The Digital Copier Comes Of Age

For a little more money, far more clarity and convenience

If office equipment had a Hall of Dinosaurs, it would house such items as the ink blotter, adding machine, and thermal fax. Our next likely nominee for induction--the photocopier. Its days are numbered because a new and better breed is emerging--the digital copier--at prices that small businesses can afford.

Digital copiers rely on a mix of scanning and printing technologies to duplicate originals, instead of the lens-and-mirror "picture-taking" process. The result: better copy quality. "The image quality is excellent, especially for anything that's not just plain text," says Andy Slawetsky at Industry Analysts Inc., an office products consulting firm in Rochester, N.Y. With photos, the difference is "like night and day," says Carolyn Gunton-Lewis, owner of Century 21 Lake Region Realty. Each month, her five-person office in Elysian, Minn., uses her digital copier to produce 1,500 six-page brochures filled with pictures of available properties that she mails to prospective buyers.

Sure, digital copiers aren't cheap--prices start at around $5,000, compared with $4,200 for the old-style machines--but they're more versatile. For example, you can copy two sides of a document (like a check) onto one page without refeeding the copied sheet through the machine, something most analog copiers can't do. Want to reduce or enlarge the size? Most digital copiers can produce crisp copies ranging from 25% to 400% of the original size, vs. the typical 50% to 200% range for analog machines.

What's more, many digital copiers can serve as printers. That's great for productivity. Instead of making serial trips to the printer, the copier, and then the stapler, you can produce 20 stapled copies of an eight-page, two-sided document without ever leaving your desk--except to pick up the finished job. Then there's the efficiency of the fax option, which runs about $1,000 extra. Digital copiers can send a two-sided document directly, without having to first create a one-sided version--and can print incoming faxes on two sides. They also smoothly handle 11 x 17 documents.

Supply costs are reasonable, too. Total expenses for running a digital copier are comparable to those for analog, and you can even save money if you use the copier as a printer or fax machine. With any small-office copier, expect to pay 1.5 cents to 2 cents a page after figuring in toner, developer, and the drum used to produce the sheet. In contrast, a fax or printer costs from 3 cents to 7 cents a page, an expense that gives digital copiers an advantage that adds up over time. A company that prints just 100 pages a day can save up to $1,430 a year.

Thinking about getting a digital copier? Nearly every manufacturer is developing a digital lineup to complement their current line of analog copiers. To help narrow your task, we zeroed in on 17 models that run off 20 to 30 copies a minute and are designed for companies that copy or print up to 25,000 pages per month. This list quickly shrank to a final set of seven models after we screened out versions of the exact same machines sold under different brand names and models that are likely to be discontinued soon.

We then evaluated the group based on two scenarios--for an office that needs a sophisticated stand-alone model mainly for copying and for an office where a versatile machine is needed to do both copying and printing.

Since our stand-alone copier would be a workhorse, we wanted it to have a document feeder for automatic copying; duplexing, which is the ability to make two-sided copies; a feature called scan once/print many, which allows users to return to their desks with their originals as soon as the pages have been scanned into memory; and electronic sorting, which allows dozens of collated sets to be made at a time. Of course, there would be walk-up traffic from people who just wanted to whip off one copy, so we factored in how long it took each machine to make its first copy.

ENDLESS WAITS. Any of these machines will make decent copies, so budget-conscious buyers might opt for the least expensive models, from Canon and Ricoh (table). But for stand-alone copying, the Document Centre Xerox 230DC stood out. This 30-copy-a-minute model ($10,500 for the basic configuration, $12,800 with duplexing) comes with an automatic feeder that can accept two-sided originals for copying and a generous 10 megabytes of memory, equal to about 50 pages, which should be more than enough to support the scan once/print many feature. As for walk-up users, the first copy popped out in a respectable 4.7 seconds, compared with an average of 7.7 for the group. ("When it takes eight to nine seconds," Slawetsky notes, "it can really seem like you're waiting forever.")

In our second scenario, we considered only models that currently support printing (Xerox Corp. isn't expecting to offer that feature until early next year). Once again, we sought copiers that handle duplexing, sorting, and finishing. But speedy document feeding and fast first copy were deemed less important, since we assumed more of the output would come from the desktop.

On that basis, it's hard to beat the $6,980 Ricoh Aficio 250. (We passed over the Aficio 200, despite its bargain price of $4,980, because it dropped below 20 copies a minute with a document feeder installed.) The Aficio 250 produces 25 copies a minute and has duplexing and sorting built in--two features that can cost thousands on other copiers. It also offers three standard paper sources, which can be very useful if you regularly print on letterhead in addition to plain paper and 11 x 17 sheets. For $1,299 more, the copier can be hooked up to networks for printing.

Unfortunately, the Aficio 250 doesn't directly support PostScript, a computer language used in Mac systems and offices that deal heavily in graphics. If that's you, your best choice is the Canon GP30F, a 30-copy-a-minute model that offers more extensive network support. But brace yourself: While both machines start at around $7,000, it costs an additional $3,870 to equip the Canon with document memory and sorting.

What's not to like about digital copiers? Well, obviously, there's the price. Expect to pay up to 20% more for a basic digital copier. The good news is that as more models arrive and manufacturers slug it out, prices are expected to fall. Meanwhile, you may want to lease one, but pay attention to the fine print. "I've seen more games played in the copier business than I ever saw in the car industry," warns Warren Erickson, a manager at Metro Sales, a Minneapolis office-equipment dealer.

Another drawback: Since these machines are relatively new, not all dealers do the job right. Hooking up a copier to a network requires computer knowhow, so be sure your dealer has installed at least one copier on a similar network.

Finally, remember to sign up for the gym. Since you won't be running from computer to copier to printer anymore, you'll no doubt need more exercise.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.