Color MFPs go mainstream

Newest generation of multifunction printers from Ricoh, Sharp, Toshiba, Xerox add office-friendly features

When Melissa Riofrio and I reviewed a batch of color multifunction office systems about 18 months ago, we were amused by a large curving plastic sign attached to the Xerox WorkCentre Pro C2636, plastered with instructions on the printer’s features. We quickly labeled it the “Purple Cowl.”

But there was a method to Xerox’s purple madness: In many organizations, the company said, the MFP (multifunction printer) was still migrating from the print center to the office floor. The sign’s labels served as a reminder that the WorkCentre could not just make copies, but also print, fax and scan to the network.

Xerox dispensed with the Purple Cowl on its new line of WorkCentres, though. I’m taking that as an indication that MFPs have finally arrived.

As a corollary, the feature set of this class of machines is converging as vendors fill in the check-off items on the lists of capabilities that office users need -- such as formatting complex documents, control over color, and high capacity for big print jobs.

That doesn’t mean all MFPs are the same. In this review of four new systems from Ricoh, Sharp, Toshiba, and Xerox, I found a wide spread in how deeply features are implemented and how easy the printers are to use. I also found significant differences in performance and image quality among the four systems.

Color Costs

The exact price of a color MFP can be hard to pin down, but they certainly aren’t cheap. Three of the four models I examined list for more than $20,000, but I was unable to ascertain street pricing. That’s because when you procure an MFP, it usually comes as part of a lease-to-own package with financing, training, a service agreement, and consumables included.

Because of this flexible pricing, you’ll have to evaluate what your office needs and work the numbers carefully before signing on the dotted line. In some cases, you might do better by negotiating the price for each element, or the dealer may insist on a consolidated cost-per-click charge. Or maybe you should agree to pay a little more on service to pay a little less per impression.

Regardless of what you pay to procure and maintain an MFP, the real action -- and the real cost -- may be in some very desirable software that the MFP enables. MFP vendors and third-party developers are now promoting a wide range of tools that apply the MFP’s scan-to-network feature to capturing and managing documents, making these devices a potentially valuable part of a document or content management system.

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The basic tools simply let you scan or distribute something in one step. Others store often-used files, such as forms, on the MFP’s internal hard drive, and use the scan capability to fill in data fields and send captured information to a database. Beyond that, you’ll find complex enterprise-oriented workflow and document-sharing systems for which the MFP serves as a port of entry.

Ricoh Aficio MP C4500

Ricoh’s gray and powder-blue Aficio MP C4500 takes the top score with its fast performance and extensive feature set.

There is a trade-off for that fast performance, though: somewhat disappointing print and copy quality. I also found that taking advantage of the C4500’s impressive capabilities demands more effort than with the competing systems.

Here’s a basic example of that extra effort: To make a copy, you must choose mono or color on the control panel menus, then push the lone Copy button. Other machines, such as the Sharp MX-4501N, have separate color and mono buttons, so you can make quick copies without using the control panel menus at all.

The Ricoh machine’s first control screen displays a dense assortment of buttons that allow you to choose the original type, select whether to print N-up, set margins, add cover sheets and so on -- features usually organized and presented in second-level screens.

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Ricoh must have known its control panel might overwhelm users, because a big, physical Simplified Display Mode button sits right beside the control panel. When pushed, it temporarily slims down the menus.

Despite the complexity, the MP C4500’s feature density is impressive. You can pick one color in the original to delete or print as a different color. You can give your documents a background color, including custom colors you mix and save. You can add stamps for page numbers and dates in a wide variety of formats (it even supports the software-manual chapter-dot-page format) as well as canned and customizable text watermarks. And you can designate as many as 20 chapter dividers and set what to print on them.

The MP C4500’s pull-scanning feature lets you take the machine offline while you run back to your desk and launch a scan. For the sake of efficiency and peace in the office, however, it may be better to use push scanning: make the scan at the machine without taking it offline and send the scan to your computer.

But systems administrators take note: Of the four MFPs I tested, the MP C4500 was the only one that stymied my attempts to create new repositories for push scanning (the ones I set up with a Ricoh technician’s help worked fine).

Like all modern printers and MFPs, the MP C4500 has an internal Web page that allows remote administration. From the Web site you can see and manage thumbnails of scanned documents saved on the machine’s internal drive, which Ricoh calls the Document Server. That’s a nice touch.

The MP C4500 sports a mixed mechanical design. I like that its internal output slot is wide enough to reach in easily for a stack of prints or copies. It can’t offset copies (or slightly stagger sets of collated copies), but it can alternate them between portrait and landscape. The paper trays are sturdy and easy to adjust, and after changing the paper size you don’t have to tell the machine the dimensions of the new paper in the tray -- the Xerox machine, in contrast, asks you every time you open a tray.

On the other hand, the document feeder doesn’t scan both sides of a page at once; instead it pokes the page out, flips it, and rescans it. Also, the scanner lid on my test unit lowered smoothly until about two inches from the glass, then dropped suddenly, and didn’t easily lie flat over thick documents, such as books.

The MP C4500’s engine rating is a bit faster than that of the Sharp and Toshiba models and slower than the Xerox, but it performed a lot faster. It copied graphics at 22 pages per minute, one-third faster than next-fastest Xerox; it printed text at an awesome 33.4 ppm, 39 percent faster than next-fastest Sharp.

