What to Look For in Your Next Color Laser Printer

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Paper Traffic

Another significant difference among color laser printers is how they handle paper--how much, and of what size. The main paper tray on the vast majority of inexpensive (sub-$500) printers tops out at 250 sheets. Often you don't get an option to add an extra paper tray. Another potential drawback is that such printers usually can't handle anything larger than legal-size paper--and in a few cases, the only way to print legal-size documents on such models at all is through the manual-feed tray. In fact, lately we've seen a few lower-end printers that skip legal-size paper entirely in their standard configurations.

As you go up the price scale, you'll find paper-tray capacities of up to 600 sheets for midrange printers and nearly 1200 sheets for higher-end units. Paper trays on these models almost always accept both letter- and legal-size paper. Wide-format printers will take tabloid-size paper, which could be handy if you want to print booklets or other, more-sophisticated documents in-house.

If you print on photo paper, transparencies, CD/DVD sleeves, or envelopes, you'll need to assess the printer's ability to handle those media. Often you'll need to use the manual-feed tray for that kind of printing. We've encountered the good, the bad, and the ugly in manual-feed tray designs. During a recent evaluation of the HP Color LaserJet CP1518ni, we couldn't induce a paper jam no matter what we tried. We crumpled and folded and spindled, but each page sailed straight through the printer without a hitch. On the other hand, the Oki C8800n, another model we tested recently, had an incredibly complicated and unintuitive manual-feed tray design that the documentation didn't even fully explain. A poor design such as that of the Oki also increases the possibility of users breaking several of the parts.

Reliable Color

All color lasers self-regulate for color consistency by performing regular calibration routines. The process helps to ensure that the twenty-fifth copy of your brochure will look basically the same as the first. High-end printers recalibrate after 40 or 50 copies; less-robust printers do it after printing several hundred copies. If your printer will be for an in-house graphic design or publications department, however, or if you have to make a sample for an outside printing service, you should look into the availability of color-matching utilities. You will know if you need these more-sophisticated tools--your users will ask for them.

Another contributor to color quality is the toner you use. Every printer vendor recommends sticking with its brand-name consumables to maximize print quality and fidelity. The third-party replacements you see at office superstores sure are cheap, though. What's the trade-off?

In April 2006, HP commissioned a Reliability Comparison Study from QualityLogic. The study compared HP's color toner cartridges with remanufactured color toner cartridges from twelve third-party vendors, including Office Depot and OfficeMax. Of the remanufactured cartridges, 80 percent showed reliability problems, versus 2 percent of the HP cartridges tested. All of the remanufactured cartridges also showed "noticeable color differences" and less color consistency compared with HP color. Recent PC World tests confirmed that prints made with manufacturers' ink looked better than those created with third-party ink.

In short, you'll have to decide whether color variation tolerance or low cost of ownership is worth more to you. If you choose remanufactured cartridges, keep in mind that many third-party vendors offer an exchange rather than a refund if you are dissatisfied with their product.

Next Steps

Once you've decided on a printer, study the buying process to make sure you're covered if something goes wrong. You should also confirm the return policy at the store where you're making the purchase, to ensure that you can bring the printer back if it doesn't meet your needs. If you purchase the printer from an online vendor, make certain ahead of time that you won't get stuck paying a restocking fee. Also, don't expect to be able to recoup the cost of shipping the printer back.

The color laser printer market continues to offer more, better, and even greener products. According to a recent IDC report, color lasers at the highest end will reach 45 ppm by next year, though 20 to 30 ppm remains the sweet spot for print speeds until at least then. Continued competition in the consumables market will help keep operating costs in line--if you're willing to forgo brand-name toner. Eco-friendly choices include recycled laser paper and toner cartridges, two-sided printing options, and lower power-consumption levels. The upshot is, whatever your need might be--speed, versatility, or a lower cost to operate--it's a great time to buy.

Susan Silvius is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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