Presentations, reports, web pages -- they all look better printed in color. Monochrome printers continue to churn out crisp-looking text at a fast clip for the majority of users. Meanwhile, color laser and LED printers are popping up in sales, marketing, art, creative, graphic-design, and in-house publishing departments -- not to mention the executive suites, where products and ideas must be presented in the best light. Small offices that can afford only one printer may also turn to a color model.
In search of the perfect enterprise color printer, we tested 13 models from nine vendors. Entry-level models for small or low-volume offices start at $2,000. Faster, more expandable models occupy the midrange. At the high end you'll find mega-volume, wide-format, do-it-all powerhouses costing nearly $7,000, including our highest-rated model, the Xerox Phaser 7750DN.
We ran each printer through a battery of quantitative and hands-on tests, looking at everything from print speed and print quality, to setup, management, and ease of use. Print quality ranged predictably from good to great, but sluggish print speeds surprised us. Even the fastest model in the roundup averaged a disappointing seven pages per minute, printing graphics samples that included Excel pie charts, presentation slides, and high-resolution gray-scale and color photos. Text speeds fared better, ranging from 10ppm to 25.3ppm. Considering seven of the 13 printers carried 128MB or more of main memory, we had expected more speed.
But office printing isn't just about speeds and feeds. We crunched the numbers on consumables such as cartridges to assess long-term costs, which can be exorbitant. We also delved into the printers' management tools to see how easily you could monitor status, configure settings, and analyze usage data. Naturally, no one printer excelled at everything. Read on for the strengths and weaknesses of each contender.
Although Brother's bargain-priced HL-4200CN offers a good set of features for small workgroups, mediocre performance and high consumables costs dampen its rating. Faster, more economical printers are available in the same price range.
Text printed on the HL-4200CN came out quickly, but letters looked slightly fuzzy and heavy, especially at smaller font sizes. Color photos looked realistic, but simple presentation slides showed banding and moiré (unintentional background patterns). Color speeds averaged a pokey 2.2ppm in our tests.
Consumables costs pose a bigger problem for the HL-4200CN. Its low-capacity toner cartridges have to be replaced more frequently, making this printer one of the more expensive to maintain among those we tested.
A few flaws mar the HL-4200CN's compact design. The printer continues to print even if you remove the plastic toner-cartridge cover, which doubles as part of the main output tray. Printed pages don't jam, but they pile up untidily and sometimes pick up loose toner. The HL-4200CN's multipurpose tray requires much effort to open.
The HL-4200CN's best feature is its software. The BRAdmin Professional management application is useful, despite its outdated look. Instructional videos in Macromedia Flash walk users through basic tasks such as changing toner. And the CD-based documentation is thorough and well written.