Color printers cover the spectrum

Workgroup printers from Brother, HP, IBM, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Lexmark, Oki Data, Sharp, and Xerox face off

Presentations, reports, web pages -- they all look better printed in color. Monochrome printers continue to churn out crisp-looking text at a fast clip for the majority of users. Meanwhile, color laser and LED printers are popping up in sales, marketing, art, creative, graphic-design, and in-house publishing departments -- not to mention the executive suites, where products and ideas must be presented in the best light. Small offices that can afford only one printer may also turn to a color model.

In search of the perfect enterprise color printer, we tested 13 models from nine vendors. Entry-level models for small or low-volume offices start at $2,000. Faster, more expandable models occupy the midrange. At the high end you'll find mega-volume, wide-format, do-it-all powerhouses costing nearly $7,000, including our highest-rated model, the Xerox Phaser 7750DN.

We ran each printer through a battery of quantitative and hands-on tests, looking at everything from print speed and print quality, to setup, management, and ease of use. Print quality ranged predictably from good to great, but sluggish print speeds surprised us. Even the fastest model in the roundup averaged a disappointing seven pages per minute, printing graphics samples that included Excel pie charts, presentation slides, and high-resolution gray-scale and color photos. Text speeds fared better, ranging from 10ppm to 25.3ppm. Considering seven of the 13 printers carried 128MB or more of main memory, we had expected more speed.

But office printing isn't just about speeds and feeds. We crunched the numbers on consumables such as cartridges to assess long-term costs, which can be exorbitant. We also delved into the printers' management tools to see how easily you could monitor status, configure settings, and analyze usage data. Naturally, no one printer excelled at everything. Read on for the strengths and weaknesses of each contender.

Brother HL-4200CN

Although Brother's bargain-priced HL-4200CN offers a good set of features for small workgroups, mediocre performance and high consumables costs dampen its rating. Faster, more economical printers are available in the same price range.

Text printed on the HL-4200CN came out quickly, but letters looked slightly fuzzy and heavy, especially at smaller font sizes. Color photos looked realistic, but simple presentation slides showed banding and moiré (unintentional background patterns). Color speeds averaged a pokey 2.2ppm in our tests.

Consumables costs pose a bigger problem for the HL-4200CN. Its low-capacity toner cartridges have to be replaced more frequently, making this printer one of the more expensive to maintain among those we tested.

A few flaws mar the HL-4200CN's compact design. The printer continues to print even if you remove the plastic toner-cartridge cover, which doubles as part of the main output tray. Printed pages don't jam, but they pile up untidily and sometimes pick up loose toner. The HL-4200CN's multipurpose tray requires much effort to open.

The HL-4200CN's best feature is its software. The BRAdmin Professional management application is useful, despite its outdated look. Instructional videos in Macromedia Flash walk users through basic tasks such as changing toner. And the CD-based documentation is thorough and well written.

Bargain hunters should look to the Oki Data C7300n; it's a better value for the price. The Brother's twin, Xerox's Phaser 6250N, offers a better if pricier implementation.

Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet 5500n

HP's Color LaserJet 5500n easily dominates its bigger sibling, the Color LaserJet 9500n. It's faster and lower priced; it offers mostly comparable specs and proves itself equally good at printing text and graphics. But Xerox's Phaser 7300DN is better still, being faster and cheaper to maintain.

The Color LaserJet 5500n earns top marks for its simple, wizard-driven setup and powerful, multidimensional Web JetAdmin management software. The default installation script automatically creates and assigns a TCP/IP port, assigns an IP address dynamically, and sets the printer as a shared device.

Print quality fared better than print speed. The Color LaserJet 5500n printed excellent quality text but at a pedestrian rate. Graphics came out at a similarly moderate pace but displayed banding, moiré, and a washed-out palette. The Xerox Phaser 7300DN was faster overall but rated still lower in print quality.

The Color LaserJet 5500n is built for heavy, varied traffic. It has a high monthly duty cycle, a high maximum paper capacity, and wide-format capabilities. The unit itself is hulking -- impossible for one person to move. The panels that open to expose paper paths and replaceable parts are durable, smooth-hinged, and well suited to heavy use. Decals inside the panels give clear visual cues for removing the toner cartridges and clearing paper jams.

