Oversize monochrome printers from HP, Lexmark, and Xerox prove practical yet pricey

Speedy models demonstrate versatility

Drab, discreet, and ordinary?

Or affordable, reliable, and fast? What you see in monochrome laser printers depends on what you look for -- though from any perspective, printing monochrome documents is an essential part of the office workday.

But whether printing large monochrome docs is fundamental depends on what your office does; for anyone who draws or drafts, lays out booklets, or simply needs an overview of huge spreadsheets or accounting reports, an oversize printer fills the bill.

For this review, I looked at three 50-pages-per-minute-rated monochrome lasers designed to produce tabloid-size (11 inches by 17 inches) or slightly larger documents: Hewlett-Packard’s LaserJet 9050dn, Lexmark’s W840dn, and the Xerox Phaser 5500DN.

I can’t call these printers a bargain. In well-equipped configurations, with three paper sources, a duplexer, a reasonable dose of memory, and a network interface, their prices range from $3,299 to $3,799. For comparison, similarly equipped but slower large-format color printers cost only from about $1,000 to $1,500 more. (See my recent head-to-head of two such printers). And letter-size monochrome printers cost much less.

But with 50-ppm engines under the hood, all three of these machines are fast. They produce fine print quality, and -- if you add optional paper-handling equipment -- they can process enormous jobs, or fold and staple booklets. And while purchase prices are high, operating costs are very low.

So which of the three do I prefer? The Lexmark takes first place largely on the basis of its somewhat faster performance; a marginally lower purchase price and a couple of extra features also contribute.

HP LaserJet 9050dn

HP’s entry in this field is quite the behemoth: The LaserJet 9050dn weighs well over 150 pounds, covers 55 inches by 25 inches of a desk with its flaps open, and stands 24 inches high. Fortunately, four deep handgrips out near the corners make unboxing and moving it an easy team effort.

A 30,000-page integrated toner cartridge/imaging drum unit means there’s only one replaceable part to monitor and keep in stock (the Lexmark and Xerox printers have two replaceable parts, and they follow different replacement schedules).

I like most elements of the LaserJet 9050dn’s interior mechanical design. The front door flops down to horizontal so it’s easy to get inside the printer; if you need more room, you can release the door’s straps to drop it all the way down. There’s also plenty of space to remove and insert the toner/drum unit, and following a consistent color code for all the rollers, flaps, and other components inside the printer, you turn a big green lever to lock it in place or release it, and grab a big blue handle to move it.

The fuser slides out on rails and lifts straight up on a comfortable handle in case you need to clear a jam behind it. The duplexer also slides out and can be completely removed -- plus check out that fan inside the duplexer! HP says the fan prevents double-sided prints from overheating on their second pass through the fuser.

The printer’s paper trays are a mixed bag. Their paper guides move smoothly and latch soundly into place, the hand-grips are deep and comfortable, and stops prevent yanking a tray all the way out and dumping it on the floor. On the other hand, there is nowhere on the outside of the trays for paper-size labels, and if you fill them with a non-standard size, the size sensors can’t figure it out unless you remember to flip a switch inside the tray. The main paper output tray, on top of the printer, holds 500 pages and has a deep scoop so you can easily grab your prints.

The LaserJet 9050dn’s control panel LCD sits almost horizontal along the printer’s top edge. On an InfoWorld test bench, it stood too high for me to read; unless your colleagues are basketball players, you may need to deploy the printer on low furniture.

The panel provides some useful management features. For example, the Service Test command checks the machine’s motors, solenoids, and sensors to cut down on service-call false alarms. It also has a reset command, a drastic way of clearing out any bad jobs that are choking the printer. And a numeric keypad simplifies entering an IP address or setting up daily sleep and wake times.

The control panel has no on-board security controls; for that, you go to your PC and log on to the printer’s internal Web site, which you’ll appreciate if you don’t already manage a printer fleet with HP’s free Web Jetadmin (and don’t want to start). The Web site can display or e-mail basic status info such as whether someone has left a tray or flap open, report how busy the printer has been, and set up access by user passwords and IP subnets.

Although no one can call the LaserJet 9050dn slow, in my tests it fell somewhat behind the Lexmark and Xerox competitors, particularly on single prints. Curiously, the performance gap narrowed when running 10 copies of each job. The 9050dn printed one copy of my 10-page plain text document at 22.8 ppm, but doubled performance to 44.9 ppm when printing 10 copies; on my Excel table and chart, it started with one copy at a poky 10.6 ppm but soared to 32 ppm on 10 copies. The Lexmark and Xerox also print multiple copies much faster than singles, but the disparities are less extreme.

While the LaserJet 9050dn slips a bit on speed, it makes up the difference on print quality, producing about the blackest, most matte, and cleanest text, numbers, and fine lines of any mono laser printer I’m familiar with. Graphics is not usually a mono printer’s forte, but this one acquits itself well on grayscale graphics and even photos, with smooth shading and good detail and realism.

The LaserJet 9050dn costs more than the Xerox or Lexmark, at $3,799 in the configuration I tested. But based on HP’s estimated yield, a page of ordinary text should cost only about 1 cent, and 250,000 prints (about five years worth of supplies) should add up to about $2,160 -- a cost that encourages printing all the copies you need of a document, instead of making one print and walking down the hall to a copier.

Lexmark W840dn

The W in Lexmark’s W840dn stands for wide, of course, because it prints on oversize paper, but the machine itself is more compact than the HP. It weighs only 100 pounds; it is 24 inches wide by 21 inches deep and 19 inches tall. The printer and duplexer come in separate boxes inside a cardboard shell; popping the duplexer into place is a snap. I do wish that the printer had more handholds: Two good grips on the same side provide awkward leverage for lifting the machine.

