Color MFPs prove capable and costly

Our six MFPs prove feature-rich, but their prices may be tough to justify

When we reviewed monochrome MFPs (multifunction printers) a few months ago, it was already clear that multifunctions were the output wave of the future for corporate offices. Not only do they combine print, copy, and fax functions, but they also act as input centers for digital archiving, OCR, and the sending of images via e-mail or fax. And yet for some offices, that's still not enough. Workgroups that want to produce short-run marketing materials, professional-looking proposals, or punchier internal documents could save outsourcing time and money by moving up to a color MFP.

The six midrange color MFPs in this roundup offer a plethora of features. Five have tabloid or slightly larger paper paths. All can print and scan in duplex, and all the scanners are color-capable. All offer myriad paper input options. Most include finishers that can staple document sets, drill holes, or even fold booklets. Speed was the biggest disappointment: None printed at full engine spec in our tests, but some approached it when making monochrome copies.

Xerox's WorkCentre Pro C2636 takes top honors for printing and copying the quickest, producing exemplary output, and offering plentiful features that are also easy to use. Canon's Color imageRunner C3220 and Ricoh's Aficio 2238C rated nearly as well. Hewlett-Packard's Color LaserJet 9500mfp and Sharp's AR-BC320 Color Imager stumbled in our speed tests, and Lexmark's X762e struggled with output quality.

Power has its price

As you admire that full-color copy, remember that such pages cost roughly six to eight times what a monochrome version costs -- and users might print more to fine-tune colors or just to have fun. All the systems we tested include tools for monitoring and restricting access, but quiz your reseller: Can the machine set up usage-constraint templates that you can apply to individuals and groups? Can it block color jobs that don't have an associated billing charge-back code but let uncategorized monochrome jobs go through? Can the job log export to a spreadsheet, or do you have to pay extra for a link to accounting software? And ask yourself: Who needs it? Image-conscious departments -- sales and marketing, HR and training, the executive suite -- probably get first dibs.

The machines themselves are pricey. The MFPs in our roundup start at less than $7,500 and top out at close to $25,000. Most organizations buy under a service contract that replaces a warranty with an agreement to pay a certain charge per page. Expect a 25 percent to 35 percent discount off the list price, more in a competitive market. Negotiate against paying a click charge for scanning and other jobs that don't use toner, or bargain it against a concession on something else. The more you use the machine, the lower your click charges will be, of course. With moderate usage -- 4,000 to 8,000 clicks a month -- you should be able to get your charge down to less than 1 cent for a monochrome copy or print and 8 cents for a color copy or print.

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Canon Color imageRunner C3220

Canon's Color imageRunner C3220 is one of the best MFPs in this roundup. It might cost a bit more than the competition, but the machine's speed, long list of features, and easy-to-use design could justify the premium.

The Color imageRunner C3220's overall design feels sturdy and well-thought-out. The dual 500-sheet internal paper trays on our unit pop open with a push of a button and slide smoothly. Areas where paper might jam, such as the duplexer, also slide out on strong, steel rails. Reusable plastic chits drop into a slot on each tray's front to indicate the paper size -- most MFPs either don't provide signage or use messy stickers. Inside the trays, the guides are easy to adjust but can't automatically sense paper size; the user has to designate the size by adjusting a slider in the tray. Our few other objections include a somewhat flimsy paper flap on the ADF (automatic document feeder) and a cheesy plastic strap supporting a side door.

The bulk of the control panel's functions appear on a full-color 1,024-pixel-by-768-pixel LCD screen. All the MFPs we tested have an LCD, but Canon's is the only one that can display scans before you print or send them. The LCD's stylus is also unique: Use it to navigate the menus or draw on your scan (for cropping or cutting). Third-party vendors can remap the interface using Canon's MEAP (Multifunctional Embedded Application Platform) technology. Despite many layers of menus, prompts and flags always keep you oriented. On-screen help should reduce calls to your company's support desk.