I wish its print, copy, and scan quality were as impressive. Quality is good and even squeaks by the Sharp, but the Ricoh prints text with some choppy edges on larger letters, and colors fade somewhat in the middle of large fields. On copies, text looks gray and colors are a little washed out.

The MP C4500’s strong feature set, performance, and lack of discoverability make it a good choice for an office where the primary users will be a few trained people. For that situation I recommend it wholeheartedly, but make sure your Ricoh dealer agrees to provide good training.

Sharp MX-4501N

Of the four machines in this review, Sharp’s MX-4501N is the only one that is fully functional without an external finisher, thanks to an internal finisher that can staple. (Of course, for more capacity or special document types, Sharp would be happy to sell you a hole-punching or saddle-stitching external finisher.)

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The MX-4501N’s design is a mixed bag. All of its paper trays have fixed 11-by-17 labels, so you’ll have to resort to sticky notes to tell users you’ve filled some trays with letterhead, or legal-size paper. The whole right-side internals slide out on rails to clear paper jams, but it is still a tight squeeze, especially if you have to remove the fuser. I had a tough time with this when clearing one bad jam, for example. On the other hand, you can plug a keyboard into a USB port to bypass the tedious on-screen “soft” keyboard, or plug in a key drive and scan directly to it.

The Sharp control panel angle is just right for short and tall users (though unlike the Toshiba e-Studio 3510c’s control panel, it is not adjustable), but it took me a while to get comfortable using it.

Some of the panel’s soft buttons display both the feature they affect and the current setting: One shows the Copy Ratio label at bottom and the reduction or enlargement percentage on top. Another button type, labeled with left-right arrows, switches between sets of menu items.

Despite all of these buttons, the panel is less dense than the Ricoh control panel and is loaded with useful features. You can pause a long job to sneak in a quick job, and the machine will also multitask, such as starting to scan a new job while it’s still printing the current one.

The MX-4501N will store as many as 24 sets of frequently used settings, though it identifies them by number and you can’t give them names such as “Monthly Report Format.” The Tab Copy feature prints on the “ear” of section dividers, and there’s a nifty feature just for copying both sides of a small item onto one side of a page, such as copying an insurance card at the doctor’s office.

Fair warning, though: If you install the Sharp machine yourself instead of letting the dealer do it, you’ll get snarled. Most of the manuals are in electronic format on the copier’s internal hard drive, including the one that tells you how to change the IP address and perform other network setup tasks. Also, installing the print driver requires rebooting Windows, which seems like a design flaw for a product that you’ll probably install on a server; these days, printer installers generally eschew restarts.

On the plus side, if your office has two MX-4501Ns you can configure them in tandem mode, which splits making the copies from one big scan across both machines to save time.

Sharp’s MX-4501N runs a lot slower than the Ricoh Aficio MP C4500 but stays a bit ahead of the other systems. It is really fast only on copying text, coming in at 32.3 ppm. That’s 4 percent behind the Ricoh but 21 percent faster than third-ranked Toshiba e-Studio.

Image quality is the Sharp system’s weak point. Its print, copy, and scan quality ranged from slightly worse to significantly worse compared with the other machines on most tests.

But the differences are often slight, especially on the things that really count, such as printing text. The Sharp MX-4501N’s printed and copied text is a bit choppy; the black is black enough but not the bold, serious black I like to see. Color prints tend to pop too bright, while color copies have trouble reproducing large fields of solid color.

Toshiba e-Studio 3510c

The Toshiba MFP contender costs several thousand dollars less than the other machines, based on the recommended list prices. That gives it a boost in InfoWorld’s scoring, but as with all of these MFPs, I don’t know for certain that it would translate to your invoice given the potential for variations in street pricing. Its strong suits are usability and output quality, where it is bracketed by the Ricoh and the Xerox.

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The purplish-gray and charcoal e-Studio 3510c features a control panel that adjusts from almost horizontal to approximately 30 degrees, making it the only system in this review that could be operated easily from a wheelchair (though the document feeder would still be out of reach).

The control panel’s positioning interferes a bit with removing prints from the internal output tray. A mechanical dial adjusts the LCD brightness, a nice touch that helps cope with different office lighting conditions.

The e-Studio 3510c feels carefully designed, for the most part. The sturdy paper trays have industry-standard squeeze-and-slide guides to set the width, though to set paper length you pop out a peg and snap it back in. I generally frown on parts that can be separated from the mothership; on the other hand, the paper-size labels are also removable, so you can drop in your own labels.

The e-Studio 3510c’s document feeder is among the most cooperative I’ve worked with on an office-scale copier, comfortable to raise or lower, and easy to telescope over thick originals such as books. The auxiliary tray folds up against the machine when not in use so people won’t bang their knees, and access to potential jam sites is easy.

Toshiba’s control panel design avoids dumping all its features in one messy heap or making users hunt for them through too many layers. It has color adjustments labeled for quick results, such as Cool and Vivid, but you can also tweak individual CMYK densities if you know what you want. (It can also convert documents into two colors, a feature Toshiba says is used in Japan.)

Commands under the Edit menu can trim or mask out parts of the page you want to exclude, though you have to measure elements by hand to set that up. Unfortunately, the chapter divider function, called Sheet Insertion, can insert only one page per document, so unless everything you copy has exactly two sections, it’s not very useful.

It’s not the slowest machine in this review, but the e-Studio 3510c averages an unimpressive 21.1 ppm when printing plain black text and accelerates to a somewhat less disappointing 26.7 ppm when copying text.

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