain. After 50,000 prints (about a year’s worth), you’ll have spent $1,039 to keep your Ricoh CL7300D humming (not including paper or electricity), compared with $1,520 for the Xerox Phaser 7400DN; after 250,000 prints, the Ricoh bill will amount to $7,639 -- $10,215 for the Xerox. By that time, you’ll have long recuperated the higher purchase price. For my calculations, consumables costs reflect a running total of all purchases of replacement components at specific break points. They are not based on a generalized cost per page.

Note that pricing for Ricoh products is not entirely transparent because the company sells through a dealer network and often under a monthly contract that includes supplies. You may be able to negotiate better deals than the list prices quoted here.

Xerox Phaser 7400DN

The 7400DN shows some nice design touches. One of my favorites is the hinged control panel, which swivels from horizontal to vertical to accommodate tall and short people. The controller cover is also on hinges; you loosen two captive thumbscrews, and the door folds out of your way. A bracket over the output tray keeps prints in place if you open the case to clear a paper jam.

All the flaps and doors are labeled to match illustrations in the maintenance documentation. The external auxiliary feed and the main paper tray both feel fairly sturdy, but the size guides on it are somewhat balky. A slot on the tray holds reusable plastic size labels, which Xerox provides.

The LED-array design hangs the light sources from the ceiling of the printer’s paper path, so that opening the lid lifts much of the innards out of your way. And a cage that holds the drums and toner cartridges can raise a couple of inches to allow you to access paper jams at the image transfer belt without gutting the whole printer.

Xerox made the 7400DN friendly for users and system admins alike. A big backlit LCD displays six lines of text and takes advantage of the real estate to show prompts and menu paths. Users can also print some help files that are stored permanently on the printer, such as tutorials on color calibration and paper types. Extensive on-screen manuals fill in for brief, oversimplified printed documentation.

One minor UI flaw: The installation CD includes a useful tool called SupportCentre that displays video tutorials, FAQs, manuals, and so on, but it isn’t documented in the install guide; I just stumbled upon it by luck.

As an admin, if you already use Xerox CentreWare for managing a fleet of Xerox printers, the Phaser 7400DN will drop right into place; if not, an internal Web site provides a wealth of security and admin features, including a job-accounting database and fine-grained control over which control-panel features to lock or leave accessible. You can set the printer to sleep and wake up at specific times each day or tell it to track its own usage patterns and figure out the most efficient schedule.

Print quality is where the Xerox stumbles, and there only a bit. It prints text in an attractive solid black, but with a hint of soft focus or fuzziness. At the same time, the curves and diagonals of letters show a slight choppiness, although serifs and other details come through well. Color ramps show slight crosshatching but transition smoothly from light to dark shades; however, diagonal lines look wavy because they are not cleanly defined. Also, in my tests, I noticed some trapping problems that left blank spaces between abutting blocks of solid color. My grayscale test photo seemed tonally flat and had moire patterns but preserved fine detail, while my color test photo looked dotty and lacked detail.

Xerox’s Phaser 7400DN fits into this competitive environment at the low end of the cost spectrum: Its $3,349 price tag ($4,347 fully configured) undersells not only Ricoh’s CL7300D but also the Lexmark C920dn and Oki C9600hdn, equivalently equipped models from our Oct. 3 review. And although Ricoh’s consumables cost much less over time, Lexmark’s and Oki’s cost somewhat more.

Xerox, however, doesn’t compensate by delivering an underperforming machine. Its 27.4-ppm text-printing speed beats both the Ricoh and Lexmark, although not the Oki; its 8.5-ppm graphics-printing speed takes first place.

Which big printer for you?

Either printer is a fine machine but a big investment, and the differences between them are subtle. The Xerox Phaser 7400DN performs somewhat better, especially on graphics, whereas the Ricoh Aficio CL7300D has a slight edge on print quality. The Xerox costs less to purchase, but its operating costs add up faster. If purchase cost matters more than speed, look at Ricoh’s slightly slower and much less expensive Aficio CL7200.

The PC World Test Center contributed methodology, staff, and resources to this project.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Speed (25.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Print quality (25.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Value (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Ricoh Aficio CL7300D 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0
Xerox Phaser 7400DN 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.3