Color printers narrow the speed gap

Printers from Lexmark, Oki Printing Solutions, and Xerox approach 36 ppm for color printing

Ah, color printers: they dazzle you with their output, but then they disappoint with slow print speeds -- especially on full-color pages.

Little has changed since we reviewed a small army of them last year, but a few new models have appeared at the faster end of the spectrum. Most corporate color lasers offer engines capable of printing text and graphics at 20 to 30 pages per minute. The vendors promise the printers in our test can achieve plain-text printing speeds of 36 to 40 ppm and color graphics printing of 32 to 36 ppm. You probably won't see those top speeds during regular use, of course, but these printers are still among the fastest around.

The Lexmark C920dn and the Oki Printing Solutions C9600hdn are both tabloid-size and use an array of LEDs to create the page image. The Xerox Phaser 6350DT offers a letter/legal-size paper path and a laser-based engine. The Oki Printing Solutions C9600hdn edges out the competition with high marks in speed, print quality, and value.

We've revised our test methodology to give these higher-speed printers a chance to hit their stride. We also altered our cost-of-consumables formula to reflect a typical office's higher volume of plain-text printing versus color printing. Our takeaway: Comparison-shop consumables as carefully as you do the printer.

Because color printers cost more to use, managing who gets to use them is key to controlling your budget. Look for management software that allows you to lock out single users or entire groups from specific features, or from printing after-hours. Ask whether you can turn off or password-protect the control-panel menus. Unfortunately, we have yet to see a printer that allows you to fine-tune which menus to leave wide open and which to restrict.

Lexmark C920dn

The Lexmark C920dn trails the top-ranked Oki Printing Solutions C9600hdn by a hair. Both are tabloid-size LED printers. The C920dn, however, prints nicer-looking color graphics and offers some better design elements, but it comes in a little slower overall, with lesser text quality and pricier consumables.

The 920dn printed standout color and good monochrome output -- but somewhat slowly. Graphics pages averaged 8.1 ppm, which was slightly faster than the Oki Printing Solutions C9600hdn. Color graphics were cleanly drawn and saturated, and photos looked sharp and detailed. Grayscale photos, on the other hand, seemed a bit fuzzy and too dark. Text pages printed at a middling speed of 25.4 ppm in our new tests and showed a faint haze around letters.

The C920dn's 180-pound bulk contains many nice features. The standard paper drawer and multipurpose tray feel a bit flimsy but are easy to adjust and load. The drawer automatically communicates the loaded media's size to the printer; you dial a rotary label to display the correct media size on the front of the tray. Users can store forms on the optional, expensive ($535) 20GB hard drive, or they can plug a flash drive into a front USB port and print files in PDF, HTML, and other open formats. The top half of the printer lifts on sturdy arms to expose the belt and drums.

The C920 product line sports Lexmark's improved control-panel design, located on the printer's large front door. Dedicated directional-arrow buttons make it easier to navigate the menus. A full numeric keypad makes entering IP addresses and PINs easy. Administrators can use a special key sequence at printer startup to invoke a secret Configure menu, which allows you, for example, to set the C920dn to black-only mode and turn off other control-panel menus.

The control panel's LCD has its pros and cons. It orients you by showing two levels of the menu hierarchy -- a good idea that would work better if the LCD were larger. It also helps you out of a paper jam by displaying a well-illustrated sequence of steps for clearing it. If the steps include opening the printer's front door, however, the LCD will swing out of view.

When we calculated the C920dn's cost of consumables, it came out looking a little pricier than the similar Oki C9600hdn. A single page of black text uses an expensive 3 cents' worth of consumables, while a lightly covered page of color uses a more reasonable 10.5 cents' worth. The toner cartridges supplied with the printer are a bit more than half full.

Lexmark's usually commendable documentation falls short on this model. The setup poster suffers from somewhat dark photos -- instead of illustrations -- and lacks explanatory text. The CD-based user guide focuses on end-user issues, so you'll have to visit Lexmark's Web site for network management information. One highlight is the stored documentation, printable via the control panel, which offers guidance on topics such as improving color quality and identifying defective components.

Lexmark sells numerous options for the C920dn. Additional 550-sheet paper drawers cost $561 each; a 3,000-sheet paper deck costs $1,311. A 1,000-sheet finisher for $1,999 can staple or perform three-hole drills. An additional 256MB of memory costs a stiff $1,259 from Lexmark, but off-the-shelf modules should be cheaper. To bump the standard 256MB of memory past 512MB, you must remove the installed module.

Oki Printing Solutions C9600hdn

The tabloid-size, LED-based OKi C9600hdn costs more than the similar Lexmark C920dn we tested, but it also offers more, including a faster engine, a 20GB hard drive, and 384MB of RAM. Blistering text speed and better text quality, plus less-expensive consumables, put it a cut above the C920dn. Changes to our tests prevent us from extensively comparing the C9600hdn directly to the Xerox Phaser 7750DN that we rated highest last year, but it seems to offer worthy -- and lower-priced -- competition.

The C9600hdn printed text at an outstanding 28.7 ppm in our new tests. The slightly glossy black toner might be hard for some to read, but the text looked sharp even at smaller sizes. Graphics managed a more pedestrian 7.7 ppm and, aside from vivid reds, looked somewhat muted overall. Color gradations looked blocky and made sudden jumps. Color photos we printed looked vivid, sharp, and realistic. Grayscale photos seemed faded and showed moiré or interference patterns, but they retained details well.

