New Inkjets Offer Big-Ticket Quality at Low Prices

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Over the past few years, the ink jet market has undergone a revolution. Prices have dropped at breakneck speed: midrange ink jet printers that cost $400 or more a few years ago now sell for less than $200, and entry-level ink jets retail for as little as $50. Even at the high end of the market, new ink jets packed with the latest technology usually debut at less than $1000, and vendors aren't shy about slashing prices on older models.

And while prices drop, the technology flies high. When they debuted, ink jets used three colors; recent models use two cartridges holding up to seven colors, adding subtlety and depth to color prints. Average resolutions--the number of ink dots a printer can lay down in a given area--have jumped from 300 dots per inch a few years ago to 2400 dpi today--which is more than most people need for many applications.

"The print-quality battle is over, and everybody won," says Larry Jamieson, a senior analyst with Lyra Research Inc.

We looked at four of the latest products of the revolution: Hewlett-Packard Co.'s DeskJet 990C and Epson America Inc.'s Stylus Color 980 tackle the upper end of the market, while Lexmark International Inc. offers bargains with its Z42 and Z12 Color Jetprinters.

Business Angle

Recently, ink jets have made inroads into large businesses, and new products are poised to sweeten their appeal. HP has launched its Business Inkjet line, including models with built-in print servers, remote management software, and Postscript and network protocol support--features older ink jets lacked.

Small-business and home-office folks may be attracted to the new HPs, too.

These units range in price from $499 for the 2200 to $999 for the 2250TN.

According to HP, the new printers can serve up to 10,000 pages a month, print as many as 15 text pages per minute, and cost as little as 2.2 cents per black-and-white page to operate. Unlike most other ink jets, HP's new printers use separate printheads and ink cartridges, making them cheaper to maintain.

(Models were not available for testing in time for this article.)Epson's new Stylus Color 980 offers the best print quality of the ink jets we tested. Our sample print photo was clear and sharp, with excellent color saturation and fine detail, and the 980 costs just $249 ($199 after mail-in rebate). You also get an impressive maximum resolution of 2880 by 720--higher than many users need, since most scanners and digital cameras can't deliver that much resolution. The Epson delivered only half of its rated text output speed--we timed it at 6.6 ppm on our tests--but it remains an excellent buy for consumers and small-business users who need affordable photo-quality prints.

Another high-end ink jet, the $399 HP DeskJet 990C, made very good color prints but couldn't quite match the Epson in price or color print quality--our prints from the 990C were a bit muted, with more visible individual dots. The printer does come with special color-layering features designed to mimic the continuous tone qualities of traditional photos. Surprisingly, the HP was slower than the Epson, too, delivering just 4.7 pages of text per minute on our tests. Though HP traditionally appeals to business users, the 990C probably isn't the right printer for a fast-paced office environment.

Lexmark's The Spot

Among lower-priced printers, the Lexmark Z42 stands out: With a $149 street price and up to 2400 by 1200 resolution, it thoroughly outperforms older models that cost twice as much. The rock-bottom-priced Lexmark Z12 produces prints that don't look nearly as good as those from the Z42--but it's hard to badmouth an ink jet that offers decent color output for just $59. Both models are acceptable for consumers who need an inexpensive ink jet, but not for professionals or business users who need photo-quality prints. Though slower than the others here, the Z42 managed creditable output speeds of 4.5 pages of text per minute; in contrast, the Z12 crawled along at just 2.4 ppm.

Even at their best--using fresh ink cartridges and printing on high-quality, glossy photo paper--none of these four units could win a side-by-side comparison test against a real photograph. But the Epson and HP models do come awfully close, and in both cases a casual observer probably wouldn't notice the difference. The text quality of all four printers was good.

Remaining Downsides

Ink jet technology still lags behind lasers in some key areas. As our tests show, most ink jets can't match vendor-rated speeds in the real world (for in-depth results, see "The Paper Chase," in June Top of the News, www.pcworld.com/jun00/printspeed). This is a minor nuisance for people who print a page or two at a time, but it's a serious problem for businesses that print hundreds of pages a day or require several employees to share a single printer.

Ink jet printers are also expensive to operate. Hardware prices continue to drop, but prices for cartridges and other supplies remain relatively high.

According to e-commerce information services provider One-Channel.net, ink jet printer prices fell 21 percent between January and June 2000--but ink cartridge prices rose 21 percent, from an average of $19 to an average of $23. Glossy, heavyweight photo paper, which is essential for producing high-quality color prints, is expensive too, selling for a dollar or more per sheet. The reason is no secret: Ink jet vendors make a healthy profit on cartridges and other accessories, and they'd like things to stay that way.

Ink jets face a third challenge: Their prints don't age well. Most ink jets still use dye-based inks that fade quickly and smear easily. Some photo-quality ink jet prints start to fade after just a few months, and few last more than two or three years. New varieties of photo paper that resist water and light damage should help, and ink jet vendors are working to produce longer-lived inks--Epson's $899 Stylus Photo 2000P, for example, uses pigment-based inks that may last decades. These new technologies have not yet undergone thorough testing, so the question remains whether any vendor has found the right formula for image longevity.

Time To Buy?

The growing popularity of digital cameras, e-commerce, and photo-sharing Web sites has increased our appetite for color printing. No matter how long you wait, a better model inevitably lurks around the corner. If you're looking for a workgroup printer, lasers retain the advantage for now because of their speed, low per-page cost, and mechanical reliability. Early next year, however, you should see true photo-quality ink jet printers for under $200. And we expect speed and quality to keep improving as the ink jet revolution rolls on.

But as our tests show, you'll pay less than you think for great quality today--it might just be time to retire that old bundled ink jet.

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