Color MFPs prove capable and costly

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

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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