Giving The Office Printer A Touch Of Color

A new generation of ink-jet printers are ideal for small and midsize businesses

Not long ago, ink-jet printers were regarded as little more than toys. The inexpensive color printers were fine for home use and great for kids' school projects. But they were not taken seriously in the office.

That's changing fast. Not only have people learned that color can add a lot of punch to a business document, but manufacturers are offering printers tailored to the office market. Epson and Hewlett-Packard are leading the way with ink-jet printers that can be plugged right into the Ethernet network common to offices. These machines are ideal for a small to medium-size business or a corporate work group.

BLACK ART. The $549 Epson Stylus 850N is a version of the popular Stylus 850 with an Ethernet connector added to the existing PC and Macintosh ports. This allows the printer to be hooked up to anything from a network run by a big corporate Novell NetWare server or Windows NT LAN to a simple Windows network with no dedicated server.

Epson didn't stop at making the printer network-ready; they went a long way toward making networking simple. Microsoft has always treated the process of adding a printer to a Windows network as a black art. The instructions have been hidden in obscure manuals and, once found, were comprehensible only to network administrators. Epson has demystified the process. The manual and software with the 850N provide step-by-step instructions that make installing it almost as simple as putting a printer on a Mac network.

The $1,199 HP DeskJet 2000CN, as its price would indicate, is aimed at a somewhat higher market segment. The Epson can hold 100 sheets of blank paper, while the HP holds 400. The HP's two paper trays allow loading two different types of paper, such as plain stock and letterhead stationery. The HP is also bigger, heavier, and more solid.

HP has tried to simplify the job of network installation, but while the instructions are reasonably easy to follow, they're not as simple as Epson's. Part of the problem is the software provided for managing printers over a network. HP supplies a copy of its JetAdmin package. This is an excellent tool for managing dozens of printers of different types on a large network, but it's a bit overwhelming. Epson's software is only intended to handle an Epson ink-jet or two, but it's much simpler to use.

Most consumer ink-jet printers use ink cartridges that are much more expensive than they need to be because you have to replace the complete print head, including electronics, every time you run out of ink. Epson long ago separated the ink supply from the longer-lived print head. Now, HP has gone a step further, using four ink tanks instead of two, so you don't have to throw away cyan and yellow ink because you've run out of magenta. HP estimates a set of the cartridges will provide 1,700 color pages and 1,400 black-only pages. Epson's black cartridge is rated for 900 pages, and the three-color tank is good for 300 pages. Your mileage will vary, obviously, but both companies estimate the cost of supplies at 3.2 cents per black-only page. HP color is cheaper: 5.2 cents per page vs. Epson's 8.8 cents.

Although the HP claims to be significantly faster, I found very little difference. Printing 10 copies of a one-page black-only memo took 1 minute, 54 seconds on the Epson and 2:10 on the HP, measured from the time I clicked the "print" button in Microsoft Word until the last page emerged from the printer. A nine-page document mixing text and color graphics took 4 minutes on the HP and 4:07 on the Epson.

The quality comparison was a mixed bag. With plain paper at each printer's standard quality setting, the Epson produced slightly crisper text. Both were acceptable, though neither was as good as a monochrome HP LaserJet 3100. The HP gave sharper and much less grainy graphics.

SOLID CHOICE. Neither of these printers is designed to produce, say, 100 copies of a memo or a flyer for distribution. Jobs like that are better suited for color laser printers, which start at about $3,000. Of course, you can always print out a single copy of a color document and then have it duplicated by a corporate graphics department or an outside copy service. But either is a solid choice to be shared by perhaps a dozen users (or as a secondary printer for a larger group of workers who occasionally need color). The more rugged HP is designed for heavier-duty use, since it holds far more paper and requires fewer ink changes. But if you have Macs on your network, Epson is the only choice, since the HP supports only Windows.

In price, as well as capability, these units fit neatly between personal printers and big corporate workhorses. They are likely to find a place in many offices.

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