Top 10 Printers

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Major price-cutting at Epson America Inc. and Lexmark International Inc. makes major ink-jet news this month. Enormous price reductions move some recent favorites up several spots on the Top 10 chart. We also tested a handful of new printers this month, but none made the short list.

Two models from Hewlett-Packard Co. and one from Epson offer speed and true-to-life print quality, but high price tags keep them off the chart.

Meanwhile, Canon Inc. aims for the low end with its $149 BJC-3000 and shoots itself in the foot; to our minds, lousy output at a low price is still lousy.

New News Is No News

HP's $499 PhotoSmart P1100 is a good printer with impressive print quality, but it will appeal primarily to digital photography enthusiasts. The printer's case includes slots for the two most common flash-media formats, SmartMedia and CompactFlash, so you can pop a card out of your digital camera and slip it directly into the printer. A control panel with an LCD and buttons for selecting photos allows you to print digital images without going through a PC.

The P1100 is an ink-jet workhorse, too, producing text documents at a speedy 4.7 pages per minute and graphics at 0.8 ppm. Text quality is clean, if light, and graphics are sharp and detailed on plain paper and beautiful on glossy paper. The P1100 also has a built-in duplexer for two-sided printing.

Does all this justify the $499 price tag? Consider the competition: Lexmark sells its Photo Jetprinter 5770 for $299, with the same features for PC-free printing. Admittedly, its print quality isn't as strong and it's also slower and lacks a duplexer. But a $200 savings is significant. Ultimately, most people will find the P1100's price too steep for its niche features.

Another specialized HP printer we tested this month, the $499 DeskJet 1220C, also fails to make the chart. Despite some handy features its price is too high for most users. The 1220C can handle paper up to 13 by 19 inches, and its enormous output tray folds up to reclaim desk space when not in use. The complicated paper feeder has a few esoteric features, such as a flap designed solely to hold postcards. The DeskJet 1220C's print quality is generally good, with crisp but light text, slightly jagged lines, smooth grays, and detailed (though slightly grainy) color graphics. The 1220C is fast, too, printing text at a zippy 4.5 ppm and graphics at a respectable 0.7 ppm. But with 8MB of standard memory--more than most home users need--it's really intended as a network device for offices that don't want to pay $3500 for a tabloid-size color laser. For those folks, it's a great deal. (The 1220C's network card costs $109.)A third large, expensive new printer that misses the chart is Epson's Stylus Photo 1270, which costs $499 and can handle banner-size paper. On text, the 1270 runs quite slowly (2.3 ppm), but it handles graphics relatively quickly at 0.9 ppm. We liked its dark, solid text, but grays appear too grainy to preserve detail, and colors look faded. In contrast, Epson's Stylus Color 1160 (which we reviewed in April) produces better color images, prints text and graphics faster, and costs $50 less.

We tested one more ink jet that missed the chart. Canon's BJC-3000 costs only $149, which a year ago would have made us swoon. But today plenty of printers are priced in that vicinity, and most deliver text faster than the BJC-3000's sluggish 2.4 ppm (graphics speed is better, at 0.7 ppm). Even so, the BJC-3000's downfall is its print quality: Text is fuzzy, narrow lines look messy, and color and gray-scale graphics appear grainy and unrealistic.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Though no new printers make the grade, price changes shake up the chart this month. Lexmark slashed prices on its entire Z line, causing the major upheaval.

First, it chopped $50 off the Z51 Color Jetprinter, lowering its price to $149.

That's enough to move it to the top spot, ahead of the $199 HP DeskJet 832C, which offers similar speed and print quality.

Next, Lexmark trimmed $50 off the Z31 Color Jetprinter, which reenters the chart in fourth place at $99. Lexmark also dropped its entry-level Z11 Color Jetprinter to $89, but the Z31 is only $10 more and includes a black ink tank (the Z11 doesn't). And since the tank costs $40, a fully equipped Z11 actually costs more.

Epson's most notable price reduction involves the Stylus Color 760, which first appeared in our February issue. A price cut of $70 moves the $159 Stylus Color 760 up a notch to ninth place. Though it rivals this month's Best Buys in price and speed, it can't match their print quality.

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