The Color imageRunner C3220's vast array of features covers everything from output quality to accounting and security. You can adjust the look of a scanned image by applying preset Vivid or Tranquil color schemes or by converting it to a sepia-tone Retro Photo look. To track usage costs, the MFP stores detailed information about what types of documents are printed, copied, and so on. You can set precise controls over what each user may do, and the coding system matches account codes in Canon's extra-cost job-accounting package. (The information is still available even if you don't spring for Canon's solution.)

This MFP has the best documentation we've ever seen. The roughly 1,500 pages of printed manuals present, with clarity and thoroughness, the nitty-gritty of copying; various applications of scanning, such as faxing and network file storage; and managing the Color imageRunner C3220 on a network.

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The Color imageRunner C3220 excelled in both speed and output quality. It printed plain text at 17.3 ppm (pages per minute) -- near the top of the scale for this group. Considering the cost of the imagePass C1 EFI print controller ($4,950 MSRP), we expected zippy graphics-printing speed as well. We were disappointed there, although the Color imageRunner C3220's 4.5-ppm time was still one of the faster ones in the roundup. It copied text documents at a brisk 27.5 ppm and color graphics at an impressive 18.5 ppm. Printed text documents came out crisp, clean, and black; copied text looked only slightly rougher. Color prints, whether of pie charts or photographs, looked vivid, smooth, and realistic. Color copies displayed a little roughness but still looked good.

The Color imageRunner C3220 is a solid machine, but to judge by the published prices -- an admittedly uncertain proposition -- you pay for what you get. The unit we tested lists for more than $21,000, and that's without a finisher (from $1,465 to $5,880) or fax (another $800). Plan to negotiate hard on price, and keep an eye on the dealer's cost-per-click offer.

HP Color LaserJet 9500mfp

HP's Color LaserJet 9500mfp is simple to a fault. You can buy direct from HP, most features come standard, and you can install it yourself. But it offers fewer features than do the other color MFPs we tested, and it's slow.

The Color LaserJet 9500mfp includes two 500-sheet tabloid-size internal trays, a 100-sheet auxiliary tray, and an external 2,000-sheet letter-size feeder. You must choose one of three finisher options -- there's no built-in output tray. The c8088b finisher we tested can offset, staple, saddle stitch, and fold booklets.

The installation process is easy, but you'll need a co-worker to help you unpack the heavy, awkward components. You'll also need extra clearance for assembly because of the long, metal rods that run underneath the main unit from both external pieces.

The control panel is logical. You describe the original on one side of the monochrome LCD and enter settings for the output on the other side. Basic and Advanced tabs organize the options for each function.

This flatter menu design works only because the system lacks feature depth. It can't add page numbers to copies, you can't save a copy setup for reuse, nor can the control panel display a job queue. More complex features such as saddle stitching can be hard to figure out.

Useful management features include the ability to disable the scan-ahead feature: If the machine is embroiled in a long print job, walk-up users cannot scan their document until the print job is done. It can also pause between outputting jobs so that users can grab their pages from the stack. This MFP even allows you to test paper-path sensors and ensure the soft buttons on the LCD are aligned correctly.

The Color LaserJet 9500mfp offers good output quality but poky speed. Text printed at a measly 12 ppm and looked less saturated and crisp than we'd like. Color graphics crawled out at 3.4 ppm and showed somewhat rough transitions in areas of solid color. Photos looked a little flat. Copying yielded oversaturated but detailed duplicates, and copy speeds were among the slowest tested.

HP's buy-direct model seems simple, but watch those option costs. The $13,399 price for our unit -- via HP's Web site -- includes an extra $400 for the finisher we tested; other finisher options cost less. The scan-to-PC software we tested costs $1,699 for a 10-seat license, or $5,499 for 50. Extending the standard one-year warranty to three years costs $4,599. Consumables are a bit pricey -- about 1.4 cents per page for black and 8.6 cents for color.