The Color LaserJet 5500n loses its edge in one key area: cost. Its long-term consumables tab exceeds that of the Color LaserJet 9500n by 10 percent and that of the Xerox Phaser 7300DN's by nearly 12 percent. Although it remains our favorite of the two HPs, the Xerox has it licked.

Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet 9500n

HP's Color LaserJet 9500n is a good printer with tough competition: Xerox's comparably priced, powerful Phaser 7750DN and the faster, lower-priced HP Color LaserJet 5500n. If long-term costs concern you, however, this printer is a little more economical than its sibling.

The heaviest and tallest printer we've seen, the Color LaserJet 9500n rolls on its own wheels. Built for heavy traffic, its 200,000-page monthly duty cycle is the highest in our roundup, and its paper trays can accommodate tabloid (11-by-17-inch) paper. Only its maximum paper capacity of 1,100 sheets seems lowball; other members of the Color LaserJet 9500 product line can take more.

Everything else about the Color LaserJet 9500n's design was exemplary. A multitude of doors make the insides easily accessible. HP includes tongs -- yes, tongs -- to help you finagle jammed sheets out of the printer's depths. A spring-loaded output tray lowers itself as more paper accumulates. And the control panel is easy to understand.

Top-notch documentation includes a printed user guide tucked inside one of the front doors (as well as more detailed content on a CD). The polished Web JetAdmin software makes monitoring and managing the printer a breeze.

The Color LaserJet 9500n printed beautifully but at mediocre speeds. Text stayed crisp down to miniscule font sizes. Color samples looked smooth and realistic. The Phaser 7750DN and the Color LaserJet 5500n, among other printers, outpaced it.

Although its high-yield consumables should save you money over time, the Color LaserJet 9500n's expensive drums -- one for each color -- push its long-term expenses higher. It's still a little cheaper to maintain than the Color LaserJet 5500n, but the Phaser 7750DN is cheaper by several thousand dollars.

If the Color LaserJet 9500n was a little faster or a little cheaper, it would gain more of an edge over the competition. But for the price, the Xerox Phaser 7750DN gets the nod; and as an alternative, the Color LaserJet 5500n betters the 9500n in everything but consumables.

IBM Infoprint Color 1354n

IBM's Infoprint Color 1354n performed nearly identically to its clone, the Lexmark C752n, but the similarity is a mixed blessing. Both printers achieved decent speed and good overall print quality. They offered the same exhaustive documentation and sophisticated MarkVision management software. But IBM's version costs more overall, and HP's Color LaserJet 5500n and Xerox's Phaser 6250N offer stronger packages.

The Infoprint Color 1354n is bulky -- two sets of handholds help you hoist its 105 pounds -- but mostly well designed. Its maximum paper capacity is a high 3,100 sheets with extra-cost trays. The full-width front panel offers easy access to the consumables and the paper path. The panel flexes noticeably when open, however, and its hinge seems flimsy. The printer surprised us by pushing printed pages out the upper-right access door when we left it open by mistake. IBM says this feature is intentional, but it's undocumented -- and the printer reacted by jamming and going offline.

A few problems mar the printer's otherwise incredibly helpful labelling and documentation. Removing the toner cartridges is complicated by the presence of two unlabeled sets of arrows pointing in different directions. You could easily mistake the fuser's release levers for two nearby, nonremovable latches; an illustration in the user's guide makes their differences unclear.

Print quality and speed on the Infoprint 1354n varied. Text pages printed at a moderate pace but looked very good, just a little thick. Graphics pages printed slowly and suffered from banding, a little moiré, and a generally washed-out look.

We don't know why IBM charges a little more for this printer and its consumables than Lexmark does, but considering that it's otherwise identical, it's the lesser value of the two.

Konica Minolta Magicolor 3300 DN

The Magicolor 3300 DN closely resembles both the Brother HL-4200CN and the Xerox Phaser 6250N, but of the three it offers the least polished implementation. Setup went smoothly (after we located a couple of ActiveX controls necessary for the installation -- but oddly missing from Windows Server 2003). Documentation is thorough and well written, but information on the utilities is scattered through multiple volumes, making it hard to know what to install.

