Fast letter-size printers feed the need for speed

Dell, Toshiba monochrome printers match up well; management, add-on extras make the difference

Anyone working in today’s imaginary “paperless” office surely recognizes that we still need to print -- and the faster the better. I recently reviewed three high-speed monochrome laser printers -- from HP, Lexmark, and Xerox -- all designed to print on oversize paper. But many offices that need fast printing can get by with standard letter- or legal-size paper, which means a big savings on purchase cost.

So for this test, I recruited the Dell Laser Printer 5310n and Toshiba e-Studio 500P, letter/legal-size printers that have the same 50-ppm rating as the three oversize machines, and put them through the same battery of tests.

Dell Laser Printer 5310n

The 5310n comes in Dell’s trademark black and silver-gray shell. It’s small enough and light enough (at about 50 pounds) that I could easily unpack and deploy the printer myself. Deep, sturdy hand grips near the base help, too.

The 5310n follows a basic front-loader design. A door in the belly drops down and extends into a reasonably sturdy auxiliary feed; a flap above the auxiliary tray folds up to expose the slot where the combination toner drum/imaging unit slides easily in or out; and below the printer’s belly is the main paper tray.

The interior of the 5310n’s main tray has sloped walls that break up adhesions in a fresh ream but make adding and removing paper awkward. The design doesn’t include a rear exit or straight-feed paper path.

Dell’s LCD control panel sits almost vertically and might be hard for very tall people to see. A set of buttons arranged in a circle navigate you through the menus; in the center of the circle is the equivalent of a Return or OK button. Relatively basic menus provide a few reports, some print settings that the driver mostly overrides, and controls for a few network settings.

You’ll probably manage the printer from Dell’s embedded Web server, which offers much richer security and configuration options, along with the option to lock control-panel menus.

The installation routine is very clear. The installer asks if you want to install on the system you’re using or remotely on another server. Then, it automatically discovers the printers over the network, installs PostScript and PCL drivers in one step (all performance scores described in this article are for PostScript), and always displays a description of its actions.

Dell’s 5310n prints one copy of a simple 10-page text document at 28.3 ppm, and 10 copies of the same document at 46.5 ppm, almost tying the Toshiba (see “Fast Monochrome Lasers,” page 40) It prints 10 copies of a complex two-page Excel file at 37 ppm, just 0.6 ppm Click for larger view. faster than the Toshiba but about 4 ppm slower than the fastest of the oversize printers. And it tears through 10 copies of my PowerPoint test file at 39.4 ppm, trailing the Toshiba by a negligible amount.

Dell’s 5310n prints one copy of a simple 10-page text document at 28.3 ppm, and 10 copies of the same document at 46.5 ppm, almost tying the Toshiba (see “Fast Monochrome Lasers,” page 40) It prints 10 copies of a complex two-page Excel file at 37 ppm, just 0.6 ppm Click for larger view. faster than the Toshiba but about 4 ppm slower than the fastest of the oversize printers. And it tears through 10 copies of my PowerPoint test file at 39.4 ppm, trailing the Toshiba by a negligible amount.

The 5310n’s text looks black but not bold black, and very small text breaks up somewhat, though at normal sizes it looks quite clean. Large fields of gray background have some streakiness. But, surprisingly for a monochrome laser printer, it does well on photos, printing them light enough and clean enough to capture contrast and detail.

Dell is known for its OpenManage system management tools, and you can download the OpenManage Printer Manager module for the 5310n. (You can run the printer module on a MySQL server without the rest of OpenManage.)

OpenManage Printer Manager reports on your fleet, giving you alerts about paper jams and periodic predictions of how many toner cartridges will soon run dry, for example. It’s also useful for batch-updating driver settings and user permissions, and a facilities-tracking component helps pinpoint and redeploy printers that are overused or underused. I am disappointed that the module doesn’t do job-billing, though.

Dell skimps on the supplied toner cartridge/imaging drum. The 5310n includes a 10,000-page “starter” unit -- replacements come in 20,000-page and 30,000-page models ($210 and $280, respectively, if you return the empties). The 5310n’s fuser is specified to last 300,000 pages. By my consumables-pricing model, that would be about six years, or longer than you may own the printer.

Including the fuser price, the operating costs work out to about 1.02 cents a page, which is still reasonable. Dell is also one of the few companies in the printer market that prices extra memory to sell: You can bump up the standard 128MB to 256MB for $38, to 384MB for $70, or to 640MB for $113.

