High time for high-resolution – 10 600 dpi laser printers are evaluated – includes related summary article – Hardware Review – Evaluation
Stephen W. Plain
SO YOU THOUGHT YOUR 300 DPI LASER PRINTER WAS the ultimate choice for getting high-quality output on your desktop? Then you haven’t looked at the output from 600 dpi laser printers.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
These printers have been around for a while, but never in such force and never at such low prices. For a street price as low as $650, you can get 600 dpi (or 600 dpi–class) resolution, and that translates into dramatic improvements in such graphic images as scanned photographs, as well as line art and, in particular, small-point text.
Here’s why. Doubling the resolution from 300 by 300 dpi to 600 by 600 dpi more than doubles the quality. The increase in both the horizontal and vertical resolutions produces a roughly fourfold improvement in sharpness, since each dot on the page is replaced by four. There are nine printers in this review that take this approach. But the Okidata OL410e–the least expensive unit we saw–helps keep costs down by using a 1,200 dpi vertical resolution to provide 600 dpi-like images, rather than implementing a true 600 dpi print engine.
Qualitative improvements aren’t limited to a 600 dpi resolution, however. All but the Canon LBP-860 and TI microLaser Pro 600 PS23 provide resolution enhancement technologies that smooth text. But such techniques are generally most beneficial at 300 dpi, simply because there’s more room for improvement. You’ll also find that some of these printers–the IBM LaserPrinter 4039 12R plus and the pair from HP, for example–offer 100 shades or more of gray, so scanned photos reproduce superbly.
The Contenders For this review, we asked manufacturers to send us their 600 dpi-class printers that sell for under $2,000 on the street. All of the printers support versions of PCL (Printer Control Language)–usually PCL5 or PCL5e. This language tells LaserJet-compatible printers where to place text and graphics on the paper or whether to print text as italic or bold, for example. We allowed companies to include any options, such as the Post-Script language for specifying how documents look, as long as the price of the configuration remained in the same range. The products we chose support 600 dpi-class output in either PCL or Post-Script modes, or both.
And this is just the start of a flood of affordable, if not downright cheap, 600 dpi units. As we went to press, for example, Lexmark (whose 600 dpi Win-Writer 600 received our Best Buy award in “Laser Printers Do Windows”; May, page 80) began shipping its $899 5-ppm ValueWriter 600. In addition, Digital Equipment Corp.’s $1,599, 8-ppm DEClaser 5100 and LaserMaster’s 1000 dpi, $1,095 WinPrinter 1000 were on store shelves.
We tested our review printers for both speed and the quality of their output at 600 dpi; for the printers that did not support 600 dpi using PCL, we stepped down to 300 dpi. Our tests included printing such things as word processing documents that were rich in TrueType fonts and scanned photographs that stressed the printers’ abilities to produce high-quality grayscale images.
Memory and More Since 600 dpi printers handle four times as many dots as 300 dpi models, and therefore require more memory to store the data for a page (particularly for a complicated graphic or heavily formatted text page), printers sometimes come equipped with more than a basic 1MB or 2MB. Usually, that’s most appropriate if PostScript is included (not surprisingly, the reviewed printers that shipped with 6MB or 7MB did come with PostScript). Memory technology that lets you produce complex graphics with even a mere 2MB of RAM is a technique that manufacturers such as Canon, Brother, Genicom, and HP have implemented on their models (with varying success). If you run into problems, remember that any file that is too big to make it out at 600 dpi will probably be printable if you drop back to 300 dpi–and faster, too.
Most of these printers provide flexible paper handling and control panel features that make them easy to use. Combined with high-resolution output and tempting price tages, these desktop lasers are the cream of the crop.
Apple LaserWriter Select 360
WIN / DOS / MAC
With parallel, serial, and LocalTalk interfaces standard, the Apple LaserWriter Select 360 conveniently hooks up to multiple computers for a reasonable price–about $1,450 on the street. This 10-ppm printer produces great PostScript level 2 output, but since it does not provide PCL5e emulation, you’re limited to 300 dpi in that mode. Although text and graphics are quite attractive at 300 dpi, they can’t compare to the printer’s crisp 600 dpi PostScript output.
