Color printers cover the spectrum

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

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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