Top 10 Ink Jet Printers

SAN FRANCISCO (03/03/2000) - Everything old is new again as price reductions move several veteran ink jet printers around on our top 10 chart. Of the five units that came to our test center this month--two new models from Hewlett-Packard Co., two new Epsons, and a revamped high-end Lexmark--only one made the list.

HP's Deskjet 932c jumps onto the chart in second place, with an aggressive $199 price and speedy 3.6-page-per-minute text printing that will definitely keep your home office moving. The 932c has both USB and parallel ports, and the removable back cover lets you install an optional $79 duplexer for printing on both sides of a page automatically. This Deskjet prints text clearly, though with a slightly grayish cast instead of solid black. It produces sharp, narrow lines that look almost as good as those from a monochrome laser, and it turns out lovely, subtly shaded gray-scale graphics. Color images appear rich and true to life, showing fine detail on ordinary paper and breathtaking quality on (slightly costlier) ink jet paper.

The 932c's design is undeniably cool. Its bulbous curving form eschews straight lines and blends several leathery shades of tan. Unfortunately, it doesn't look as cool with legal-size paper hanging out the front--HP skimped on plastic by snipping off the paper tray at letter-size length.

HP's other new printer, the Deskjet 952c, closely resembles the 932c. Print quality is identical: the 952c turns out the same sharp text, crisp lines, and rich graphics as the 932c. It prints text just a smidgen faster, at 3.9 ppm, but costs 50 percent more, at $299--keeping it off our chart. Digital photography initiates might like the 952c's paper tray, which has an extra slot to accommodate a stack of snapshot-size glossy paper. But otherwise, the printer offers no significant advantages over the less expensive 932c.

Network News?

Lexmark designed the optra color 45n ink jet to be a network printer, but on its initial trip through the PC World test center in February 1999, the unit poked along at only 2.7 ppm on text and 0.3 ppm on graphics. The 45n ran as slowly as an inexpensive home ink jet, despite its exorbitant $1149 price. We expected new software drivers and testing on our ethernet network to set the 45n humming, but it performed no better on retests. Print quality also lagged: text appears sharp and clear, even in small sizes, but narrow lines are smudged and graphics look dark and grainy, with noticeable banding. clearly, the same pile of money would be more wisely spent on a low-cost color laser printer (see march top 10 printers, But the Lexmark has one advantage over color lasers: it prints tabloid-size documents for a lot less. you'd have to spend $3400 for the least-expensive tabloid-size color laser, the Minolta QMS Magicolor 6100n.

Epson's Efforts

Epson's new Stylus Color 1160 also sports a wide body, and it prints documents up to 13 inches across and 44 inches long. A high $449 price tag keeps the 1160 off the top 10 chart, but it still might be a good choice for some people. for one thing, it's fast--turning out text at a zippy 4.5 ppm and graphics at 1.2 ppm. We liked the 1160's clean text but were disappointed by the wretched job it did printing narrow parallel lines. Another weakness is the unit's somewhat washed-out color graphics (though they look much better on more expensive coated paper). And like many other Epsons, the 1160 includes a removable paper support that seems to fall off whenever you touch the printer. The 1160's driver, however, includes features more common in photo-editing software, such as sharpen-image and soft-focus settings, and a sepia-tone look. Epson does not bundle software with the 1160, but it includes a coupon for your choice of two free software packages and offers three other packages for a total of $60. A number of respectable business and graphics products are included.

Another new Epson, the Stylus color 660, also misses the chart, despite a bargain $129 price. It's slow compared to other printers in its price range--2.3 ppm on text and 0.6 ppm on graphics--and its print quality leaves a lot to be desired. Text has a slight shadow, large letters are noticeably rough around the edges, and narrow lines run into each other to form blocks of ink.

Both gray-scale and color graphics appear rough and somewhat out of focus.

Plus, the 660 is noisy. On the positive side, Epson bundles a great photo-editing software package and provides a coupon for software geared toward children and various home uses.

An impressive debut at number two: the HP Deskjet 932c offers good print quality and stylish design for a very reasonable $199 price.

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