The Select 360 comes with a 250-page input tray, as well as a 50-sheet, flip-down multipurpose tray that is useful for envelopes and letterhead. It’s as smart looking as other Apple printers and, like them, lacks a control panel. That’s fine if you don’t mind using a software utility for all your settings.
The printer zipped through PostScript text documents, though it lagged behind in PCL text tests and had somewhat disappointing speeds in outputting PostScript graphics. But overall, if you print more PostScript documents than anything else, you’ll be pleased.
Brother HL-10h Genicom 7610
Rating: * 1/2
WIN / DOS
The Brother HL-10h and the Genicom 7610 are essentially the same 10-ppm printer; the main differences lie in their list prices ($1,695 versus $1,599, respectively) and some options. Those differences narrow even further–on the street both products sell for about $1,300. Despite sharing some nice aesthetic features, both units also suffer from software driver problems.
The PCL5e emulation seems to work at 300 dpi, though not always with the best results. But move up to 600 dpi in PCL mode, and we often wound up with overrun errors that kept us from printing some graphic images whole. The printers also host a Brother-designed, PostScript-compatible interpreter, called BR-Script. Neither printer shipped with a PostScript driver in the box, however. We tried a 300 dpi Apple Laser-Writer II NTX driver, a standard PostScript implementation, and both printers failed to work properly with it on our graphics tests. To correct this, the companies directed us to drivers downloadable from bulletin boards. We were able to print out PostScript graphics with these, but the 300 dpi output was unimpressive and at 600 dpi images weren’t any better than those we got at 300 dpi.
The units handled 600 dpi PCL text and graphics files at a good clip, but PostScript text files meandered out.
The printers have a smartly designed exterior. The control panels can be tilted so that the single-line LCD display is visible at different heights. The entire top of the printers open backward to the extreme, giving you access to clear paper jams and replace the toner cartridge. Both printers ship with one PCMCIA slot (but neither company directly sells options for it) and one slot for font cartridges.
With the unpredictable 600 dpi behavior and PostScript problems we had, these two printers are hard to recommend.
Rating: *** 1/2
WIN / DOS
The Canon LBP-860 has all the bases covered: It offers high-quality construction, an excellent control panel, generous paper handling, fast performance, and some of the best output we saw.
You can pick up this 8-ppm model for about $1,300 (street), which includes 2MB of RAM, parallel and serial interfaces, PCL5e for true 600 dpi output, and a robust design that is suitable for intensive printing tasks. You can further equip it with the Adobe PostScript level 2 option that just began shipping as we went to press.
Like the HP LaserJet 4Plus, the LBP-860 takes up a bit of real estate, but it’s space well spent. A flip-up panel reveals the easily removable toner cartridge, and the 250-page input tray sports a mechanical gauge indicating how much paper is left. Flip down the multipurpose input tray for quick access to additional stock, such as envelopes. A bright green LED control panel readout delivers useful descriptive messages, such as the name of the program a job is being printed from.
The output was great all around, though the two HPs had a slight edge in producing smooth grayscale gradations. A test photographic image was nearly flawless, at precisely the right brightness and contrast using default settings. The Canon LBP-860 won’t let you down.
Epson ActionLaser 1600
Rating: ** 1/2
WIN / DOS
The 6-ppm Epson ActionLaser 1600 is one of only two printers in this review selling for under $1,000. But low price doesn’t mean low end. The ActionLaser 1600 provides very good performance among 6- and 8-ppm printers. Output is attractive, though the printer’s paper handling is limited. PCL5e comes standard, and another $329 will get you a proprietary PostScript level 2 emulation.
The printer’s short and deep design resembles a personal copier. You load paper by lifting a cover in front and sliding the stock down into the slanted multipurpose tray. Though the tray takes up most of the unit’s front, it handles only 150 sheets; an optional second tray takes only 250 more. In default mode, face-down output is oddly ejected forward from the unit; only a flimsy-looking plastic stopper inserted into slots on top stops the paper from sliding off the printer. The standard parallel and serial interfaces are located on the left, curiously closer to the front than the rear.
