Top 10 Printers

Economists say an oligopoly exists when a small number of companies dominate a market. If the printers we see are any indication, oligopoly perfectly describes the situation among ink jet manufacturers: Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and Lexmark control the vast majority of the market, leaving little room for such contestants as Alps, Brother, NEC, Oki Data, and Xerox.

Are the big four engaging in anticompetitive, market manipulation? We don't think so, in part because the others' models are available, but more because, rather than colluding to keep prices high and quality low, the majors compete fiercely in both areas.

This month we retested the Xerox DocuPrint C20, which had performed miserably in February 1999. Since Xerox had a year to improve the C20, we anticipated a splash from the $699 tabloid-size model--but got a dull thud instead. Admirable text quality doesn't offset slow speeds and mediocre graphics output. Needless to say, it didn't make our chart.

Of the five new printers we tested, however, two reach the chart, including one from a company new to the market. Compaq's IJ750, really a repackaged (albeit better-priced) Lexmark Z31, takes the number six spot. Epson's Stylus Color 760, meanwhile, grabs eighth. Among newcomers that don't make the chart, the Epson Stylus Color 860 resembles the 760 in almost every way but runs faster and costs more. Similarly, HP's DeskJet 832C is a high-priced likeness of our Best Buy DeskJet 812C. The only new model that badly misses the chart is Canon's overpriced, underpowered BJC-8200.

More Choices, More Confusion

Can't decide which to buy? That's no surprise, because printers from the same manufacturer are getting harder to distinguish from one another. New Epsons and HPs highlight the quandary.

Epson's $229 Stylus Color 760 turns out text at a zippy 3.8 pages per minute and color graphics at an equally impressive 1.2 ppm. On plain paper, it prints clean text, though graphics look weak. (Using coated ink-jet stock, however, it produces stunning graphics, and on glossy paper, glorious photos.) The 760 comes with a great manual and is generally easy to use, except for a complicated driver. The Stylus Color 860 is identical to the 760 in all but price and text printing speed--add $20 for 0.8 ppm of text speed.

HP's new DeskJet 832C looks like the DeskJet 812C; they even share a manual.

But the 832C costs $50 more and doesn't run faster or produce better output, so we can't recommend it over the 812C. One exception: If you print a lot of black text, go for the 832C, which unlike the 812C, is capable of holding either a large-size black ink cartridge or a cheaper, small-size one. (Color costs the same on both models.)Compaq's Highs, Canon's LowsTo produce the IJ750, Compaq didn't do much besides change the labels on Lexmark's Z31 and replace names in the manuals. (See "Ultimate Buyers Guide to Color Printers" in the December issue, The printers' performance is identical, at a leisurely 2.7 ppm on text and 0.3 ppm on graphics. Print quality on both is equally middle of the road, with solid black text, accurately drawn small letters, and acceptable detail but middling color quality on graphics. Unfortunately, Compaq didn't clean up the documentation--like its Z31 twin, the IJ750 manual is a frustrating mess, with "sidebars" of random facts on every page. But Compaq made the one change that counts most: It priced the IJ750 at $150--$50 less than Lexmark charged for its Z31--making Compaq's version a great deal.

Canon's new BJC-8200 costs the same $399 as HP's DeskJet 970Cse, but that's as far as the resemblance goes. Unlike the HP model's output, the Canon's text looks somewhat gray, and graphics show good texture and detail but mediocre color--unacceptable weaknesses at this price. Coated ink jet paper and glossy stock don't help much (unlike the HP). The BJC-8200 prints text at only 1.8 ppm, slower than any other model we've tested recently, and its 0.2 ppm graphics speed is even farther behind the curve. The HP's price tag also includes a duplexer; the Canon's doesn't.

Like Epson's Stylus Color 760 and 860, the Canon has special driver effects, such as the ability to print an image in sepia tones or to sharpen its focus, usually found only in photo-editing software. Although we won't complain about something extra for free, these features add complexity to their drivers, which may confuse casual users even more.

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