Cutting Edge Lasers!

By Sanket Naik | Published on 01 Feb 2007
Cutting Edge Lasers!

PC peripheral and component priceskeep falling, and laser printers are riding the trough of the price wave. Our test features the best personal laser printers, and should help you decide on one

Not long ago, laser printers were considered the devices that would one day suck inkjet printers dry. Laser printers had their distinct advantages; speed, the ability to output smudge-free printouts, and durability. However, sky-high pricing meant that only businesses and those with deep pockets could afford them.

Over the years, both inkjet and laser technologies have evolved, and it's increasingly hard to differentiate those once-distinct advantages that lasers exhibited. Subtle differences still provide the necessary demarcation, but these are based on application areas and not on technical grounds-such as photo printers, mobile printers, etc. Colour printing, which was once only inkjet domain, is now a much-battled segment, thanks mainly to the lower initial investment for a colour laser, and also the lower running costs.

Regardless of whether you buy a laser or an inkjet, what you're looking for is speed, quality, and economy. However, there's a lot more to printing than these three basic requirements: the cost of the consumables is the first addition to this list. Another oft-forgotten factor is the manufacturer's service and support offerings, which are important because printers are prone to failure as a result of neglect, overuse, and ageing. This test will aim to take a more holistic, and thus more real-world look at the printing solutions on offer.

We received printers from all the top retailing brands-alphabetically: Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, Lexmark, Samsung, and Xerox. Due to some unfortunate technical problems with Epson's printer, we were unable to test it. This test covers primarily entry-level laser printers, and we'll take a look at the mid-range offerings in next month's test. However, apart from the entry-level mono lasers tested here, we also have four colour lasers tested individually.

Understanding The Market
If you are a regular Digit reader, you're used to us reviewing products based on features, performance, and price. However, for this test, we will deviate from our regular methodology, because printers cannot be compared to, say, graphics cards. Before buying, it's important to survey the market and get your facts right: performance, though important, is just one piece of the puzzle. The other pieces are made up of the cost of the cartridges, service issues, and downtimes. Here's a quick look at the printing market realities for India.

HP, Canon, Xerox, Samsung, Epson, Lexmark, Brother, Konica-Minolta, and Wipro are the major vendors in the laser printer business. HP was one of the first companies to bring printing products to India, and continues to dominate the market. Samsung, Xerox, and Canon come next in line in terms of market share, followed by the minnows-Konica-Minolta, Wipro, Epson, Brother, and Lexmark. Now you might wonder why we're talking business, which should only matter if you're buying shares, but it does matter! Remember that the leading products generally offer more in terms of service centres as well as easier availability of consumables and spare parts.

Service Support Infrastructure

As in the graph, HP has the highest number of service centres across the country, which means better penetration across the country and hence a higher probability that a HP service centre will be located near your office or home. Epson and Canon come in at second and third place respectively, while Lexmark has the lowest number of claimed service centres.

Outlets For Consumables
With printers, you constantly need to buy consumables, and the ease at which they're available ensure minimum downtimes for your printing solution. For this reason, it's important that the manufacturer have many authorised retail outlets. With around 1,500 authorised consumable outlets, HP has a definite advantage anywhere in India. We're discounting the unofficial channels for all companies, which is rather impossible to authenticate. Xerox, with 300 outlets, also has a good presence. All the other vendors hover around the 150 mark, which means they will have limited reach, and though you will never have any problems finding their consumables in major cities and the metros, you might face problems in smaller cities if they do not have any resellers there.

That said, almost all the vendors have a toll-free number you can call and have consumables delivered to your doorstep. This is a great value-added service, and you should check for such options from all vendors for your city.

The Warranty
For the Indian consumer, the warranty plays an important role in the buying decision. With printers, the importance is an order of magnitude higher, because these are generally the most abused peripherals at home or at work, and are the most prone to failures.
There are two facets to every warranty: the term of assurance and the type of warranty offered. Now most competing brands make sure the term of warranty is the same, so, for example, you will find that many manufacturers offer a "lifetime" warranty (which translates to five years for IT hardware). However, when all companies offer the same warranty, you need to look beyond the terms of assurance and look at the type of warranty.

For printers (and most IT products), this is generally a unit-replacement, on-site, or carry-in warranty. Unit-replacement is obviously the best option, and the rarest, because if anything goes wrong, the manufacturer gives you a replacement instead of repairing the unit you have. This saves on the downtime that you will face if your printer is being repaired.

On-site is the next best thing, especially for printers. Since most laser printers are quite bulky and heavy, you do not want to have to lug it to a service center (as is the case with a carry-in warranty). With an on-site warranty, a technician comes to your residence or office and fixes the device, or takes the trouble of taking it to a service center and then returning it.

