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.

48TCprinters_ch1.gif
Click for larger view.
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.

48TCprinters_ch3.gif
Click for larger view.

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.

The printer's design makes everything accessible. The LED arrays hang down from the inside of the lid, moving out of the way when you raise the top. The toner cartridges and imaging drums drop into their slots with a little difficulty; the whole cartridge/drum subsystem lifts cleanly out of the printer in a sort of basket, completely exposing the transfer belt and fuser. Well-marked latches release the belt and fuser, if necessary. The duplexer also slides out of the printer on rails, exposing the only other place a jam could hide.

The main paper tray has automatic sensors that determine what size paper they're adjusted for (as well as media weight) and a slot on the outside where you can pop in a size label -- reusable labels for standard sizes are included. The tray itself is sturdy, but its width and length guides are delicate and difficult to move. The external auxiliary tray is fairly sturdy, except for -- like so many printers -- the last flap.

We commend Oki for making its control panel highly idiot-proof, with up and down buttons for each level of the menus. The eight buttons double as digits for secure-printing PINs, but you'd need two more buttons to enter IP addresses; as with all these printers, prepare to scroll.

The C7350hdn costs $2,425, considerably more than some other printers in the roundup, but that includes an internal hard drive, a duplexer, and 320MB of memory. You can add one or two 530-sheet trays for $397 each. Consumables costs are reasonable. The one dark spot is Oki's branded memory modules; they're among the priciest we found, and the company doesn't want you to choose third-party options.

Ricoh Aficio CL4000DN

Ricoh's Aficio CL4000DN is inexpensive, but it's also slow compared with other models we tested. Low maintenance costs plus decent print quality, however, make it an adequate choice for cost-conscious offices.

Print quality outshone speed in the Aficio CL4000DN's case. Text pages averaged a bottom-dwelling 19.5 ppm, beating only Kyocera Mita's FS-C5030N. Its 5.7-ppm weighted graphics pace was the slowest of the lot, due largely to a spooling issue with its Adobe PostScript driver and our Excel test file. Ricoh suggested a settings change to fix the problem, but our tests require using only the default settings that most users do. Text looked uniformly solid, matte-black, and crisp despite rough edges in some places. Graphics samples displayed banding on large areas of color, but hues were accurate and pleasingly saturated. Color photos looked a little grainy but focused; grayscale photos seemed dirty and somewhat dark.

Ricoh could have made the Aficio CL4000DN a little easier to use. The control panel requires drilling down through many menu layers to change anything. The Adobe PostScript driver looks cluttered and has disappointing limitations. For example, it can print watermarks in only three fonts, and only in gray. The printed setup and usage manuals are generally thorough, but the advanced topics in on-screen help files are less so.

The Aficio CL4000DN's paper handling gets mixed marks. The main paper tray adjusts easily and senses paper size, but it feels flimsy, and you have to flip a lever to match paper weight. Stick-on, paper-size labels are convenient -- until you have to change them. The auxiliary tray is sturdy, but its spring-loaded latch on our unit was finicky.

The many levers and latches inside the Aficio CL4000DN seem daunting at first, but they make sense when you use them. The front opens to expose the paper path; the left wall folds down to reveal the imaging components. Toner comes in big, translucent tubes that plug in to hoppers nesting under the output tray. Xerox's Phaser 6300DN has a similar design, but the CL4000DN's is better because the output-tray-cum-lid is attached instead of loose. A rotating, louvered cover on the exhaust port allows you to direct the printer's hot, smelly air as you wish.

Ricoh prices the Aficio CL4000DN at about $1,200 with duplexer. Adding a 40GB hard drive ($330) and a second paper tray ($390; you can add two of them) makes a fully configured model the cheapest in our roundup by $500. Ricoh's consumables are also among the most economical based on our calculations.

Ricoh Aficio CL7200

The Aficio CL7200 topped our ratings by offering excellent print quality and blazing text speed for a comparatively low price -- considering it's a tabloid-size printer. Cheap consumables sweeten the deal. A spooling issue with one of our test files slowed its average graphics speed, but that's a minor complaint.

The Aficio CL7200 averaged a chart-topping 25.2 ppm when printing text, and the results were exemplary: Letters looked a little light, but crisp, and nearly perfect, even at tiny sizes. Graphics looked great: spot-on color swatches, smooth transitions between shades, and attractive, if slightly soft-focus, photos. Blame the anemic 8-ppm average mostly on our Microsoft Excel test file. The Adobe PostScript driver processed multiple-copy Excel jobs as individual jobs, piling on extraneous processing time. A setting change fixes the problem, but our tests stick to the defaults, as your users are likely to do.

One oddity about the two standard paper trays: One is stuck at letter size, its length and width guides screwed into place. The tabloid-size tray is easy to adjust. The auxiliary tray can handle paper as wide as 12 inches.