Toshiba e-Studio 500P

Despite being housed in a different shell, the e-Studio 500P is clearly built from the same base printer as the Dell 5310n. (And, while I’m letting cats out of bags, that base printer is Lexmark’s T644n, which I didn’t test here.)

The 500P is the same size and weight as the Dell, has essentially identical paper trays, and looks the same on the inside. It differs from the Dell significantly, however, on some usability issues. I really like the Toshiba control panel, but unfortunately, the installation needs some fine-tuning.
Toshiba may have left its install routine in an unrefined state because the company doesn’t expect customers to see it. Toshiba assumes most people who procure a 500P will lease it from an authorized dealer as part of a package. That also means that Toshiba’s $1,099 estimated street price and pricing on options, toner, and maintenance are subject to negotiation.

The 500P’s bulbous shell perches the LCD screen at an angle that’s easy for short and tall people to see. It has the four arrow buttons surrounding an OK/Return button, but it also has a numeric keypad. Toshiba sells an optional hard drive (40GB for a very steep $535), so you’ll put the numeric keypad to work entering PINs for confidential and other print-and-hold jobs. Unfortunately, Toshiba’s memory prices are almost as out of line as its hard drive price: $99 for 128MB of extra memory and $299 for 512MB.

I do like the flash drive reader on the 500P’s control panel: You can pop in a keychain drive and print PDFs, text files, jpgs, and other files in common non-proprietary formats without passing them through a PC.

I have several complaints about installing the 500P without a Toshiba technician to navigate. When the installer displayed a list of printers from which to choose, there was no 500P in the lineup. I settled for the default, called Generic 25A, which promptly tied itself to an LPT1 port.

After I nudged it onto a TCP port, I changed its share name, thinking to make it more client-friendly, but when I went to the client to pull over a driver, the printer didn’t appear on the network. I had to set its name on the server back to Generic 25A before I could use it on a client. Toshiba later said I should have installed the Generic 25C model instead. When I tried that, it generated its TCP port and attached itself correctly, but still didn’t accept my new share name.

In sum, it’s a very dirty install. Your Toshiba dealer’s crew will know the drill, but I’d guess that most of us prefer not to depend so much on the vendor.

The 500P spit out 10 copies of my 10-page text job at a crowd-pleasing 46.6 ppm, and 10 copies of my two-page Excel document at 36.6 ppm. And it keeps up the pace on other document types -- 10 copies of PowerPoint slides at 39.7 ppm and 10 copies of a Photoshop photo at 28.5 ppm. (As with the Dell, single copies print much slower than multiple copies -- generally about two-thirds as fast on text documents and one-quarter as fast on graphics.)

I’d like the 500P’s text to look a little blacker, but it prints text very cleanly. Weighting feels even, with no choppiness visible to the naked eye. Graphics, on the other hand, print too dark. Large gray fields have a lot of streakiness and patchiness or uneven density, and photos show strong banding and noticeable moire patterns. On the plus side, detail comes through reasonably well.

If you use Lexmark printers and management tools you can cover the 500P under your MarkVision umbrella. The printer’s embedded Web server also provides plenty of control, including menu-by-menu control-panel lockout and individual IP port settings.

Toshiba provides a 21,000-page toner cartridge with the printer, and sells a 32,000-page (return) cartridge replacement for $319. It also sells a useful paper-handling add-on that Dell doesn’t carry: a 2,000-sheet feeder, for $889. The standard warranty, which nominally covers the fuser, lasts for a year. That all works out to about 1.1 cents per page, a bit more than the Dell’s 1.02 per page.

Which Fast Letter Machine?

Price is what distinguishes the Dell 5310n and Toshiba 500P most significantly from the oversize printers. Where the three oversize machines ranged from $3,299 to $3,799, the Dell costs only $999 direct, and Toshiba’s estimated street price runs $1,099. True, the oversize printers I tested came somewhat better-equipped, but trays, duplexers, and other extras for the Dell and Toshiba don’t add that much to the price tag.

The Dell and Toshiba printers come out in a statistical dead heat that masks some significant differences. In particular, the Dell is much better behaved during installation and operation, and slots into your OpenManage environment. On the other hand, Toshiba’s machine has a handy numeric keypad plus a nifty flash-drive reader; it also carries a somewhat wider range of optional extras. The best choice for your company will depend on what you’re printing -- and which features you can’t live without.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Speed (25.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Value (15.0%)
Print quality (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Dell Laser Printer 5310n 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.4
Toshiba e-Studio 500P 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.6