Color Lasers Get Affordable
- See our features comparison chart: "Color Laser Printing at Home-Office Prices"
You could have purchased a new car for what a color laser printer used to fetch. A bargain model was seldom seen--and when such a rarity did come along, it tended to turn in lackluster print speeds. As recently as May 2004, all but one unit in our Top 10 cost at least $1600. This month, however, we tested only low-priced models, and all the printers that made our chart cost $699 or less. Our Best Buy is just $449--less than even some inkjet photo printers.
Most of the color laser printers we tested this month delivered impressive speeds for a bargain price. You don't have to skimp on features, either: All but one come with built-in networking, and all print on glossy paper--a capability previously unavailable on low-cost models. Glossy paper has a sheen like that on prints from a photo lab. Though the glossy-paper prints from these printers won't please ardent photographers, the quality from some units is certainly good enough for business brochures. As for more mundane office work, the text quality of these color lasers was on a par with that of monochrome lasers. However, the standard paper capacities of these models tend to be low.
The cost of operating a color laser printer could dwarf what you spend on it initially. For example, a set of toner cartridges for the $500 Brother HL-2700CN costs $665. Cartridges for the $599 Oki Data C5200n cost $490, though imaging drums aren't built into them; replacing these separate items will cost another $365. See our features comparison chart which lists each vendor's estimated costs per page. For further discussion of toner and drum costs, see "Pennies per Page Soon Turns Into Dollars."
In This Article:
- Dell 3000cn
- Oki Data C5200n
- Konica Minolta MagiColor 2430DL
- Brother HL-2700CN
- Lexmark C522n
- HP Color LaserJet 3600n
- Xerox Phaser 6120n
- Konica Minolta MagiColor 2450
- HP Color LaserJet 2600n
- HP Color LaserJet 2550L
- Pennies per Page Soon Turns Into Dollars
- Color Laser Printing at Home-Office Prices (chart)
The $449 Dell 3000cn earned our Best Buy in part because this very low-priced model delivered high print quality, printed quickly, and earned our top design score.
The 3000cn printed text that looked crisp and was neither overly heavy nor too light. Even small fonts were easy to read. Line art looked almost perfect, and our grayscale test photograph displayed both sharp details and smooth tonal transitions.
Colors in graphics looked accurate, though a little light. Like all the other models we tested, the 3000cn didn't blow us away with the quality of its glossy photos, although its textures did look quite smooth compared with output from the other printers.
Text printed at an extremely speedy 17.9 pages per minute in our tests; only the Brother HL-2700CN was faster. At 3.4 ppm, the 3000cn's color graphics printing was slightly faster than the 3.0-ppm average.
The standard paper tray holds only 150 sheets. However, boosting input capacity is affordable: An extra 250-sheet drawer costs $180, and a 500-sheet drawer is a good deal at $230. The optional duplexer sells for a reasonable $300. The 3000cn supports PCL (Printer Control Language) emulation, though not PostScript. At about 17 by 17 inches, it takes up little desktop space.
The 3000cn should be economical to run. The estimated cost of 1.5 cents per monochrome page is the least expensive among the printers on our chart. Though the starter cartridges are rated to last only 2000 pages for black and 1000 pages for color, Dell sells a 4000-page black toner cartridge for $45; each 2000-page color cartridge costs $65.
Installing the 3000cn on our network at the PC World Test Center was straightforward. The backlit LCD and intuitive menus made setup simple.
Oki Data C5200n
The best attributes of the $599 Oki Data C5200n are its text quality and its graphics printing speeds. The C5200n printed solid, crisp text, even producing closely spaced bold letters without bleeding together the edges, which is a common problem. On plain paper our color graphics had a rich, waxy appearance that exhibited some graininess but acceptable shadow detail.
The C5200n depends on a Windows GDI-based driver to push the page rendering workload onto your PC; models that support PCL or PostScript use their own memory and processor for this task.
In our speed tests the C5200n printed text at 12.8 pages per minute, just above average, and spat out color graphics at a rapid 5.2 ppm. Only the HP 3600n printed graphics faster.
The C5200n offers impressive paper handling. For starters, the main paper drawer has a generous 300-sheet capacity, and the multipurpose tray holds 100 additional sheets or 10 envelopes. The 100-sheet output tray also allows a straight path for envelopes and thick media. The optional duplexer is reasonably priced at $320, but Oki Data suggests that you also add 64MB of RAM, which costs $168. A 530-sheet drawer is pricey at $456.
The C5200n isn't especially big, but its 22.1-inch-deep case gives it a large footprint. The top lifts to expose the entire paper path, making replacement of the toner cartridges a cinch. The printer ships with 1500-page starter cartridges; standard replacement cartridges are rated to print 3000 pages. However, buying the high-capacity 5000-page cartridges could help control printing costs: Estimated costs per page are 2.1 cents for black and 11.1 cents for color.
Konica Minolta MagiColor 2430DL
The $500 Konica Minolta MagiColor 2430DL performed at roughly average speeds, and has a low estimated cost per color page. It produced text pages at 13.0 ppm and color graphics at 2.7 ppm, which was substantially slower than the speeds of the less expensive Dell 3000cn.