As is our other tabloid-size printer, HP's Color LaserJet 5550dtn, the Aficio CL7200 is humongous -- almost 30 inches high -- and weighs close to 200 pounds. The printer has a strong handgrip at each corner, so four people can maneuver it. But as opposed to HP, Ricoh doesn't provide a rolling base; instead, we parked our test unit on a standard lab workbench and had to climb on a chair to read the top-mounted LCD. The left side opens, and the fuser, which is held in place with magnets, lifts right out for clearing paper jams. The right side, however, opens only to 45 degrees, making access somewhat tight. Imaging components behind the front wall are needlessly locked in place behind a plastic arm that must be unscrewed; they also have tiny thumb grips and are awkward to remove, handle, and reinsert.

The Aficio CL7200's control panel and Adobe PostScript driver are identical to those on the Aficio CL4000DN -- and so are our complaints about the overstuffed, underdeveloped PostScript dialog. As with the Aficio CL4000DN, its printed manuals cover setting up and using the printer in good detail, but the on-screen manuals on advanced topics seem less thorough and somewhat scattered.

The Aficio CL7200 base model we tested costs $2,900; you can add a 40GB hard drive for a pricey $550 and a duplexer for $300, making it cheaper than the HP Color LaserJet 5550dtn even when equivalently configured. Ricoh rivals thrifty Kyocera on consumables prices.

Xerox Phaser 6300DN

The Phaser 6300DN ranked high in our roundup for one major reason: It's fast at both text and graphics printing, a tough juggling act for most color printers. Busy offices that want a real workhorse will appreciate that, but they'll have to put up with mediocre text quality and fairly pricey consumables.

The Phaser 6300DN's engine looks fast on its spec sheet -- 36 ppm for monochrome printing and 26 ppm for color -- but its 21.7-ppm text speed was bested by the supposedly slower Ricoh CL7200. The Phaser 6300DN's 13.8-ppm weighted graphics speed left the rest in the dust.

Print quality failed to follow the trend. Text printed on the Phaser 6300DN looked grayish and blurry. The printer struggled more than most to approximate some colors in our graphics samples; for instance, it painted cyan a dark teal and magenta a grapelike purple. Large areas of solid colors had some streaking, but shading progressed fairly smoothly. Grayscale photos looked murky and dirty but preserved some detail well. Color photos looked muted and grainy, but detailed.

Xerox gave the Phaser 6300DN's control panel a welcome touch of convenience but forgot to tie up related loose ends. The control panel LCD's top-level menu displays the "walk-up" features enabled by an internal hard drive, but confusingly, printers without a hard drive display the same menus. To tap into the walk-up features, the user's computer requires an extra driver install, which makes initial deployment cumbersome.

The Phaser 6300DN's design has its pros and cons. On the plus side, three well-marked buttons open progressively deeper sections of the printer, so replacing components or clearing jams is easy. The power switch is near the front and is well-recessed. The translucent plastic flap that covers the toner cartridges also doubles as the main output tray, but removing it doesn't stop the printer, letting print jobs fly out and land on the exposed toner cartridges. When the printer duplexes, pages poke out through the exit before flipping over, making it possible for impatient users to grab a half-completed page and derail the job.

Our test unit costs $1,499, including a duplexer. A 20GB hard drive runs $499; a 550-sheet tray, $399; a dual 550-sheet unit, $599. Thus, a well-appointed Phaser 6300DN is among the less expensive printers in the group. Consumables costs, however, are on the high side. At least you have a choice when upgrading memory: If Xerox's costly branded modules exceed your budget, the company won't fuss if you seek third-party alternatives.

Mainstream color is really here

When an office can get a decent color laser for as little as $999 (or a solid-ink printer for as little as $899), you know they'll only continue to multiply in printer rooms near you. They'll make it easier for people to produce nice-looking documents on their own -- a phenomenon that's surely making traditional printers nervous.

But they're not the end-all, be-all office printer yet. Although all the models we tested could theoretically be used for both simple memos and high-resolution photos, some offices could justifiably opt to retain a monochrome laser or LED printer for plain-text and draft jobs because it's still a faster, cheaper, less-complex machine than its finer-feathered cousin.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Print quality (25.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Speed (25.0%)
Value (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Oki Printing Solutions C7350hdn 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0
Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet 5550dtn 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.5
Konica Minolta magicolor 5450 7.0 7.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 7.4
Kyocera Mita FS-C5030N 8.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 9.0 7.8
Lexmark C760n 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.2
Ricoh Aficio CL4000DN 8.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 9.0 7.9
Ricoh Aficio CL7200 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.7
Xerox Phaser 6300DN 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.3
From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies