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.

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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.

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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.

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