The 3300 DN printed inconsistently as well. Text moseyed at a moderate pace, coming out fuzzy and heavy-looking. Color prints came out slowly; and whereas presentation slides looked good, photos looked dark and exhibited moiré. Consumables are pricey, and half-capacity starter cartridges force you to buy your first replacements soon after purchase.

Design aspects we disliked in the Brother HL-4200CN crop up again in the Magicolor 3300 DN. The multipurpose tray is difficult to open. And the printer prints even if the plastic panel serving as both toner-cartridge covers and output tray is removed -- a careless oversight at best.

The Magicolor 3300 DN would serve a small workgroup adequately but not as well as other models we tested. The Xerox Phaser 6250N and the lower-priced Oki Data C7300n are better buys in this price range.

Kyocera Ecosys FS-C5016N

Everyone knows that the real money for printer vendors lies in the consumables, not the machines. And as our calculations show, the less expensive printers often have the most expensive consumables costs over time. But one entry-level model bucks the trend. Kyocera's Ecosys FS-C5016N's long-life drum saves you thousands of dollars compared to other printers.

If time is money, however, then the Ecosys FS-C5016N exacts its fee by posting the slowest times by far on our performance tests. Text printed at a sedate average of 10ppm; color pages, on average, crawled at a slothlike 1.3ppm. Print quality was good overall, but text looked a little heavy, and color samples seemed a little darker than usual.

It's too bad, because the printer has many other nice attributes. The FS-C5016N has a high maximum paper capacity (with extra-cost trays). Kyocera's KM-Viewer software (in both Windows and Web form) offers a bevy of features and a clean, simple interface. Its documentation is exhaustively detailed, but we disliked having to jump from one manual to another to perform our network installation.

It's too bad, because the printer has many other nice attributes. The FS-C5016N has a high maximum paper capacity (with extra-cost trays). Kyocera's KM-Viewer software (in both Windows and Web form) offers a bevy of features and a clean, simple interface. Its documentation is exhaustively detailed, but we disliked having to jump from one manual to another to perform our network installation.

Offices that want to shave every penny off printing costs may consider the Ecosys FS-C5016N regardless of its performance. The busier the office, however, the more this printer will frustrate users.

Lexmark C752n

Lexmark's C752n has plenty of good points, including simple setup and operation, plus its full-featured, intuitively designed MarkVision management tool. But its expensive consumables and so-so print quality drag it down compared to others in the roundup. 

Setting up and using the C752n is almost soothing. The printed documentation illustrates every step of the installation, and the wizard often knows the right setting before you do. During printing, the control panel's LCD offers up helpful messages and diagrams, such as which of the four zones contains a jam.

The C752n's imposing boxy, bulky design has its ups and downs. It has a sky-high maximum paper capacity of 3,100 sheets. The entire front panel swings upward to expose the innards; well-illustrated labels guide the removal of errant pages. But both the panel and its hinges seem flimsy. And as with its IBM twin, a printed page fell out the open upper-right access door and caused a jam.

Normally we like copious labeling and documentation, but in the C752n's case, a few instructions went awry. Insufficient labeling makes it hard to tell which set of arrows to follow when removing the toner cartridges. An illustration in the user's guide fails to distinguish clearly between the fuser's release levers and an unrelated pair of nonremovable latches located nearby.

Middling speed and lower print quality dampened the C752n's overall rating. Text remained legible down to small point sizes, but graphics pages lacked detail in complex patterns, and washed-out colors marred some images. Both text and graphics speeds hovered around average.

The C752n falters when it comes to cost. Its consumables are among the priciest to replace over time; only its twin, the IBM Infoprint 1354n, and the severely marked-up Sharp AR-C200P charge more. Despite many strong attributes, other printers in the roundup offer a better deal.

Oki Data C7300n

Among entry-level color printers, only the Oki Data C7300n offers the dashing Xerox Phaser 6250N real competition. What you lose in performance and panache, you gain in a few key features and in overall cost efficiency.

Bean counters should love the C7300n. Its $1,900 purchase price is the lowest in the roundup. Although lower-capacity starter cartridges will hasten your first round of replacements, consumable costs still come in lower than the Phaser 6250N's.

Inside the boxy design you'll find a capable office printer with a high monthly duty cycle and maximum paper capacity. Text comes out quickly and looks crisp. Color samples printed somewhat slowly and showed minor flaws, but photos generally looked good.

