Color printers hit higher speeds

Vendors rev the engines, but short- and long-term costs remain high

Color printers on the office network can serve important purposes. Your organization's design or publications group probably considers a color printer essential for creating public documents such as Web page layouts, brochures, mailers, and posters. They're handy in finance, marketing, and other departments for producing reports, presentations, and other internal documents.

Some offices might have the volume or graphics-intensive apps necessary for one of the fast, 30-plus-ppm (pages per minute) printers we reviewed recently; for the rest, there's a wide selection of models with midrange engine-speed specs of 20 ppm to 30 ppm for printing in color. This group encompasses both the letter/legal-size printers most businesses use, plus tabloid-size models for more specialized jobs.

New models offer diverse talents

Our roundup compares eight office printers from seven major vendors, all with midrange engine-speed specs of 24 ppm to 30 ppm for color printing. Despite the narrow speed range, the diverse lineup includes six letter/legal-size printers and two tabloid-size, and one that marks the image with LEDs instead of a laser.

We also tested the Xerox Phaser 8550DX, which uses solid ink instead of powdered toner to lay color on the page. Midrange printers that appeared in last year's roundup were not retested, but some are still available. A few vendors were caught between product cycles and couldn't participate.

The three top-rated printers in our roundup -- Ricoh's Aficio CL7200, Hewlett-Packard's Color LaserJet 5550dtn, and Xerox's Phaser 6300DN -- show how far the midrange category has come in the past year and a half. Engine-speed specs continue to rise: Xerox claims the Phaser 6300DN can print monochrome documents as fast as 36 ppm and color ones as fast as 26 ppm. Although our tests showed the usual -- sometimes vast -- difference between the ideal and the real, the Phaser 6300DN was still one of the fastest printers we tested, posting an average speed of 21.7 ppm printing a plain-text file and 13.8 ppm printing various graphics files.

Print quality is also improving: The Ricoh Aficio CL7200 and the HP Color LaserJet 5550dtn were adept both at finely drawn text and realistic, nicely saturated color graphics. Some of the other printers we tested still struggled with these issues but rarely to a distressing degree.

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We wish we could say color printer costs have come down, too, but they haven't much. The wide price range among the printers we tested largely reflects differences in the configurations we received. Among the letter/legal-size machines, Lexmark's bare-bones C760n looks cheap at $999; when we priced all the printers with similar configurations, however, the Lexmark joined most of the others in the range from about $2,450 to $2,850. The Kyocera Mita FS-C5030N's $3,700 street price looks high, but its long-life consumables will save you a bundle over time. Our two tabloid-size machines cost more, but they offer wider paper paths that are ideal for producing booklets and posters.

Extra memory is a one-time purchase, but if you buy it from the printer vendor, it can cost a bundle. The good news is that third-party memory costs next to nothing; the bad news is that some vendors don't want you to enjoy such bargains.

Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet 5550dtn

HP's Color LaserJet 5550dtn is one of two tabloid-size printers we tested. It ranked near the top thanks to strong showings in every scoring category except Value. Although the 5550dtn is a very good printer, Ricoh's tabloid-size CL7200 meets or beats it in most categories and costs considerably less.

The Color LaserJet 5550dtn's tested speeds were very good, and its print quality was outstanding. It produced the best text of the lot -- dark, matte-black, very clean, even at small sizes -- at a good 20.0-ppm clip. Color graphics printed faster than most at 13.2 ppm, with good detail and smooth transitions between shades. Our grayscale photo sample looked clean and detailed but overly dark.

We liked most aspects of the design. The power switch is safely recessed but easily accessible; the integrated toner cartridge/image drum units slip in and out easily; handles and levers inside the printer are color-coded. The control panel makes sense at first glance, with buttons for navigating the menu list, locking in a selection, and backing out. The main paper tray has a single-sheet bypass, so you can quickly print a page on media that's not already loaded.

On the downside, the trays lack paper-size labels. On the rolling floor model we tested, the auxiliary tray sticks out where it's likely to bump some shins. Despite the LCD's warning, impatient users printing in duplex might still try to pull out the page when it emerges partway before turning around to print the other side. The setup documentation is sparse; essential steps such as driver installation and network configuration are relegated to the included CD.

The Color LaserJet 5550dtn is pricey, and not just because it's a tabloid-size printer. Based on our cost-of-consumables calculations, it could cost a whopping $13,317 to maintain for five years, compared with $7,639 for the tabloid-size Ricoh Aficio CL7200. The $4,999 wheeled configuration we tested includes a duplexer, two 500-sheet tabloid-size trays, and a foldout auxiliary tray that can handle 12-inch-by-18-inch paper. A desktop model costs $3,549.

You can equip the Color LaserJet 5550dtn with one or two more 500-sheet trays for $449 each; add a 20GB hard drive for a steep $479; and bump the memory up from the default 288MB to 544MB. HP's branded memory is expensive, too, but the company allows you to install third-party DIMMs without the dire warnings many vendors issue.

Konica Minolta magicolor 5450

The Konica Minolta magicolor 5450's biggest strengths are its zippy printing speed and good graphics quality. The $1,799 basic configuration we tested is inexpensive, too. Problems with its text quality, features, and ease-of-use make it an acceptable, but unremarkable, color printer.

Text printed quickly, averaging 20.4 ppm, but letters looked grayish instead of black, and less crisp than we'd like. Its 12.6-ppm weighted graphics speed was quicker than most, and the output was very good: Grayscale photos were dark, but clean and detailed; color photos had sharp focus and a natural look. Pie charts and presentation slides sometimes struggled with transitions from light to dark shades, but the colors looked pretty good.