Text looked crisp, if a little heavy. Line art also appeared heavy, causing close parallel lines to merge. Color graphics printed with good detail, though an orange cast made people look like they had been to a tanning salon.
The sole paper tray holds up to 200 sheets of plain paper, which isn't much for office use, but you can supplement that with a 500-sheet drawer for $299 and a duplexer for $399.
The 2430DL comes with cartridges rated for just 1500 pages each. Using higher-capacity, 4500-page toner cartridges gives the unit a very low estimated cost per color page of 11.0 cents.
In addition, the 2430DL includes an unusual feature for a color laser printer: a port on its front panel for printing photos from PictBridge-compatible digital cameras. However, the standard configuration, which we tested, prints only in draft mode; you have to install an additional 256MB of RAM ($149) to enable printing at 2400-by-600-dpi resolution. Photos looked yellowish and somewhat grainy.
The Brother HL-2700CN earned our highest overall score for output performance, and the model is reasonably priced at $500. Text printing was remarkably quick, at 18.7 ppm--the fastest speed on the chart--and color graphics printed at a respectable 3.1 ppm.
The built-in Web interface is convenient for managing the printer, but Brother also includes administration software. Larger companies can use their existing SNMP applications.
Text quality wasn't tops, however, as letters looked slightly fuzzy and had lots of jagged edges. Color graphics were too dark.
Paper handling is simple, making this model best suited for groups with simple printing needs. The HL-2700CN has a 250-sheet paper drawer, with no bypass tray. To print on legal-size paper, you'll need to buy a $150 tray for the main drawer. An additional 500-sheet drawer costs a whopping $550--and this drawer doesn't accept legal-size paper.
The Lexmark C522n gives small offices ample features for a budget price of $499. It supports both PCL and PostScript. The vertical paper path, with stacked toner cartridges that are easily accessed from a fold-down front door, gives the printer a small footprint.
The main paper drawer holds up to 250 sheets of plain paper, up to legal size. A slot on the front allows you to feed different media a single sheet at a time. For $299, you can add a 500-sheet paper drawer. You can't add a duplexer, however.
This laser printer provides good performance for the price. In our tests the C522n printed text at an above-average 14.3 ppm and color graphics at a healthy 3.8 ppm.
Text quality was good overall, though some letters looked shaved off at the top. Fine italics appeared spotty, but bold characters were distinct. Color graphics printed too light and grainy, but had good shadow detail. Glossy photos showed the same washed-out look and a dithering pattern.
At the time of this writing, Lexmark hadn't set the price for the C522n's replacement toner cartridges. Lexmark ships the printer with 1500-page starter cartridges.
HP Color LaserJet 3600n
The HP Color LaserJet 3600n printed color graphics faster than any other model and earned high marks for its paper handing. The 3600n has a vertical one-pass engine, which keeps its footprint small. The front of the machine folds down to expose the toner cartridges.
The main paper drawer holds up to 250 sheets of paper. Folding down the multipurpose tray at the front lets you stack another 100 sheets. For heavy-duty printing you can attach an optional 500-sheet bin for a reasonable $300. HP doesn't offer a duplexer for the 3600n; to get that feature you could buy the 3600dn instead.
While text pages in our tests printed at an about-average 13.0 ppm, color graphics arrived at a remarkably speedy 5.6 ppm.
The 3600n's crisp text would have been more readable if it had printed slightly heavier. Large fonts appeared blotchy. Despite accurate hues, our color graphics came out too dark, with unnatural-looking shadow areas. The same images also looked too dark when printed on glossy photo paper, and objects had fuzzy, colored fringes.
The estimated cost per color page is low--11.5 cents. Better yet, HP ships the printer with full-size cartridges that are rated to print 6000 black pages and 4000 color pages--a $501 value.
Xerox Phaser 6120n
The Xerox Phaser 6120n is priced low at $499, and delivers better graphics quality than the very similar Konica Minolta MagiColor 2450, which costs $200 more. Like the 2450, the 6120n supports PCL and PostScript. The two models' speeds were nearly identical.
In our tests the 6120n printed text quickly at 14.7 ppm. However, its color graphics speed was a disappointing 1.6 ppm.
Print quality was also a mixed bag. Text was very heavy, with blotchy edges. Color graphics displayed appealing contrast and accurate color, though they were marred by some fine banding. On glossy paper photos appeared somewhat grainy and hazy; however, they remained fairly attractive overall.
The 6120n has a 200-sheet paper tray; you can add a second 500-sheet tray for $299, though it handles only letter-size paper--you have to load envelopes and legal-size paper in the main tray. An optional duplexer will cost you $399.
Xerox rates the life of the 6120n's imaging drum more conservatively than Konica Minolta does for that of the 2450, which contributes to a higher estimated cost per page, for the 6120n, of 2.5 cents for black and 12.7 cents for color.
Installation was quick and easy, thanks in part to Xerox's thorough documentation. The control panel has a two-line LCD for setting networking and paper-handling options.
Konica Minolta MagiColor 2450
This $699 Konica Minolta MagiColor 2450 printer offers little to justify the extra cost over the almost identical-looking Konica Minolta MagiColor 2430DL and similar Xerox Phaser 6120n, both of which cost about $200 less.