The entire top of the printer opens like a clamshell to reveal the toner cartridges. As a result, the Oki Data C7300n requires more overhead clearance than most printers -- at least two feet.

Printed setup and reference guides could use more careful proofing, but they and the CD-based manual cover the setup and use of the printer thoroughly. The management utilities -- particularly the Web-based PrintSuperVision and the Job Accounting software -- were nicely designed and useful.

LED printers like the Oki Data C7300n may never get as much respect or awareness as their laser-based competition, but this one deserves attention. Although its pokey color speed drags it down, it's the only other basic color printer we can recommend besides the Xerox Phaser 6250N.

Oki Data C9500dxn

Oki Data's C9500dxn is pumped up for power printing. It has a whopping 320MB of memory; a high 150,000-page monthly duty cycle; and a generous maximum paper capacity of 2,850 sheets. A 10GB hard drive came standard on our unit, as did internal duplexing. On specs alone, it trumps its twin, the Xerox Phaser 7300DN. But when the toner hit the paper, the Xerox did more with less.

Text printed on the Oki Data C9500dxn came out quickly and looked clean even at small font sizes. Presentation slides showed a little banding in areas of gradated color, and color photos looked good despite some moiré. But pages chugged out slowly. The Phaser 7300DN printed faster and achieved equally good quality.

Despite its somewhat clunky control panel, the C9500dxn is easy to use and its clamshell cover offers easy access to consumables. All doors and trays work well. A few typos and minor errors marred the otherwise thorough, well-written documentation. Among a small suite of management utilities, Oki Data's Web-based PrintSuperVision and Job Accounting software stood out as well-designed, full-featured products. Unfortunately, the Phaser 7300DN's user-friendly control panel and incredibly sophisticated CentreWare management tools steal the show.

The C9500dxn's advantage lies in its low consumables costs; somehow Xerox manages to charge significantly more for the same stuff than Oki Data does. But to come out from under the shadow of the Phaser 7300DN, the C9500dxn will need to excel in other areas as well.

Sharp AR-C200P

Sharp's AR-C200P resembles the Oki Data C7300n right down to the documentation and drivers, which look identical except for the name change. But there's one key difference: cost. The AR-C200P carries a higher street price and charges a lot more for the same consumables. Although it's as solid a printer as its doppelganger, we can't justify paying more for it.

It's too bad, because it's a nice printer, with the same high monthly duty cycle and maximum paper capacity as the C7300n. Its print samples look identical and come out at basically the same speed with the identical clamshell top offering convenient access to the pricey toner cartridges.

Printed setup and reference guides show the same proofing mistakes as we saw in the Oki Data versions, but they're also just as thorough. The management software looks and works the same.

Sharp made a sensible choice to rebrand the Oki Data C7300n; it's a solid entry-level color printer. But in pricing the consumables so high, they've deprived the AR-C200P of a better rating in our roundup.

Xerox Phaser 6250N

Xerox's Phaser 6250N offers the best version of an unremarkable, entry-level color laser similar to the Konica Minolta Magicolor 3300 DN and Brother HL-4200CN. It manages slightly better print quality than its Konica and Brother competitors, but text still looks fuzzy, while color photos look nice. It can't stop itself from printing when the output tray/toner cartridge cover is removed -- an odd oversight -- but at least its multipurpose tray design is easier to open.

On the other hand, the Phaser 6250N scores big points for ease of use. Copious labels guide the user around the printer's interior. The control panel's messages speak English instead of error-code pidgin. Documentation includes a pictorial setup guide, a printed quick-reference guide, and a well-organized, CD-based manual including instructional videos. Xerox's CentreWare applications offer an impressive depth and breadth of printer management tools.

Despite its compact design, the Phaser 6250N is ready for action. It offers a high, 100,000-page monthly duty cycle and a hefty 256MB of memory. Thanks to its comparatively fast color speed, the Phaser 6250N rated above fuller-featured printers in the same price range. Only the significantly bigger and pricier Xerox Phaser 7750DN outpaced it.

Consumables remain a sticking point. Xerox's costs are among the highest. The toner cartridges that come with the printer last a mere 4,000 pages, forcing a quicker replacement. If you're on a budget, the Oki Data C7300n is a more economical, if slightly inferior, alternative.

