The Inkjet Comes Into Its Own

New inkjet printers for both business and home use give lasers a run for the money

Faster. Cheaper. More versatile. Photo quality. That pretty much sums up the flood of new inkjet printers for home and business hitting the market this fall. The result is that the inkjet, once a fallback for folks who didn't want to pay for a laser, has come into its own as the printer of choice for many buyers.

The biggest reason is color. If you want to spend $300 to $600 for a printer, you can choose either a laser or an inkjet. But inkjets in that price class, while generally a bit inferior to lasers at printing text, turn out color pages superior to those turned out by color laser printers costing 20 times as much.

One of the biggest raps on inkjets has been their sluggishness. But that's changing. For example, the new DeskJet 870C series printers from Hewlett-Packard (800 752-0900) will spit out up to eight black-and-white pages a minute. Although best-quality printing will cut that in half, the top speed is comparable to lasers in this price class. Color output runs from one to four pages per minute, depending on quality. The 870C, available for under $500, does some other tricks. It will work with both Windows and Macintosh machines. And unlike most printers in its class, it can readily be shared on a network, making it especially attractive for business use.

Archrival Canon Computer Systems (800 848-4123) is countering HP's speed with size. Its new BJC-4550, priced about the same as the HP 870, prints only five black-and-white pages a minute, but it can print on paper as big as 11 inches by 17 inches. This allows you to print two standard pages side-by-side, large spreadsheets, or small posters. The 4550 is also Canon's first printer to support both Mac and Windows.

There's big news at the low end of the inkjet market, too. The new DeskJet 400 is HP's cheapest printer ever, retailing for just under $200. Printers at this price level differ from their more expensive brethren in two important respects. They're much slower, with the 400 mustering a top speed of three pages per minute. More important, the cheapest models produce color differently.

More expensive printers use four inks--blue, red, yellow, and black. Black ink produces much crisper text and richer colors. Low-end printers just combine primary colors to make an inferior sort of black. You can swap the color ink cartridge for black and get better text and greater economy, but it's a bit of a nuisance. And if you want to put color into a report, you'll have to settle for murky black text. Unless your budget is really tight, you'll probably be happier with a four-color model.

AMAZING. Canon's entry-level printer does some tricks of its own. The $179 BJC-240 offers a choice of regular, photographic, or "neon" inks. The photographic inks are optimized for printing color photos from digital cameras, scanned images, disks, or downloads. The neon inks print in screaming Day-Glo colors.

Printers designed for photo reproduction are a hot market. The $289 Stylus Color 500 from Epson America (800 463-7766) does beautiful photographic output, especially when using premium coated or glossy paper. The four-color printer works with both Windows and Macs, which is unusual in this price range. And watch for HP to offer a photo printer this fall.

Today's inkjets are amazing devices at amazing prices, but I have one gripe with the lot of them. A feature war among manufacturers has caused the software that runs the printers to become mind-numbingly complicated. Do you really need a printer that uses your computer's sound card to tell you that it's out of paper? I don't. Although these printers gave me no particular problem, others have, thanks to conflicts with other software. A bit of simplification could make some very good products even better.

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