Of the manufacturers featured in this test, Xerox, Samsung, Brother, and Lexmark offer a one-year warranty cover each, while Canon offers two years. All these companies have on-site warranties. HP is the only company that provides a lifetime, unit-replacement warranty. 

How We Tested
All the printers were connected via USB to a PC with an Intel Pentium 3.2 GHz CPU, 512 MB of DDR2 memory, and a 120 GB Seagate Barracuda 7200 rpm hard drive running a fresh install of Windows XP SP2. We formatted and reinstalled Windows for every printer to make sure none of the previous printer's software or drivers would cause any conflicts. We used 75 g/sm JK Paper for the text prints, and Berga 100 g/sm paper for the photo prints.
All the tests were carried out in both Normal and Best modes. We logged the time each printer took to print the first page, and also calculated how many pages a printer could print in a minute. Quality, being a more subjective test, was conducted by multiple reviewers to minimise errors in judgement. All the prints were compared to each other, and all the printers had maintenance schedules run prior to printing, using the bundled software maintenance kit.
This time round, we also awarded points for type of warranty, prices of consumables, and availability of support and service as well as consumables across the country.

Printing resolution decides the crispness of printouts, and 600 x 600 dpi is more than enough for regular documents. All the printers featured exactly this resolution, and though some offered 1200 dpi through software extrapolation, we'll ignore this just as we ignore digital zoom for cameras!

Extra memory is always good, and all the printers come with 8 MB of memory, except the Canons and HPs, which only provide 2 MB. Unlike PCs, however, extra memory doesn't guarantee better performance.

The input paper tray capacity is very important, and only the Brother and the Canon LBP-1210 can accommodate 250 sheets; the rest only manage 150. Of course, for typical SoHo use, no-one expects you to be printing anything more than a 100 copies at a time. All the printers also feature a manual feeding tray with paper capacities ranging between one and 10 sheets.Brother's HL-2040 and Canon's LBP-1210 were the only two printers with both USB and parallel ports. While some may think of this as backward compatibility, others may think of them as older-generation printers! All the others sport the USB 2.0 interface.

The Lexmark E-120 was the only printer in this group to offer controls in the form of Cancel and Ready buttons. The Brother HL-2040 has one large button for Ready, and the Samsung ML-2010 has one for saving toner. Canon's LBP-2900 has a button to resume printing if the printer runs out of paper. The HP Laserjet 1020 has no buttons or controls on the body.

As indicators go, the Brother HL-2040 has four, one each for toner, drum, paper, and Ready-quite useful. The rest have two indicators-Ready and Error. Canon's LBP-1210 has just one, which will not help you while troubleshooting.

Generally, printers don't come with data cables, but this time, almost all of them came with a USB cable in the package. The Quick Setup guides are comprehensive, and it's a no-brainer when it comes to installing any of these printers-all drivers  installed smoothly, and Windows recognised them all without problems. Brother has a nice flash animation that shows how to install a new printer-useful for a first-time laser consumer. For open source fans, Brother is the only one that shows them some love by providing links to Linux drivers.

HP and Canon rule the roost as software goes. Canon's status window is fabulous, and provides a good amount of detail-when printing multiple pages, it shows the progress, the page number of the current job, etc. Lexmark's software is also quite informative, but their one-size-fits-all approach might leave a layman confused-they seem to have developed generic software, which displays features that aren't even present on certain models.

Additional features, such as toner saving, sleep mode, watermarking, etc., are available with almost all the printers. Duplexing (printing on both sides) is a great way of saving paper, but none of these printers support automatic duplexing, so you'll have to manually turn pages over to save a few trees.

We didn't do a cost-per-page test, but we did note the claimed figures for the toner cartridges, and calculated the claimed cost per page. None of these lasers, even on paper, can manage to print a page for less than a rupee-real world costs will always be higher. The Brother HL-2040 beats every printer here, thanks to its relative high output and low cartridge price. Canon's LBP-2900 was the most expensive, and each print will cost you about Rs 2. All the others work out to about Rs 1.50 per page.

Laser printers are known to be noisy, and the oldest one we have, an HP LaserJet 6L Gold, sounds like a Gattling gun when it's printing. But the times have changed! All of these printers ran quietly, with only the paper mechanism breaking the silence once in a while.