On glossy paper our photos abounded with dithering patterns, and skin tones turned orange. On plain paper the same image looked grainy, with banding and horrific facial colors.
Text printing was heavy and fuzzy. Lines didn't look solid in our line art print. Only the grayscale print impressed us, as its overall lightness allowed for smooth gradients and good shadow detail in the image.
The printer doesn't have a manual bypass slot--you can feed envelopes only from the main tray. You can add a 40GB hard disk for $349; with it, you can store and print PDFs and password-protected documents.
Using the same high-capacity toner cartridges and imaging drum as the 2430DL, the 2450 offers estimated costs of 2.2 cents for black pages and 11.0 cents for color pages.
Like the 2430DL, the 2450 has a front USB port, though it doesn't do anything--yet. Konica Minolta says it will soon release a free firmware upgrade that will enable printing from PictBridge-compatible digital cameras.
HP Color LaserJet 2600n
The $399 HP Color LaserJet 2600n is easy to maintain and is best suited for a small workgroup with modest demands. Lightweight at only 40.5 pounds, the printer is also compact and should squeeze into the most cramped of workspaces.
The 2600n's paper drawer holds up to 250 sheets of plain paper. For $149 you can add a second 250-sheet tray, which might be handy for printing your letterhead, but hardly turns this unit into a high-capacity workhorse. No optional duplexer is available; however, the 2600dn includes this feature.
The 2600n printed some of the sharpest-looking text we saw, albeit slowly, at 6.8 ppm. On plain paper color images looked grainy with lots of banding. Colors were oversaturated, and skin tones had an unnatural orange tint. Glossy photos looked slightly greenish, a little grainy, and had faint banding.
The four toner cartridges are the only replaceable parts, and they slide easily into individual slots behind the fold-down front door of the printer. The 2600n comes with full-capacity cartridges, though their rated capacities are modest: just 2500 pages for the black cartridge, and 2000 pages for the color cartridges. The 2600n has the highest estimated costs per page of any printer in our tested group: 2.9 cents per monochrome page and 14.9 cents per color page.
HP Color LaserJet 2550L
The HP Color LaserJet 2550L is so compact, you can hardly believe it's a color laser printer. The clever carousel design squeezes everything into a surprisingly small space.
At $499, this unit looks like a bargain. However, the printer sacrifices some common amenities, such as built-in networking; also, it has only USB and parallel ports.
The 2550L's simple fold-out paper tray holds just 125 sheets, as does the output bin. You can easily boost the capacity by adding a proper 250-sheet drawer, reasonably priced at $150. Alternatively, you can add a 500-sheet drawer for $300, upping paper capacity to 875 sheets.
However, if you plan to do high-volume printing, you likely will want a faster printer. In our tests the 2550L printed text at a leisurely 8.6 ppm and generated color pages at a miserable 1.1 ppm, the slowest of the batch.
Text quality was uninspiring. Most characters looked too heavy and larger letters appeared blotchy. Color images seemed a bit dark overall, but sharp.
Considering its slow speeds and subpar print quality, the only reason to buy the 2550L over the less expensive and network-ready 2600n is lower cost per page.
Pennies per Page Soon Turns Into Dollars
Though you can buy a color laser printer for a small sum these days, supplies can be a significant expense. Even if your printing volume is low, you will likely spend, eventually, a great deal more money on supplies than you did for the printer.
Among our tested printers, ongoing costs for printing text pages contrast sharply. Printing ten reams (500 sheets each) of text pages with the Dell 3000cn will use up an estimated $75 worth of consumables, or 1.5 cents per page. The black toner cartridge for the HP 2600n is inexpensive, but its per-page costs are much higher: At 2.9 cents per text page, printing on ten reams of paper will use up $145 worth of toner. HP's black toner cartridge yields an estimated 2500 pages and costs $75, while the Dell cartridge runs $45 and is rated to last 4000 pages.
Estimated costs to print 5000 color pages vary even more dramatically. At 11.0 cents per page, the costs of consumables add up to $550 for the Konica Minolta MagiColor 2430DL. At 14.9 cents per page, costs for the HP Color LaserJet 2600n total $745. The photo at the top left shows each printer's toner cartridges.
The Prices of Parts
The costs per page listed in our chart are the vendors' estimates, which are based on printing a black-and-white document with 5 percent coverage of black toner, and on printing color pages with 5 percent coverage of each toner, or 20 percent total.
The number of replaceable parts, and their prices, varies. With the HP Color LaserJet 2600n, for example, you have to replace only the toner cartridges. The Oki Data C5200n, on the other hand, has ten items that need to be swapped: four toner cartridges, four drums, a fuser unit, and a transfer belt. Fortunately, you'll rarely have to swap some of these items; the transfer belt, for instance, lasts an estimated 50,000 pages.
Watch for unreasonably high prices. The C5200n's fuser costs $140, and is rated to last 45,000 pages. The same part for the Brother HL-2700CN is rated to last 60,000 pages--but your accountant is sure to raise a red flag when the bill for $550 arrives.