Multi-Function Printers — budget busters

Ian Yates
15 March, 2007
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Exactly how much printing, scanning and copying can you get for less than a hundred bucks? Quite a bit as it turns out, and with quite acceptable quality. For less than $150 you can add fax to the equation, for those awkward to deal with people who just don’t think e-mail is ready for prime time.

AMW lab looked at five entry-level multi-function printers; Brother’s DCP-130C, Canon’s PiXMA MP180, the Epson CX3900, Hewlett Packard’s Photosmart C3180 and finally the Lexmark X5470. With the usual post-Christmas sales you will probably pay even less than the prices quoted in our table. AMW lab spotted the Brother DCP-130C for $99 in Big W and it wasn’t even on special.

What you don’t get with these entry-level multi-function printers is high-speed or a colour LCD screen to review photos from your digital camera. Instead, you connect your camera to the printer with a USB cable and use the LCD on your camera to choose the shots. If you insert your camera card directly into the printer, an index sheet is printed, on which you mark off the photos you want, then place the sheet on the scanner and the chosen prints are produced.

However, this trick doesn’t work with the Epson CX3900, since it has no slots for camera cards or a direct camera connection. This is also the lowest-priced printer in the review and if you always print from your Macintosh you won’t notice the missing slots.

He ain’t heavy. Brother’s entry-level MFP is a compact unit, with individual ink tanks, and a paper tray that slides into the printer. This means there’s no paper sticking up at the back, maintaining the overall low profile, however, if you regularly switch between A4 paper and postcards, the tray is fiddlier to adjust for the different paper sizes than the simple sliders on the other printers reviewed.

Brother uses the CUPS open source printer drivers, but still supplies a CD to save you having to download the latest drivers. Annoyingly, though, it insists on a reboot before you can begin printing. Once you start printing you’ll be pleased with the results, because the colours match very closely what you see on your screen. The colour copier function is so good the treasury might be concerned if one of these units gets into the hands of counterfeiters.

Scanning is simple enough with the included utilities, and this is indeed one of those tasks that used to be a chore but is now very easy with any modern machine, be it integrated or stand alone. None of these entry-level MFPs provides for scanning film negatives or transparencies, so if you need that functionality you’ll need to look further up-market.

Something of a misfire. Although the MP180 is one of Canon’s PiXMA models, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t. For starters there are no individual ink tanks, so you’ll be buying all three colours when you run out of any one, and the print quality is not up to the standard AMW lab has come to expect from Canon.

The colours are over-saturated on the standard settings and required quite a bit of fiddling to get an acceptable result close to the on-screen image. The prints also look “soft,” as though they are slightly out-of-focus, and we were unable to rectify this even after running the recommended print head alignment function.

Surprisingly, the colour copier function was very good, with none of the soft look or over-saturation. Scanning was simple enough and produced decent scans. Much better, in fact, than a standalone Canon scanner of a few years vintage — for which we paid far more money than Canon is asking for the MP180.

Price buster. Epson printers nearly always delight when connected to a Macintosh and the CX3900, for less than $100, is no exception. Granted there are no camera card slots or PictBridge, so if that’s the way you like to operate, you need to look at one of the other models reviewed. However, if your modus operandi is to download all your images to your Mac, and manipulate them with iPhoto, or Kodak’s EasyShare, or even Photoshop, then you won’t be disappointed.

The CX3900 produced the best match between printed output and on-screen images and achieved this at a reasonable speed. There are also separate ink tanks, which should save a bit of money in consumables, and Epson claims its DURABrite Ultra ink is long-lasting. AMW lab wasn’t able to test these claims in the time available, and all the other makers have their own version of anti-fading inks these days.

The one disappointment with the Epson was the colour copy function, which was strangely lacking in detail, completely missing soft shadows in the test material. Further testing proved there was no loss of detail from the scanner, so this seems to be a trade-off for what is a quite speedy copy function.

Get smart. The HP C3180 multifunction printer did everything asked of it quite well, producing very good prints and copies, and respectable scans. It just took a long time to do anything at the highest quality settings, and took almost as long at the lower quality settings. This is not a printer for anyone in a hurry, but the quality was fine when it finally arrived.

You don’t get separate colour ink tanks with the HP C3180, but you can buy a packet of postcard paper bundled with a colour cartridge for not much more money than buying the cartridge on its own. HP also claims its ink goes further than the competition, allegedly because its printers spend less time in the cleaning function, but AMW lab was unable to confirm or deny this claim.

Lex marks the spot. At first sight, the Lexmark X5470 doesn’t seem to fit the budget category, however, Lexmark is offering a $100 cash rebate which brings the printer under $150. That’s still a few dollars above the others in this review; but this is the only one that includes a fax function. You either need fax or you don’t, and if you do, this is about the cheapest way to add faxing to your home office without buying a separate standalone machine.

The Lexmark X5470 is slightly larger than the other MFPs reviewed, and with that extra size you get an extra turn of speed. Whether printing, copying or scanning, the Lexmark easily outruns the competition. Unfortunately, it does this by producing prints and copies that look faded on standard settings, and required over-compensation on screen in order to get decent results. There are no individual colour ink tanks either, so you’re not going to be saving money on consumables.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. If you want the best looking prints at the cheapest price, don’t mind average-quality copying and don’t need camera card slots, the Epson CX3900 is the winner. If you need a fax machine along with printing, copying and scanning, then the Lexmark X5470 is the only game in town at these prices. You’ll just need to spend a bit of time setting up a profile which gives you decent looking prints, which will waste a bit of ink and paper before you get everything set just right.

If you want very good prints, excellent copying, simple scanning, camera card slots, PictBridge and individual colour ink tanks, and don’t need fax, keep an eye out for the Brother DCP-130C being offered under $100.

Epson CX3900

Ports USB
Cons Copier function lacks detail, no camera cards or PictBridge
Pros Excellent print quality, individual ink tanks, under $100
Rating 4
Type Budget all-in-one inkjet
Distribution Epson Australia 02 8899 3666
Ian Yates

Canon PiXMA MP180

Ports USB, Camera cards, PictBridge
Cons Colours too saturated on prints
Pros Very good copier
Rating 3.5
Type Budget all-in-one inkjet
Distributor Canon Australia 02 9805 2000
Ian Yates

HP Photosmart C3180

Ports USB, Camera cards, PictBridge
Cons Slow printing, copying on gloss paper
Pros Good photo prints
Rating 3.5
Type Budget all-in-one inkjet
Distributor HP Australia 1300 304 889
Ian Yates

Lexmark X5470

Ports USB, Camera cards, PictBridge, RJ-12 Fax
Cons Colours washed out on print and copy
Pros $100 cash back*, speedy, includes fax. *At time of review
Rating 3.5
Type Budget all-in-one inkjet
Distributor Lexmark Australia 02 9930 3500
Ian Yates

Brother DCP-130C

Ports USB, Camera cards, PictBridge
Cons Paper tray fiddly, a bit slow on highest setting
Pros Individual ink tanks, excellent copier, very good prints
Rating 4.5
Type Budget all-in-one inkjet
Distributor Brother International (Aust) 02 8875 6210
Ian Yates

One Comment

One person was compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Alexis "lexmark guru" Gamino says:

    I really like the x5470. I have an HP all in one at work and all it does is jam and guzzle ink. The Lexmark is the way to go.

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