Behind the front door lie separate tubes for the 30,000-page toner cartridge and the 60,000-page photoconductor, which have convenient handles and slide into place snugly. You can’t access the paper path through the front door; instead, all paper movement happens behind a door on the left side, which folds down with the duplexer to provide somewhat tight access to potential jam spots.

Paper guides in the dual 500-sheet internal paper trays are easy to adjust and lock into place, but the trays themselves wiggle and don’t feel sturdy enough. A groove in the main output tray makes it easy to remove your prints, and an overflow sensor hovering over the tray stops the machine before the tray jams.

The W840dn’s control panel is where Lexmark’s designers put on their thinking caps. Its highlight is a USB port that reads flash drives and displays their folder structure on the LCD; any files in .pdf, .jpeg, or other non-proprietary formats show up so you can print them. Unfortunately, it can’t handle Word and Excel, calendars, and other proprietary formats. That’s not Lexmark’s fault, of course, but it sure would be convenient to print such files on the run.

Up, Down, Left, and Right arrows simplify moving through the menus, especially with a fifth button dedicated to accepting a menu choice (a useful feature missing from the HP and Xerox printers). It also has a numeric keypad, useful for entering an IP address or print-and-hold passwords. Lexmark’s menus include a set of help files that users can print for information on media types, refining print quality, and so on. As a sysadmin, you can also set how many times people can fish for a password and how long the printer stores print-and-hold jobs.

Still, the W840dn’s control panel has two minor annoyances. Its arrow buttons are wrapped around a conical bulge that interferes with pressing them, and the Cancel button is on the far side of the LCD, which leads to working the menus with both hands.

The W840’s internal Web page is somewhat less detailed than those in the HP and Xerox printers, but it does provide network settings, reports, and security controls. You can also lock the control panel menus. If you need more sophisticated features, especially for a fleet of printers, move up to Lexmark’s free MarkVision management tool.

Of the three printers I tested, the W840dn sped past the HP and Xerox on my text and Excel test documents. The Xerox beat it on my photos and PowerPoint tests, but of course I weighted text and spreadsheets much more heavily for monochrome printers (that accounts for the W840dn’s high Speed score). I must confess: I’m impressed by a printer that can print one copy of a plain text document at 34.1 ppm and accelerate to 47.7 ppm for 10 copies; cranking out Excel tables and charts at 41 ppm doesn’t hurt either.

The W840dn prints very black. Ordinary text and numbers look crisp and attractive, but I noticed a tendency to overshoot on very small letters and fine fonts, which degrades the quality a bit. The darkness spills into graphics, where, for example, pie chart wedges in several shades all look about the same; graduated gray shades also show some banding and blocky transitions, which might show up in your PowerPoint transparencies.

Lexmark charges $3,299 for the W840dn and equips it with 256MB of memory, double the competition’s. But Lexmark’s cost per page is about 1.3 cents, almost a third more than for the HP and Xerox. Still, after 250,000 prints (about five years’ worth in an average office), you’ll have spent only a modest $2,292 to keep your W840dn well fed.

Xerox Phaser 5500DN

For the Phaser 5500DN, Xerox started with the same printer as Lexmark did, then went its own way on the control panel, firmware, and software. As a result, it’s the same size and weight as the Lexmark and mechanically identical. It also offers the same specs and paper-handling capabilities that Lexmark does.

Like Lexmark’s printer, the Xerox Phaser 5500DN has an overflow sensor and rubber output sensors that hang down in the output tray, touching the completed prints to keep track of what is in the tray. Unlike Lexmark, however, Xerox takes advantage of the output sensors to give its driver the ability to offset print jobs -- that is, to push alternating copies of collated jobs, or whole jobs, to the left or right, making them easy to separate.

I prefer some aspects of the Xerox control panel to the Lexmark’s: Xerox’s LCD shows seven lines of type so you can really see where you’re navigating, and pushing the Info button displays a simple description of each menu item’s functions. With so much real estate, it can display the top-level menus as well as printer status, eliminating a step from management tasks, along with that “modal” feeling of most menu schemes.

Moreover, each submenu in Xerox’s control panel has its own “restore defaults” command, so you can roll back one mistake without wiping out all your settings. On the other hand, its control panel doesn’t have a numeric keypad, and its OK button performs two separate tasks, (drill down in the menus and select a setting) -- a stark interface-design error likely to confuse occasional users.

One useful tool: Xerox provides a special utility, called Walk-Up Printing Driver, designed for casual printing. If a visitor to your office needs to print, you can plug his or her notebook into your network, find the notebook from the printer’s control panel, and push over a driver. (That feature requires the optional hard drive.)

Like the other printers, you access most of Xerox’s printer management and security settings through the embedded Web server, or keep track of a whole fleet with Xerox’s free CentreWare. The server has exceptional feature depth, in particular a job-accounting module that requires users to enter accounting codes when they print and can export the data it collects.

The Phaser 5500DN’s speeds generally fall between the HP’s and Lexmark’s on the most important tasks I timed -- that is, on printing Word and Excel. It churned out multiple copies of my plain-text document at 46.4 ppm and of my Excel document at 29.4 ppm. However, for reasons that escape me, it tore past its rivals on PowerPoint slides, printing them in batches at better than 40 ppm, and printed stacks of grayscale photos at an impressive 21.6 ppm.

The Phaser 5500DN’s toner seemed slightly less black than I’m used to, but fonts printed clean and crisp in a wide range of sizes. My grayscale photos printed too dark, eliminating details in shadow areas and looking patchy or chunky in some other areas.

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