Colour Laser Printers

Ian Yates
21 October, 2007
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Printing for penny pinchers
Just a few short years ago you couldn’t use the word “budget” to describe a colour laser printer, unless your budget was considerable. For this review we tried to gather printers that sell for under $500, and we managed to find three. A fourth came in at $600, which is still half the price of similar models we reviewed back at the start of 2005. Unfortunately, Epson’s budget model is just about to be superseded and we couldn’t get our hands on the new model before deadline. If you’re a fan of the Epson brand — and there’s good reason to be — keep an eye open for the new model sometime next month.

We looked at models from Canon, Fuji Xerox, Hewlett Packard and Samsung. Even at a price close to $500 these printers still cost more than a seriously good inkjet printer. And when it comes to printing photos, the inkjet still wins the quality race. Don’t despair if you’ve just parted with a wad of hard-earned cash for a top-notch inkjet printer, though, because these entry-level lasers aren’t designed to compete with photo printers. What they do well is produce very good colour on plain paper, which has never been a strong point for inkjets, and they do it much faster and actually cost less to feed with toner if you are a reasonably heavy user.

A laser is not an inkjet. You can buy glossy paper for your colour laser which improves the output for that special presentation, but don’t be tempted to feed them on glossy inkjet paper. They will die. A colour laser is designed to produce brochures and other types of sales material, at a reasonable cost and reasonably quickly, on plain paper — and the machines we reviewed all achieved that goal. Colour lasers work their magic by passing each page through the innards four times; once each for cyan, magenta, yellow and black toner application. When they’re doing monochrome there’s no need for the multiple passes and the output speed ratchets up dramatically. When it comes to throughput there’s also the matter of which print language is being used to turn a page into its finished form, as well as the speed of the printer’s internal processor. Only the Hewlett Packard operates on the familiar Postscript language, which is native to Mac OS X.

Sending it a print job takes only a few seconds regardless of what kind of Macintosh you are using, while each of the others took a while for the print status to disappear from the dock. Of course, the actual time taken to get a finished page is still much quicker with any of these printers when compared to a mid-range inkjet.

The psychology of waiting is worse with these colour lasers, since nothing happens until the last ten seconds of the process when the gears and cogs whir and a printed page pops into the tray. Even though inkjets take much longer, you can see and hear them spitting their way across the page from the moment you send them their data, which takes your mind off the time it actually takes to finish the job.

Plugging them in
. All the printers came with USB 2.0 ports and the Fuji Xerox also came equipped with 10/100 Ethernet making it network friendly. For anyone with old Windows PCs still in service there’s also a Parallel port on the Fuji Xerox. Since the Hewlett Packard uses Postscript, we didn’t need to load any driver software to get it started, but loading the supplied CD gives full access to extra features, such as monitoring the toner levels. Due to their proprietary printer languages the Samsung, Fuji Xerox and Canon needed drivers loaded before any communication was possible. A minor irritation with the Canon and the Fuji Xerox was the need to visit the companies’ web sites to get Mac OS X drivers.

There are two differing philosophies in the design of this batch of printers. The Canon and the Fuji Xerox are built like tanks. You need two people to lift them out of their boxes and drop them on a sturdy table. They are almost twice the size of the Samsung, which claims to be the world’s smallest colour laser. But size doesn’t mean a higher price, with the more expensive HP being much more compact, although not as miniscule as the Samsung.

However, with size comes noise and the Canon was particularly loud. You might also think that bigger is faster, and when it comes to black and white prints you would be correct. The chunky Canon is rated at 19ppm and the Fuji Xerox at 25ppm. The Fuji Xerox also has the option of up to two extra paper trays, which sit underneath the printer.

The miniscule Samsung can manage 16ppm and the mid-sized HP comes in at just 12ppm. But when it comes to printing colour pages, the HP slays the opposition with a 10ppm output. That’s twice as fast as the Fuji Xerox, and way ahead of the 4ppm of the other two.

You can’t take the word of the manufacturers when it comes to the print speed of these machines, unless you read the fine print. There you will discover that the rated speeds are for printing the same page repeatedly, not for printing a stack of different pages. However, if you were doing a bulk run of colour flyers for your next sales event, you would actually be printing lots of the same page. The HP should appeal strongly to real estate agents across the land. The Fuji Xerox, on the other hand, can keep up with most monochrome lasers when printing only in black.

This suggests the target market for this beastie is as a workhorse laser, with network capability, and the ability to spit out the odd colour page now and then. At this price the Fuji Xerox will appeal to those whose colour needs are less time-critical. The Samsung will appeal to anybody looking for a printer with a small footprint and good manners — not too noisy. The Samsung is also very easy to service, with the toner cartridges being inserted rod-like into tubes, rather than being inserted lengthwise as with the other printers. There’s also no need to wait for the drum to rotate to the right spot with the Samsung design. It’s small enough to replace an ageing monochrome laser, and if you compare the price you paid back then, the same money gets you a replacement that can also do colour at a pinch.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice
. If you need to spit out lots of colour pages, preferably multiple copies of the same page, the HP LaserJet 2605 is hard to ignore, and it also has the best compromise between solid blacks and good colour saturation. If you need a monochrome workhorse which can also do a fine job on the occasional colour page, then your network will appreciate the addition of the Fuji Xerox DocuPrint C525A. The extra paper tray option could be a deal-clincher for some buyers. If you want a compact printer — which won’t take over the desk it’s parked on — then the diminutive Samsung CLP-300 fits the bill, and still produces a fine colour page.

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