By Stephen H. Wildstrom A couple of years ago, a color printer was regarded as a major luxury in the office. But improved technology, plunging prices, and, above all, the desire to print out Web pages in their native hues have made color printing commonplace. You can buy a serviceable desktop color inkjet for under $100, or you can spend over $25,000 for a high-speed color laser printing system with advanced paper-handling capabilities.
At the low end, buyers have an abundance of choices from Hewlett-Packard, Epson, Canon, and Lexmark. These are personal printers, basically designed for use on a desktop, attached to a single computer. The text quality of inkjets is not quite as good as that of laser printers, but it comes close, while the color printing of photos and graphics ranges from very good to excellent.
The Epson C80 is an excellent representative of the breed, and an example of the amazing value $179 buys in a printer these days. The C80 prints at up to 20 pages per minute in black and white in draft mode, though the only way you'll approach that speed in practice is by running off multiple copies of the same page. Seven or eight pages per minute in quality mode is a more reasonable expectation.
QUIETER THAN MOST. Color printing slows it down, depending on the amount and complexity of the color, with a full-page photograph taking about two-and-a-half minutes to print at the highest quality. One rap against inkjet printers in the office has always been their noisiness. The C80 is relatively quiet for an inkjet, though louder than most lasers. It can attach to a computer using either a USB connection or a standard parallel cable, and it works with both Windows machines and Macs.
Another gripe about inkjets has been the expense of buying ink over the printer's lifetime. But the C80 comes with separate cyan, magenta, and yellow ink cartridges, so you don't have to replace a three-color cartridge when one ink runs dry. The ink cost of a black-and-white page is around five cents, and about nine cents for a typical color page.
One thing printer manufacturers may want to rethink is the look of their products. Most inkjets, the C80 included, are basically ugly plastic boxes with paper slots and trays. Apple Computer has taught us that computer products can be both functional and handsome.
REASONS TO SPLURGE. Still, if you can get a perfectly serviceable color printer for less than $200, why would you spend more than $2,400 for a Xerox Phaser 860? Plenty of reasons, as it turns out.
Unlike nearly all inkjets, the Phaser 860, which uses a unique waxy solid ink to melt droplets of color onto a page, is designed to be shared over a network by an entire workgroup. It has a duty cycle of 65,000 pages per month, a pace that would reduce several C80s to rubble. And it is designed to be monitored and managed remotely by a network administrator.
The 860 is rated at 10 pages per minute in standard color, and up to 16 pages per minute in draft color mode. A fast processor and lots of memory allows it to print the first page within 10 seconds of transmission -- ratings a lot closer to the actual output than Epson's rating.
FREE INK. Printing costs are much lower than for inkjets, in large measure because Xerox promises free black ink for the life of the printer. The company estimates the cost of a black-and-white page at a half-cent, rising to 1.1 cents for a letter with spot color and 6.3 cents for a color Web page.
The base 860B model costs $1,999, but I can't imagine anyone wanting this particular printer without the networking option, which brings the price to $2,399. Additional options include more paper trays, a high-resolution photo mode, and automatic two-sided printing.
The two-sided printing, by the way, is the simplest and least jam-prone I have encountered. The DP model with automatic two-sided printing runs $3,399, while the fully loaded DX version is $4,399. The Phaser 860 features USB and parallel interfaces, plus Ethernet in all but the base model. It supports printing from Windows, Mac, or Unix systems. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online