It’s easy to change the printer’s toner. When you open the hinged rear portion of the top, the cartridge pops up conspicuously. Output was generally very clear, but test photographs tended to be darker than the other printers’, despite several intensity adjustments. Though a little strange in design, the ActionLaser 1600 is a cost-effective way to get 600 dpi onto your desktop.
HP LaserJet 4Plus
WIN / DOS
HP LaserJet 4MP
Rating: *** 1/2
WIN / DOS / MAC
HP targets two distinct markets with these comparably priced 600 dpi solutions. The LaserJet 4MP is a 4-ppm model, street priced at $1,350, that is suitable for personal desktop use or for hooking up to two or three systems; it comes with parallel, serial and LocalTalk interfaces. The LaserJet 4Plus is a sturdy, 12-ppm unit–street priced at $1,450, it’s equipped with parallel and serial interfaces and offers the fast performance you want as documents get more complex or workgroups sharing one printer get larger. Both printers offer exceptional output and construction.
The LaserJet 4Plus’s construction and paper handling are superb, and the stylishly arched top holds a well-lit and easy-to-operate control panel. Like the LBP-860, the 4Plus uses a single-line LED display to show status and setup menu options. The 4Plus comes standard with PCL5e, but for $2,479, you can purchase the 4M Plus, with Adobe PostScript level 2 and a LocalTalk port onboard. (You can also upgrade the 4Plus later with those same options.)
The LaserJet 4MP, a smaller unit with less elaborate construction, crams in a lot of functionality for a 4-ppm system. It comes with PCL5e and Adobe PostScript level 2 standard. (Its sibling, the LaserJet 4P, drops the LocalTalk interface, PostScript, and the price to $1,229.) As with the 4Plus, the output is superb. The main things you give up are the 4Plus’s 12-ppm speed and more comprehensive paper handling. Because of its simplified design, the 4MP doesn’t have the front-loading, 100-sheet multipurpose tray you get with the LaserJet 4Plus, a feature that can be very handy. (Both printers also have a 250-sheet input drawer.)
The pair produced very high quality output on both our text and graphics tests, and their performance numbers were well in line with their respective engine speeds. If you’re seriously looking for 600 dpi, look seriously at these.
IBM LaserPrinter 4039 12R plus
WIN / DOS
The IBM LaserPrinter 4039 12R plus from Lexmark offers an excellent blend of performance, features, and ease of use. Street priced at around $1,500, you definitely get your money’s worth with this 12-ppm device–it’s equipped with both PCL5e and PostScript level 2 compatibility.
Its straightforward design is easy to adapt to: For instance, the cover tilts open by squeezing an obvious latch on top, revealing the readily accessible one-piece toner cartridge. An optional 500-page second drawer complements the 200-sheet standard input drawer.
The control panel is sleek, borrowing a concept from a typical bank ATM. A generous four-line by 20-character LCD display shows the various setup menus and current printer status; you make choices using four buttons to the right that correspond to changing prompts on the LCD screen. Multiple levels of menus are shown as you make selections. For instance, the first four selections are: Paper Menu, Font Menu, Setup Menu, and Tests Menu. Pick Paper Menu, and you’ll drill down to four more choices, including Source and Size. This approach was, by far, the simplest and most effective.
The 4039 12R plus produced excellent output, albeit slightly darker (and so less detailed) on some graphic images than the HP and Canon models. It wasn’t the fastest at printing PCL text files, being surpassed there, for example, by the 12-ppm LaserJet 4Plus. But it pushed out PostScript graphic images at top speed.
This is one of the best documented printers we tested. All of this adds up to an excellent choice all told.