The magicolor 5450 has some clumsy design elements. For lifting, it has one steel rod that pokes out of a slot and one indented handgrip; the odd combination makes moving the printer awkward. Plastic pegs inside the paper tray that function as length and width guides are hard to remove and reinsert. Inside the tray, a metal plate on stiff springs pushes paper up to the picker (a rubber roller at the front of the tray), which interferes with adding or removing paper. The tray itself seems delicate. The letter/legal-size MPT (multipurpose tray), which folds down from the right side, is fairly sturdy except for a lightweight extension on the end.

Other design elements are clever. The toner cartridge/drum assemblies slide partway out and then catch on a peg, which helps you avoid dropping them. Directional navigation buttons, plus another button to accept a setting, make menu surfing easy. A PictBridge port on the left side near the front will print directly from digital cameras; on our test unit, that feature was waiting for a flash download to activate it. Unfortunately, the port doesn't read key drives.

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Konica Minolta prices its options for the magicolor 5450 competitively. You can add a duplexer for $400, stack the printer on one or two 500-sheet feeders for $299 each, or install a 40GB hard drive for $349. The company charges less than other vendors for additional memory -- especially a 256MB module for $149 -- and explicitly recommends memory from Crucial Technology. Its consumables are expensive, however, especially in the early years: The first year's food bill runs $2,640 by our calculations.

Kyocera Mita FS-C5030N

Kyocera Mita's main claim to printer fame is its ceramic imaging drums, whose long life span cuts down on total cost of ownership. In the case of the FS-C5030N, however, the printer's sluggish performance, uneven color quality, and other shortcomings still make it a hard bargain.

The printer's average text speed of 18.5 ppm and its weighted graphics speed of 9.8 ppm were among the slowest of all the printers tested. Text looked very good, with a slight roughness to the letters that was barely visible to the unaided eye. Color graphics suffered from visible gaps between abutting blocks of solid colors -- even after we ran the printer's manual color-registration routine. In other places, colors that were supposed to blend didn't overlap completely. We noticed streaking on large areas of solid color. Photos looked grainy, and transitions looked abrupt, although detail was sharp.

The FS-C5030N offered a mixed bag of features. Setup documentation was thorough and clear, but the CD didn't have the driver we needed, and the unhelpful file descriptions on Kyocera Mita's Web site made it hard to find. The paper tray's length and width guides are hard to adjust. On the other hand, we liked turning the dial inside the tray to announce the paper size both to the printer and to users. Clearing jams is easy: The paper path slides out on rails. The control panel is easy to read and navigate.

The FS-C5030N is one of the few printers that's cheaper to operate than an SUV. With inexpensive toner and no parts to replace until a 200,000-page maintenance kit, your first 50,000 prints will cost less than half of what many other color lasers consume. The long-term savings will quickly offset the printer's rather high purchase price: The $3,104 configuration we tested came with the optional ($479) hard drive, but only 128MB of memory. Extra 500-page paper trays cost a reasonable $299 each -- you can add up to three of them -- as does a duplexer. Kyocera Mita's memory prices are outrageous, and the company says the use of third-party memory voids the warranty.

Lexmark C760n

The Lexmark C760n's midpack ranking reflects its tricky balance of better and worse attributes. The bare-bones model we tested has the lowest purchase price in the roundup, but upgrade and consumables costs get pricey fast. Both text and graphics speeds are about average for the group, but text quality falls short of the mark. This printer would work best in an office that needs some color printing and retains a monochrome laser for high-volume loads.

The C760n averaged a good 19.9 ppm printing text. Letters looked bold and black, but we noticed choppiness on both straight lines and curves. On thick strokes, we observed tiny white spots. The printer's weighted graphics speed was a good 12.2 ppm. Solid blocks of color came out well, and transitions between shades looked smooth, but registration was slightly off on blended colors. Color photographs had attractive colors and a natural look, although focus seemed a bit soft; grayscale photos were sharp and clean.

The C760n's design is generally convenient. The front door folds up 180 degrees so it doesn't get in your way. The auxiliary tray that folds out from the left side needs to open only a couple of inches, which saves desktop space. The control panel's six buttons also function as numerals to enter PIN codes for secure print jobs, but they don't work for entering an IP address. The printer itself has two handgrips along the bottom, making it easy for one fairly strong person to lift.

Less welcome features included the control panel's LCD, which is not backlit. The output surface on top of the printer is so smooth that printed pages tend to stick to it. The main input tray is sturdy enough but lacks rails or stops to keep it in place; it was too easy to pull out and dump on the floor. The fuser lacks real handles; if a print jams there, you'll have to wait for the fuser to cool before you can clear the jam.

The C760n's pricing structure is no bargain. Upgrading the machine to a similar configuration as the others in this roundup elevates its price to about $2,500. Lexmark charges astounding prices for memory and charges the most for consumables. After five years, you'll have spent $15,200 on supplies, almost $2,000 more than for any other printer reviewed here.

Oki Printing Solutions C7350hdn

The well-equipped, well-priced Oki Printing Solutions' C7350hdn rated well on most factors we evaluated. Its four arrays of fixed LEDs carry a remarkably long five-year warranty -- the rest of the printer has the standard one-year coverage. Who wouldn't want this printer? Someone who wants an alternative to Oki's pricey memory.

The C7350hdn printed text at a swift 21.1-ppm average. Its weighted graphics speed was a competent 10.3 ppm. Text looked black, clean, and slightly featherweight. Colors printed accurately without serious registration or alignment problems, although large areas of solid colors had noticeable crosshatching. The focus of both color and grayscale photos looked soft, and some graininess obscured detail as well.

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