Affordable Black-and-White Network Printing

SAN FRANCISCO (05/30/2000) - Laser printers have become as ubiquitous as the office watercooler -- and nearly as inexpensive. Even small offices and home offices can take advantage of the printing speed and quality offered by the latest generation of low-cost, Ethernet-ready laser printers.

Macworld Lab looked at six black-and-white laser printers designed for the SOHO market: Brother International Corp.'s HL-2060, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s LaserJet 4050N, Lexmark International Inc.'s Optra T612, NEC Technologies Inc.'s Superscript 1800N, Samsung's QL-7050N, and Xerox Corp.'s DocuPrint N2125. These networkable laser printers retail for less than $2,000, have paper trays that hold at least 500 sheets, and print more than 15 pages per minute (ppm). Our tests showed that, basically, you get what you pay for. The Optra T612, the most expensive of the bunch, boasted the fastest printing and the best quality; the least-expensive models, the Superscript 1800N and the HL-2060, turned in the worst performance and scored the lowest in our qualitative tests.

Controlling the Printer

When printing on a network from a Mac, you use the AppleTalk protocol, coupled with software drivers and descriptions written specifically for your printer.

Lexmark's software package seemed the most powerful and Mac-friendly, offering additional controllers for features such as toner and color management, but the software for all of the printers we tested worked flawlessly.

All the printers offer easy-to-use controls and legible LCD screens. The Superscript 1800N and the QL-7050N are almost identical: both have adjustable, backlit LCDs that are fairly easy to use. The LCD screens on the DocuPrint N2125 and the HL-2060, however, are so inclined that some users may find the display difficult to read if the printer is placed on a table. On the Optra T612 and the LaserJet 4050N, the LCDs and controls are on the front rather than the top and are easily accessible.

The Optra T612 presented the only real physical problem: because it offers room for expansion it's less ruggedly constructed than the others.

Built for Speed

Depending on the number of users and how much printing they plan to do, print speed may be a critical factor in choosing a printer. Macworld Lab performed two timed tests to determine which printer was quickest on the draw, measuring the time each took to print a black-and-white Adobe Photoshop image and a 30-page Microsoft Word document.

When it comes to printing text at 600 dpi, the Optra T612 is the fastest, averaging 17.5 ppm. Also impressive was the DocuPrint N2125, which averaged 17.2 ppm. The slowest was the Superscript 1800N, averaging 13.3 ppm. When printing at 1,200 dpi, the heavier load bogged down all the printers. However, the Optra T612 remained the fastest in nearly all categories; its performance at 1,200 dpi was only seconds slower than at 600 dpi. The Superscript 1800N and the QL-7050N can't print at all at 1,200 dpi.

These printers are designed to output text, but they may also be called upon to print images. The Optra T612 printed our Photoshop image the fastest at 600 dpi and was the only printer to complete the task in less than a minute. The Superscript 1800N, which took more than half an hour, is clearly ill-suited for this kind of work unless you're exceptionally patient.

Print Quality

Another deciding factor is print quality. Macworld Lab looked at four common output types when reviewing the print quality of these printers: text, images, and two Microsoft Excel spreadsheets -- a graph with heavy bars and a table with fine lines. The most important of these factors is text; happily, all the printers yielded superior text quality, whether we were testing for quality or speed.

Unfortunately, all the printers except the Optra T612 had some difficulties printing images and Excel files at 600 dpi. The problems were minor but noticeable: in the Excel graphs, streaking occurred when heavy black bars printed horizontally over a light gray background. This happened in areas of dramatic light and dark contrast, too. The printers also couldn't fully resolve the fine rules in the tables. At 1,200 dpi, the output from all the printers that can print at that resolution generally improved -- particularly the output from the LaserJet 4050N, whose quality approached that of the higher-priced Optra T612.

When printing a Photoshop image at 600 dpi, the Optra T612 again gets the nod, but the LaserJet 4050N also performed exceptionally well. The problems with the other printers included overgranulation of pixels and some striping. The HL-2060 suffered from gray-scale gradation problems at 600 dpi, resulting in bands of gray across the image. (Brother has a fix for this problem that involves turning off High Resolution Control, a technology designed to improve the crispness of text.) Output from all the printers (again, those that can print at 1,200 dpi) improved at 1,200 dpi, but the LaserJet 4050N did the best job with the Photoshop image.

BrotherHL-2060 3.0 mice $999 888/879-3232Good text quality. Poor image quality; expensive networking option.

Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 4050N 3.5 mice $1,519 800/752-0900 Lowest printing cost per page; good print quality. Expensive.

Lexmark International Optra T6124.0 mice $1,749 888/539-6275 Fastest printer tested; superior image quality. Expensive.

NECSuperscript 1800N 2.5 mice $999 800/632-4636Inexpensive.Slow; unimpressive image quality.

SamsungQL-7050N3.0 mice$1,099 800/726-7864Reasonably priced.Slow; unimpressive image quality.

XeroxDocuPrint N21254.0 mice$1,299 800/835-6100Reasonable price; fast; decent quality.Lackluster print quality at 600 dpi.

Another consideration is the cost of toner. The LaserJet 4050N was the most economical, at 1.27 cents per page; the most expensive were the QL-7050N, at 2.24 cents per page, and the Optra T612, at 2.22 cents per page. For the HL-2060, you'll also need to figure the cost of a networking package ($399) into the total price; the other printers are preconfigured to be connected to a network.

Macworld's Buying Advice

When comparing networkable printers for office use, you have to weigh print quality and speed against operating costs and purchase price. Lexmark's Optra T612 is expensive to buy and to run, but the result is superior performance and excellent print quality. A good compromise for those on a budget is the DocuPrint N2125, with its winning combination of speed, quality, and value. If your small or home office is ready to invest in a networkable laser printer, you can't go wrong with either one.

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