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Lexmark X762e

Lexmark's X762e is smaller in both footprint and price than the other MFPs we tested, and it was nimbler in some of our speed tests. The drawbacks of downsizing appear in features, output quality, and design. For budget-minded, low- to midvolume offices, however, the X762e could be a good value. Just keep in mind that it's the only MFP in this roundup that doesn't handle tabloid-size paper.

The X762e printed text at a brisk 16.3 ppm and graphics at a pacesetting 4.8 ppm. Its 23.3-ppm copy speed with plain-text documents actually exceeds its spec by a hair. The X762e slowed somewhat copying graphics.

The X762e unites a standard C762 printer with a scanner/ADF that also houses the MFP's control panel. The scanner module can sit atop the printer, but you must move it to an adjacent work surface to add an optional finisher.

Most controls appear as icons on the control panel's LCD. Although the X762e lacks the feature depth of some systems, it still provides important capabilities such as edge-erase and combining originals of different sizes and orientations into one duplexed, collated job. You can create and preview fax cover pages on the LCD. And if you want to design your own document management systems based on the X762e, Lexmark sells a well-appointed SDK.

Lexmark's scan-to-PC feature seems unnecessarily convoluted. To initiate a scan-to-PC task, you have to go back to your PC, activate the template -- a link to the destination folder -- you want to use and then return to the X762e to scan. All other systems we tested allow you to store the scan-to-folder links at the device itself.

The machine's discount pricing shows most in its design and construction. The front door flips upward, forcing you to kneel beneath it; a chintzy wire bale props it open; and the door's single hinge feels flimsy. The paper trays are made of light, wiggly plastic. The ADF's output tray projects at just the right spot to bang your forehead as you fill the auxiliary tray.

The X762e's output quality is acceptable for general-office use. Printed text looked black and crisp, but large areas of color had a patchy look. Printed photos looked grainy and colors seemed pale. Copied text looked a little heavy and rough, as did copied graphics. Scans showed jagged edges in text and fuzziness in graphics and photos.

If you buy the X762e outright instead of leasing with a service contract, you'll need to feed it yourself. Based on Lexmark's cheapest toner cartridge -- the High-Yield Return Program version, which you return to Lexmark for remanufacturing -- you'll pay about 1.1 cents per page for black and about 8.8 cents for color. Lexmark can extend the standard one-year service contract to two years for $899, three years for $1,599, and four years for $2,499.

Ricoh Aficio 2238C

Ricoh's Aficio 2238C challenged the Xerox and Canon front-runners on image quality and most aspects of performance, but one cantankerous test file dragged down its rating. Still, its depth of features is undeniably the best of the lot -- even when thwarted by a sometimes-baffling interface design.

The Aficio 2238C sports the fastest engine in the roundup, so its top-notch copy times -- 36.7 ppm for plain text and 20.3 ppm for graphics -- shouldn't surprise you. But typical office users print more than they copy, so we were disappointed when the Aficio 2238C's print times -- 15.1 ppm for plain text and 2.2 ppm for graphics -- lagged behind those of several machines with slower engines.

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Blame the abysmal graphics speed on one of our test files, a two-page Excel 2003 document. The Aficio 2238C printed that file at wildly inconsistent speeds. Despite working closely with Ricoh, the problem remains a mystery. The machine performed well on our other graphics tests.

The Aficio 2238C astounded us by printing legible 1-point type. Even at normal sizes, letters looked crisp and black, and copied text looked almost as clean. The MFP's limited gray-scale range resulted in murky-looking monochrome graphics, whether printed or copied. Broad areas of color, such as pie-chart wedges, had somewhat uneven coverage, and color gradations showed somewhat abrupt transitions.

Ricoh's control panel can be overwrought. Making a copy requires at least two steps: choosing a mechanical button for monochrome, two-color, or four-color mode, then pressing the Start button. You set a scan's resolution and color in one window but set its file format in a different window. And in some views it's hard to distinguish dialog-box tabs from -- yes -- subtabs, such as the stack of windows in the Edit/Color Creation area.

