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Laser Color Printers getting affordable


Laser Color Printers getting affordable


Laser Color, Now in Reach of Kansas

New York Times

Published: July 1, 2004

AS anyone who has seen "The Wizard of Oz" can probably tell you, the shift from stark black-and-white to a full-color world has a powerful visual and emotional effect, even without addled straw men and angry green women in the picture. Color in documents appeals to the eyes, provides shortcuts and clues for the mind, and just plain gets attention.

Lower-priced color inkjet printers have come a long way from the slow, slightly smeared results they used to produce. But laser printing has been the standard for both speed and quality, particularly in office situations.

The problem with laser printers was that they were too expensive for smaller firms (as in thousands of dollars too expensive) compared with their inkjet cousins.

In recent years, though, prices for color laser printers have dropped significantly. For a sense of what was out there for $1,000 or less, I looked at four color laser printers that have recently become available: the Hewlett-Packard Color LaserJet 2550L, the OKI C5150n, the Samsung CLP-550 and the Xerox Phaser 8400.

All can produce pages with a resolution of at least 600 dots per inch or higher, use letter-size paper and work with most versions of the Windows and Macintosh operating systems. (The Xerox Phaser 8400 technically isn't a laser printer, but more on that later.)

Laser vs. Inkjet

A laser printer uses a laser beam to draw the text and images onto an electrostatic drum that is then coated with toner powder in the charged areas. These toner particles are then applied and fused to the paper as it goes through the printer, producing a warm, toasty printout in seconds.

As its name implies, an inkjet printer, in contrast, squirts tiny jets of ink on the paper to create the text and images. Although the hardware is cheaper, inkjet printers can go through ink cartridges pretty quickly and are generally slower than laser machines.

Color laser toner cartridges, while more expensive, can last for 2,000 pages or more, while inkjet cartridges are usually in the 200- to 300-page range between refills. And a laser printer works quite quickly - most can do a full-color job at a rate of at least four pages per minute, and many are faster.

Time and toner use will vary, of course, with the complexity of the page: a 20-page PowerPoint presentation with large color charts and dark backgrounds will take longer and use more toner than a simpler page that is mostly black text with a few color graphics mixed in.

Setting Up

Prices for black-and-white laser printers have edged below $150, and Hewlett-Packard ( has set a list price of $500 for the full-color HP 2550L. The HP 2550L, the smallest of the color lasers I looked at, came with easy instructions for assembling the printer's innards from parts included in the box. (HP's 2550Ln model gets you built-in Ethernet networking for an extra $100.)

In addition to unwrapping and installing the imaging unit under the HP's gray plastic hood, I had to pull off the protective packaging and insert each of the four toner cartridges (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) in the rotating carousel where they live inside the printer. Proving that color makes things easier, the product designers have color-coded the removable plastic protectors and tabs on the toner cartridges in bright orange, simplifying the set-up.

After installing the driver software from a CD and connecting the printer to my PowerBook with a U.S.B. 2.0 cable, I was ready to print. (HP boasts a speed of up to 4 pages a minute in color, and 20 in black.) The printer also has a parallel connection for computers without U.S.B. ports.

The OKI C5150n (, which sells for $699, has a U.S.B. 2.0 port and comes with a network card installed. OKI is also marketing the C5150n as an all-purpose office printer that can print 12 color pages or 20 monochrome pages a minute.

The model was also easy to set up. The printer, a bit bigger than the HP model, fitted all four cartridges into a single row under the lid.

The Samsung CLP-550 model (www was the most complicated of the printers to set up, with a multilingual manual to walk me through installing the transfer belt, imaging unit and four toner cartridges. In addition to software for Macintosh and Windows systems, Samsung has also included drivers for several versions of the Linux system. The company says the CLP-550 can print 5 color pages or 21 monochrome pages a minute; it goes for about $550 and has U.S.B. 2.0 and parallel port connections. An Ethernet-ready version, the CLP-550N, sells for about $650.

The Xerox Phaser 8400/N ( .com) comes network-ready with a list price of $1,299; the Phaser 8400B is $1,000 but has only U.S.B. 2.0 and parallel port connections. It isn't exactly a laser printer in that it uses solid ink blocks that are melted down within the machine before being shot through 1,236 little nozzles onto a stainless steel print head and applied to the paper. The heated ink quickly returns to its solid state when the paper is printed, and the entire process is so quick that in theory it is possible to print 24 pages per minute.

Loading the solid ink into the Phaser was easy. The ink blocks, about the size of an ice cube, each have unique notches cut into them so they fit in the right slots under the printer's cover. It takes the Phaser about 12 minutes to warm up when you turn it on, and there is the distinct odor of something cooking as it does. (It reminded me of when I left my crayons in the back window of my grandfather's new Chevrolet on a hot July day in the 1970's.)

One note about all these printers: they are big, typically measuring 14 to 18 inches in height, width and depth, as well as heavy - a consideration for those weighing them against inkjet models.

Image Quality

For testing, I created an Adobe PDF file that included solid bars of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, some green type, a map of Spain originally created in Adobe Illustrator and a small color photo of a black rabbit sitting on a red Persian rug.

Without fussing with any settings in the printer software or the printers themselves, I printed my test page from each machine. I used regular 20-pound white copier paper, the most common type in offices. Each printer took 55 seconds or less to produce the page once I clicked the Print button, with the Xerox Phaser 8400 clocking in at a blazing 14 seconds. (All of the printers were tested with a direct U.S.B. 2.0 connection to a PC rather than to a network.)

The Phaser 8400 and the OKI C5150n did the best over all in handling the different elements on the page, showing the slight color variations and shadows in the topographic textures built into the Spain map and the details in both the rabbit and the Persian rug. The Xerox Phaser had slightly bolder reds and yellows over all, but the black in the photo tended to be a little heavy. The OKI had truer blues.

The Samsung CLP-550 was close behind, though. The map image was not as bright and there was not as much contrast in the photo, but the page looked pretty good. The Hewlett-Packard 2550L did not handle the subtle shades of yellow and brown in the Spain map, and whereas Portugal was clearly distinguishable in a darker shade on pages from the other three printers, it tended to blend in with Spain.

The HP's page was a little light compared with the others, but with a bit of software tweaking and nicer paper stock, most printers can produce results more to their owners' liking. The low price and more manageable size of the HP may attract those looking to equip a small office or a home office with a fast color printer.

Color inkjet printers and monochrome laser printers may still be a better fit for many homes. But for people in a small office or weary of trips to the copy shop for color printing, color lasers can be mighty appealing - goodbye, grayscale, and hello, yellow brick road.

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