What to Look For in Your Next Color Laser Printer

If you're looking to outfit your business with a new printer, now is a great time to buy a color laser. Whether you're a single user who prints newsletters at home or you're buying for a corporate marketing department that designs collateral materials, you're in a buyer's market. Color laser printers are becoming progressively faster, smaller, and cheaper to operate than ever before, and with prices starting at $300, they're affordable for all budgets.

The lowest-end (sub-$500) color laser printers, while incredibly affordable, are typically slow and have limited paper capacity--and they aren't cheap to operate, due to the relatively high cost of consumables. Printers in the $500-to-$1000 range are faster, handle more paper and different paper sizes, and cost less to maintain than inexpensive models. If you're prepared to pay over $1000, the sky's the limit: You'll find printers with workhorse print speeds, large-capacity paper trays, lower costs per page, and sophisticated paper options. Here are a few key features to consider when looking for a color laser that will work best for your business.

The Need for Speed

Before you buy any printer, you'll need to figure out how many pages your office prints per month. Then you'll need to look at the specified engine speed and monthly duty cycle of the printer you're considering, to see whether your usage pattern fits within the printer's capabilities.

The printer's engine speed, expressed as a page-per-minute (ppm) specification, tells you how fast the printer is under ideal conditions (or, in some cases, the rather unnatural conditions achieved in a vendor's test environment). In our tests for our Top 10 Color Laser Printers chart, most printers do no better than 75 percent of their top engine speed. The cheapest color laser printers, not surprisingly, are usually far pokier than their makers claim them to be. Nevertheless, engine speed is a decent guideline for figuring out whether the printer can handle your office's output on a day-to-day basis. The more people who use the printer, and the more they print, the higher that engine speed should be--unless you like hanging around the printer with your coworkers, waiting to see whose print job comes out first.

The same goes for the printer's specified duty cycle, which defines the manufacturer's threshold for the maximum number of pages printed per month. You want a lot of room between your usual print volume and that maximum. Light-duty, entry-level printers typically have a duty cycle of 30,000 pages per month. Sub-$1000, midrange printers have an average duty cycle of 60,000 pages per month; high-volume, $1000-to-$2000 printers average 100,000 pages per month.

The Resolution Game

Do you need to worry about a printer's optical resolution--the number of dots per inch it can print? Probably not. Even the least expensive color laser printers have a true, optical resolution of 600 by 600 dpi, which is suitable for most mainstream business needs. Many vendors apply enhancement algorithms to emulate higher resolutions, and some offer true 1200-by-1200-dpi resolution. But don't worry about the higher resolution unless you need a truly fine level of print quality. Just be prepared to wait longer for your print to come out.

An equally important factor in your buying decision should be the cost per page to operate the printer. All printer consumables come with a page-life specification that tells you how many pages the unit will print, based on a sample set of printed pages. Your mileage will vary, depending on what you actually print.

The lowest-end color lasers have smaller toner cartridges that usually last just a few thousand pages. They cost a lot to replace, but if you use color sparingly, then you won't be swapping out the cartridge often. If you print a lot of color, you need a machine whose toner cartridges have longer page lives; they cost less per page and, of course, don't have to be replaced as frequently.

In most color laser printers (especially at the lower end), the toner cartridges include the toner, the imaging component, and the toner waste receptacle in a self-contained unit. Though this design is easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis, it's generally more expensive in the long run, because you have to replace all of those parts at once. Some printers, mostly at the higher end, separate the components and give them different page lives. Installing replacements in this kind of setup requires more skill and finesse, but models of this design cost less to operate over time.

Be aware that even some high-end printers ship with low-capacity, "starter" toner cartridges. These cartridges typically have a yield of less than half that of replacement cartridges. You could save some money up front by finding a vendor that offers to bundle additional toner cartridges at a discounted price when you buy the printer.

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