If you’re ready to move up to 600 dpi output, you may be ready to move up in other respects, too. The Lexmark IBM LaserPrinter 4039 12R plus delivers on all accounts–you get 12-ppm speed, built-in PostScript level 2, and excellent output for a street price of around only $1,500. For the best-looking output, turn to HP. Its 4Plus is a speedy 12-ppm device that sells for about $1,450–but be prepared to tack on a few hundred dollars more if you want to add PostScript to this version or if you choose the 4M Plus, which includes PostScript and a LocalTalk port as standard features. Both the 4039 12R plus and the 4Plus can also accept an optional LocalTalk port. But if you can’t spend more than $1,000, take a look at the Epson ActionLaser 1600. Although the design is a little curious and the paper handling limited, you’ll generally get good output and decent speed. Or consider the HP 4MP’s sibling, the HP 4P–it’s almost identical to the high-quality 4MP, but at $999 (street), it costs about $350 less.
WIN / DOS
You can’t beat the price of the 4-ppm Okidata OL410e–a mere $650 on the street. Although not designed for heavy-duty printing, the OL410e can easily handle a typical day’s worth of office correspondence, as well as more elaborate projects such as an occasional newsletter or report.
The OL410e is neither a true 600 dpi unit nor a laser printer. It uses an array of LEDs to produce images; the lower cost of the proprietary LED technology is part of the reason the printer is so affordable. Another reason for the low price is that instead of using a pricey 600 dpi engine, Okidata achieves a 1,200 dpi vertical resolution through software interpolation and maintains a 300 dpi horizontal resolution. You get the same number of dots per page as you do with 600 by 600 dpi output; therefore, the quality closely resembles that of a 600 by 600 dpi printer as well. Close, but still just short of the higherquality 600 dpi printers.
Nevertheless, we were mostly impressed. Line art and text were crisp and smooth, but a scanned test photograph was not in line with output from its peers. Its performance was admirable, just a shade faster than the 4-ppm HP 4MP in both PCL text and graphics modes.
The Okidata delivers good-looking output at an unsurpassed price, but it’s not as sturdily built or as people friendly as some other models. The input drawer capacity is a scant 100 sheets, and it uses a closing mechanism that will probably not stand up to the most aggressive office worker. The control panel is oddly situated at the rear at a fixed, almost flat angle, so it’s difficult to read without standing directly over the printer and looking down. Another concern is that it takes the printer a minute or so after you power on to warm up and cycle the toner before you’re ready to go.
Overall, the space-saving OL410e earns its biggest kudos for delivering near 600 dpi–class output at a 300 dpi price.
TI microLaser Pro 600 PS23
WIN / DOS / MAC
With such features as excellent paper handling and Adobe PostScript level 2, Texas Instruments’s microLaser Pro 600 delivers a lot of value for its $1,250 street price. The standard configuration comes with an 8-ppm engine and 23 Adobe Type 1 scalable fonts. (For about $200 more, you can get 65 fonts.) The microLaser’s Achilles heel? It lacks PCL5e support, so PCL jobs are limited to 300 dpi.
The microLaser comes standard with two 250-page drawers. And unlike most competitors, the microLaser uses a separate imaging cartridge and drum. Although these consumables are quite accessible, the drum unit is exposed during insertion and may be easily damaged.
The 600 dpi PostScript output was excellent, as was the speed at which the printer delivered it. At 300 dpi, PCL files were no slouch in the looks department, though not as smooth when compared with other printers here. But we noticed that 300 dpi PCL text files took almost twice as long to print as they did at 600 dpi on other 6- and 8-ppm printers. (The same was true of the LaserWriter 360 as measured against its class–this may possibly be attributed to the use of PCL5 rather than PCL5e.) An upgrade option that doubles the clock speed of the printer’s RISC processor from 20 MHz to 40 MHz should improve processing speed on jobs that include graphics or TrueType font-filled documents.
Parallel and LocalTalk interfaces come standard with the microLaser and automatic port switching is supported, making it a good choice for printer sharing between a Mac and PC. If you use PostScript, the microLaser Pro 600 is a printer to consider.
Personal Finance Software November
Standalone Fax Machines December
CD-ROM Software December
Editors’ Picks January
Database Software January
DX4 Notebooks January
COPYRIGHT 1994 Freedom Technology Media Group
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group