Xerox Phaser 7300DN

Midpriced color printers have a demanding audience: larger, busier workgroups that need versatility, quality, and speed. Xerox's Phaser 7300DN juggles all these tasks capably, locking horns with the HP Color LaserJet 5500n for best in class. And what of its near-identical twin, Oki Data's C9500dxn? In an Iron Chef match-up, Xerox manages to make better printouts with almost the same ingredients.

The Oki Data C9500dxn may bulge with a 10GB hard drive and 320MB of RAM, but the leaner Xerox Phaser 7300DN proves meaner. Both its text and color printing speeds outstripped those of the fuller-featured machine, and the pages the 7300DN produced looked as good. Letters stayed legible down to small font sizes. Color gradations in PowerPoint slides progressed smoothly. Color photos we printed looked overly light, however, and exhibited a little moiré.

Although the Oki Data C9500dxn and the Phaser 7300DN share the same design, the Xerox version is easier to use, thanks to Xerox having placed its own, intuitively designed control panel on the front. And only HP and Lexmark can hold a candle to Xerox's CentreWare management tools.

The Phaser 7300DN's only real competition is the other midpriced color printer in this roundup, the HP Color LaserJet 5500n. The HP rates a shade higher overall. It has an edge in duty cycle and purchase price, but its color performance put it over the top. It handled our most difficult images with greater aplomb, and it printed color images nearly one page per minute faster overall. But at what cost? Based on our calculations, the Phaser 7300DN will exact about $1,100 less in consumables over the first 100,000 pages than the Color LaserJet 5500n.

Xerox Phaser 7750DN

No other printer in our roundup excels in as many areas as Xerox's Phaser 7750DN. This machine is full-featured and fast, with great-looking output and economical consumables. Targeted at graphics professionals, it would be overkill for a low-volume workgroup, or an office whose color needs consist primarily of presentation slides. But if you want the state of the art in office printing, this is it.

The Phaser 7750DN prints quickly -- it's the fastest color printer we tested -- and capably. The text quality of the Phaser 7750DN looked a hair crisper and more refined than any other printer's in the roundup. Although it struggled with a challenging gray-scale photo, presentation slides and a full-color photo looked smooth and realistic. Only HP's two printers rated higher in print quality.

This printer may be big and heavy, but it also bristles with features. Its main input tray accommodates U.S. paper sizes up to tabloid (11 by 17 inches) as well as custom sizes. Duplexing is standard. The Phaser 7750DN's maximum paper capacity is this highest among the printers we tested. It also has a whopping 384MB of RAM.

Everyone knows it's cheaper to buy in bulk, and the Phaser 7750DN's high-yield consumables are a case in point. Over time, you'll spend thousands of dollars less for toner and other supplies compared to most other printers we tested, save for the superfrugal Kyocera FS-C5016N.

The Phaser 7750DN also excels in ease of use. The printed and CD-based documentation were thorough, well written, and supplemented with instructional videos. Plain-English status messages displayed on the printer's control panel and in the software. The software -- Xerox's suite of CentreWare applications -- offers a multitude of ways to monitor and manage the machine.

You get what you pay for with the Phaser 7750DN: the best color laser we've seen. It outshines the same-priced HP Color LaserJet 9500n in nearly every respect. HP's Color LaserJet 5500n is your next-best bet for all-around high quality at a much cheaper price, but beware its high cost of consumables.

The Options Spectrum

Our highest-rated printer turned out to be among the biggest and most expensive, but don't despair. Whatever the size or needs of your office, there's a color printer to fit it. Pick your next color printer with an eye on these criteria: How many people are going to use it, and how much do they need to print? An entry-level model with moderate duty-cycle and paper-handling specs (and ideally, room to grow) will do for smaller or low-volume offices. But don't skimp if the printer will handle heavy traffic or a wide variety of media. Presentation slides can tolerate quality limitations such as banding or limited gray-scale ranges, but any department with graphics pros or color-matching needs will require a more sophisticated printer. To control costs, look for a printer with high-yield consumables and software to control access and analyze usage trends.

Freelance writer Susan J. Silvius contributed to this review. The PC World Test Center contributed test methodology, staff, and equipment to this project.

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