Color printers hit higher speeds

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

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
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