After you've learned your way around, however, you'll be impressed by the system's capabilities. For example, the Job Cancel allows you to change the number of copies before killing a job. One scan setting is tuned for copying maps, and another for copying degraded copies of copies. You can crop or knock out parts of an image by entering x, y coordinates on the control panel. You can also combine duplex, N-up, and rotated images into one document and then assign page numbers, date stamps, and watermarks. You can give your documents a colored background using a canned color or one of 15 that you can mix and name yourself. You can also transform colors completely -- for example, turn a gray sky blue or convert all the red cells in a spreadsheet to black. On a more practical note, you can set up scan-to-folder destinations at the control panel by browsing the LAN as if you were at a PC.

Ricoh made some regrettable mechanical decisions. The Aficio 2238C's auxiliary tray is sturdy, but its plastic finger-like extension to support tabloid-size paper popped off repeatedly. The four 500-sheet main paper trays feel flimsy. We like the trays' automatic paper-size sensors, but their stick-on paper-size labels are potentially messy.

The list prices we gathered for this review should be taken with a grain of salt. The $20,210 price tag on our test configuration seems steep, however, for a color MFP with no offset-stacking or stapling capability as standard equipment.

Sharp AR-BC320 Color Imager

Sharp's AR-BC320 scored well in features and ease-of-use. If its MSRP means anything, it's also one of the more economical choices we tested -- which could persuade some offices to overlook the machine's shortcomings in speed and output quality.

Our test unit augmented the standard 500-sheet letter-size input tray and 250-sheet tabloid-size auxiliary feed with two 500-sheet, tabloid-size trays and a duplexer. The top of the printer incorporates the standard output tray. Other feeders and finishers are also available. The paper trays feel flimsy when you pull them out and act finicky when you push them in. Also, they cannot automatically sense paper size.

The scanner/ADF that sits atop the AR-BC320 cannot telescope to accommodate thick documents, and it has to flip pages to scan duplex. Some MFPs we've tested have dual scanners to capture both sides simultaneously. We do appreciate the red light that flashes when we forget to remove originals from the platen.

The AR-BC320's abundant features appear mostly as soft buttons on the monochrome LCD. You can blow up copies into multisheet posters -- the biggest size is four tabloid sheets in each direction. The Repeat feature puts multiple copies of the same image on one page and has the most layout options we've seen. Active jobs appear in separate print, scan, and fax queues, and you can change their order.

Of the few hard buttons on the control panel, we especially liked the separate monochrome- and color-copy buttons. Although you can, of course, adjust settings further before pressing either button, this completely straightforward design saves time and prevents accidental color copies. The machine's administrator can also PIN-protect color copying.

The control-panel design sometimes confused us. On the principal soft buttons -- Original, Output, Paper Select, and others -- the label and the button look alike. The lack of a Cancel button when choosing settings made us wonder how to exit without saving. Some windows have two OK buttons -- one for the menu level you're working in and one for the whole setup -- which saves time for experienced users but could confuse novices.

As did all the devices tested for this review, the AR-BC320 printed too slowly to satisfy an active office. Text pages crept out at 15.1 ppm, graphics at a mere 3 ppm. Copying times were better: a zippy 29.7 ppm for plain-text documents and 14.6 ppm for graphics pages.

The MFP's output quality is acceptable for general-business documents. Printed and copied text both looked good; in the latter, diagonal strokes looked jagged. Color graphics, both printed and copied, displayed uneven coverage in large areas of solid colors. Color photos looked dark and dotty but managed to preserve some detail.

Xerox WorkCentre Pro C2636

Xerox's WorkCentre Pro C2636 rates highest among the color MFPs in our roundup because it's fast, well-equipped, and adept at combining sophisticated capabilities with the user-friendliness that a busy workgroup needs. It also seems to offer competitive pricing.

The WorkCentre Pro C2636 is carefully designed and mostly well made. The scanner, ADF, and control panel sit securely on the arms of a steel exoskeleton; the printer component nestles underneath. A small plastic shelf on the machine's left side provides a convenient place to park papers while you're setting up a job. Access doors and paper trays feel sturdy; the latter are easy to adjust. Only the foldout auxiliary input tray feels a bit flimsy, as most do.

The configuration we tested included the High-Capacity Feeder option, which stacks two 520-sheet, tabloid-size trays plus dual 1,000-sheet letter-size feeders underneath the printer. Between the printer and the scanner you'll find a standard, 400-sheet output tray that can offset collated copies. Several external finishers are also available. With the fax option, our unit lists for $17,890 -- at first glance a good value, though we don't know what a real-world, negotiated price for any of these MFPs would be.

The WorkCentre Pro C2636 is very approachable, thanks to a control panel designed around two physical buttons -- Features and Access -- that divide most functions between managing the system and using it. In Feature mode, the color-coded LCD displays a row of buttons for principal functions, each complemented by tabs of hierarchically arranged settings. Access, where you set up the machine's defaults, follows a similar structure.

The features go deep into production-level controls. For example, when building a complex copy job from several batches of originals, you can mix documents scanned on the platen with ones sent through the ADF, mix simplex with duplex pages and number some pages but not others, run a sample copy, and correct individual settings without reprogramming the whole job. After setting up the job, you can switch to Program mode and save it. Unfortunately, the machine stores only 10 programs, and it labels these with numbers instead of meaningful names.

The WorkCentre Pro C2636 also provides good capabilities for ordinary users. You can adjust the color of scans and copies with preset schemes called Lively, Warm, and so on, and it can check color swatches on the LCD to see what the adjustments should look like. The machine automatically detects mixed-size pages in the ADF and pulls appropriate paper from different drawers. Job Status, a physical button, displays all pending jobs in the queue in one list, where you can move jobs around.

Xerox designed the WorkCentre Pro C2636 to be partly user-serviceable via Smart Kits. Smart Kits include the tube-shaped toner cartridges and the imaging drums, which are a snap to replace, and the waste-toner collector, which is a little trickier to install. Smart Kits won't save you any cash because they simply take the place of a service visit, but they can keep you from waiting on a technician.

The WorkCentre Pro C2636 aced our image-quality and performance tests. Its 18.1-ppm speed printing black text outpaced the rest, and the text itself looked impressively matte-black, clean, and crisp at all sizes. Grayscale photos showed a somewhat limited range of shades, but images still looked highly detailed and smooth. Color graphics -- always the Achilles' heel of performance -- printed at a comparatively good 4.5 ppm. And samples such as Excel pie charts and wide swaths of color on PowerPoint slides showed some minor patchiness. Speaking of patches, we had to install one for the WorkCentre Pro C2636's PostScript driver to fix a PowerPoint 2003 rendering issue: When using the standard image-quality setting, some colors printed inaccurately.

Copy speed and quality in our tests were similarly impressive. Plain-text copies appeared at a zippy 31.1 ppm, color graphics at a competitive 16.8 ppm. All copied documents looked saturated and fairly solid; copied color photos displayed delightfully sharp focus.

Substance over style

When you shop for a color MFP, keep these factors in mind: The MFPs we tested all offered similar lists of features but differed more in terms of how easily, quickly, or well they executed on those features. Take the time for a full demonstration of the unit and its options, and try using the control panel yourself before you buy. Also, think of the machine not just as a printer/copier/scanner/fax but as a device that can help you smooth office workflow and document management. Storing forms electronically for on-demand printing, scanning documents directly into a database, running custom applications -- these are some of the real reasons an MFP could be a good upgrade for your office.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Print quality (25.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Management (10.0%)
Speed (25.0%)
Features (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Canon Color imageRunner C3220 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.5
HP Color LaserJet 9500mfp 8.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.0 7.9
Lexmark X762e 7.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 7.0 7.9
Ricoh Aficio 2238C 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0
Sharp AR-BC320 Color Imager 8.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 7.9
Xerox WorkCentre Pro C2636 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.6
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