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.
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.
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.
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.