The C9600hdn's design mixes better and worse points. The bulky, 150-pound-plus machine has sturdy grips on three sides (none in front) for lifting, but their placement -- near the middle of each side, instead of near the corners -- makes balancing difficult. The whole top half opens up to expose the paper path and other components. It's a bit hard to reach the belt, but the fuser, toner cartridges, and other items are readily accessible. One warning: If you slide an imaging drum into its slot when the corresponding toner cartridge is not in place, the action releases a pretty good puff of toner.

The main paper tray feels flimsy and wiggly, and its sticky paper guide resisted our efforts to adjust the length setting. To its credit, however, it automatically senses both media size and type -- an unusual capability for this category. A slot on the outside of the tray takes interchangeable, hard-plastic media labels, which are included with the printer. The auxiliary tray has strong hinges and feels sturdy except for the last, short flap.

The control panel has it quirks but does provide one distinctive feature: The LCD and buttons sit on a tiltable flap, so users of any height can read it comfortably. The interface could be better designed, however: Back and Enter have confusing double functions as navigational buttons, and the lack of a numeric keypad forces you to scroll endlessly to set up the IP address or enter a password. A password-protected administrator menu covers mostly network configuration and security, but other sensitive items, such as adjusting the print position and calibrating color, nestle on unprotected menus.

The C9600hdn offers cheaper consumables than the similar Lexmark C920dn. It costs a modest 1.5 cents for a page of black text and a reasonable 10.5 cents for lightly covered color graphics. Oki Printing Solutions ships the machine with half-full cartridges.

Optional accessories include external collating finishers (four trays for $3,189; five trays for $3,811), both of which staple and can be equipped with a hole-puncher for an additional $369. An external 1,600-sheet feeder costs $1,104. Additional 530-sheet paper trays cost $424. The standard warranty provides one year of on-site service and five years for the LED array. An extra year of on-site service costs $875; two extra years, $1,655.

Xerox Phaser 6350DT

Xerox's Phaser 6350DT offers high-speed color printing in a more compact, letter/legal-size package than the hulking Lexmark and Oki Printing Solutions models we tested. But it also offers some difficult trade-offs. Although it printed quickly overall, print quality was middling. Its low purchase price is offset over time by higher consumables costs.

The Phaser 6350DT's performance is paradoxical. Its 10.1-ppm graphics speed was the fastest in our tests, but its 24.9-ppm text speed was the slowest. Cleaning and calibration cycles frequently interrupted print jobs. Print quality disappointed us overall: Text looked slightly gray and a bit fuzzy. Some colors printed inaccurately -- for example, solid blocks of magenta and cyan came out purple and teal, respectively -- and large areas of color gradation looked blotchy and streaky. Color photos appeared dotty and a little blurry.

The Phaser 6350DT's design is mostly good. The two standard input trays automatically inform the printer of the loaded media's size, but they have no label to inform users. The front, fold-out auxiliary tray has plastic hinges but is sturdy enough to withstand everyday use.

The control-panel menus have thoughtful features such as arrow symbols on the LCD that indicate whether to move right or drill down in a menu. You can restore defaults to an individual menu; most printers restore defaults only universally. A help menu provides users with simple guidance such as tricks to avoid paper jams. You can configure how long menus stay open or make the menus accessible only through a password-protected Web page. There's no way to turn off individual menus or features, however.

Other aspects of the control panel confused us. For some menu items, for instance, the OK button toggles a setting instead of opening a submenu or locking in a choice, which can get confusing. During network setup, when we turned off DHCP and AutoIP to set the IP address manually, the machine warned us of a setup conflict but didn't explain the problem -- it had to do with gateway settings and didn't prevent the printer from functioning.

Both the design and the cost of the Phaser 6350DT's consumables are problematic for a high-volume office. The translucent plastic cover for the toner cartridges simply rests on top of the printer. We'd mind this less if the cover didn't also function as the main output tray. If the cover is removed, printed pages fall right on top of the toner cartridges.

Given the toner cartridges' midrange 10,000-page lives, you'll be lifting the cover fairly frequently -- and paying more for the privilege. The Phaser 6350DT ships with toner cartridges holding only 4,000 pages' worth of toner, or less than half a full charge. The imaging unit and transfer mechanism drop effortlessly into their clearly labeled grooves, but wiggling the fuser back into its slot risks bumping -- and thus locking -- the latches that hold it in place.

Options include a 550-sheet feeder for $399 or a dual 550-sheet paper deck for $599. There's also a $499 20GB hard drive to enable PIN-protected printing and other walk-up features. Extending the included one-year on-site warranty to three years costs $599.

How to choose?

The high-speed color printers we reviewed here represent a small sample of a burgeoning category -- look for our roundup of midrange color printers in an upcoming issue. If you print only letter and legal-size pages, forgo tabloid-size models such as the Lexmark C920dn or Oki Printing Solutions C9600hdn; they cost a lot, and their replacement parts also cost more than parts for a normal-size printer. That leaves the Xerox Phaser 6350DT, but its performance in our tests doesn't justify the upcharge for its faster engine. A high-volume office could do as well by pairing a midrange (in speed and price) color printer with a fast monochrome machine.

The PC World Test Center contributed methodology, staff, and resources to this project.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Speed (25.0%)
Value (15.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Print quality (25.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Lexmark C920dn 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.6
Oki Printing Solutions C9600hdn 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.7
Xerox Phaser 6350DT 9.0 9.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 8.2