How To Buy

  • First figure your monthly print run-if it's above 3,000 pages, you're looking at the wrong segment. Consider a high duty-cycle printer instead.
  • If you're looking to add a printer to a network, and share it amongst a group, look for a printer with an Ethernet port. This will save electricity, as it does not need a print server PC to be always on.
  • Check out which brand has the nearest service centre. If you can get hold of their number, call them up and ask them their turnaround time.
  • Call up your regular stationery guy and figure out what brand of consumables he generally stocks. Alternatively, call the toll-free numbers (we have collated them for you) of all manufacturers and see how much time will it take for them to provide you any consumable.
  • Before buying a printer, make sure you get a demonstration, and insist on being shown the manageability provided by the accompanying software. Manageability refers to general servicing such as cleaning of toner, remote management of printer, and other features.

                   Toll-Free For         Toll-Free For      
                    Service               Consumables

Brother               NA                      NA
HP             1800-4257737          1800-4254999
Canon        1800-3453366          1800-3453366
Lexmark    1800-224477            1800-224477
Samsung    1800-110011           3030-8282
Xerox         1800-4254525         1800-1801225
Epson         1800-4250011         1800-4250011

A printer's performance is measured in terms of speed and quality. Generally, there isn't much variations in terms of speed, but quality does differ wildly.

Manufacturers use PPM (Pages Per Minute) to display speeds. All the years we have been testing printers, no printer has ever lived up to its claimed ppm speed, and we were eager to see if that elusive achievement would be met this time.

Three printers claimed 20 ppm: the Brother, Lexmark, and the Samsung. The Lexmark E-120 came the closest to the claimed speed by delivering 19 ppm-a superb achievement! This machine is fast, and delivered the first (usually the slowest) print within 9 seconds, breaking all earlier records. The Samsung and Bother were fast too, delivering 18 ppm. The Xerox Phaser 3117 promised to print 17 ppm and delivered 15, whereas the HP Laserjet 1020 delivered one less than the 15 ppm it claimed. The two Canons were the slowest-the LBP-2900 managed only 11 ppm, and the LBP-1210 did a little better with 13 ppm. Overall, this was still a good show by all the printers, and this shows that not only are printer engines speeding up, manufacturers are also being more realistic with their claims. Of more significance to us was the fact that all the printers were able to break the 12-second barrier for the first printout, which is generally the most important aspect of printing.

The Litmus Test
Our Point-Size document is a simple document with one sentence in varying fonts. Lexmark's E120 set the pace by delivering a printout in less than 9 seconds-a new record. The HP, Brother, and Canon LBP-1210 tied for second place with 10 seconds. The Samsung and Xerox had the highest spool times, and were therefore the slowest for the first print.

The Acid Test
Our combi-document is a complex document that all printers hate. It is a 35 MB file that contains different types of text, lines, gradations, etc. We tested each printer in both Normal and Best modes. In Normal mode, the Lexmark E120 beat everyone by printing the document in just 11 seconds-another record smashed. The HP, Canon, Brother, Samsung, and Xerox were tied for second place. In Best mode, the Brother took 5 seconds more than it did to print in Normal mode; all the others actually printed both Normal and Best in the same amount of time.

A Trip To Hell
Although most of you will not print photographs on a mono laser printer, yet still we decided to test for this. The photo test also pushes the limits for the printers in terms of file size, the amount of detail and gradients. The Lexmark E120 broke speed records again, taking just 10 seconds to print. The Canon LBP-1210 sat up all of a sudden, posting the same time as the Lexmark.The Canon LBP-2900 was just 1 second behind. The Brother, HP, Samsung, and Xerox were not far behind.  Overall, it's no surprise that the Lexmark E120 won the race, the HP LaserJet 1020 coming in second, and the Samsung and Xerox coming in just behind the HP.

In the point-size document, the HP LaserJet 1020 and Canon LBP-1210 were marginally better than the competition. The differences were only visible in the smaller font sizes-10-point and below. The Brother HL-2040, Canon LBP-2900, and the Lexmark E120 were at par, and Samsung's ML-2010 was as good-but lost out in the really small font sizes. The Xerox Phaser 3117 just couldn't match the other printers when printing small fonts.

With the combi-document, HP's LaserJet 1020 and Canon's LBP-1210 produced the best results. Finer details were printed perfectly by both printers, toner saturation in greyscale gradation was perfect, and reversed text reproduction was absolutely stunning. The Brother HL2040 and Samsung ML-2010 were tied for second spot, and the Lexmark and Canon LBP-2900 were just behind at third. Though the Xerox Phaser 3117 was good, it failed to impress as much as the rest did.

In the photo document, the HP LaserJet 1020 was again the best, followed very closely by Canon's LBP-2900. What got us hooked on HP's printout was the detailed reproduction in darker areas, where all other printers lost out, due to the toner being too dark. Finer details and highlights were reproduced perfectly by both the HP and the Canon LBP-2900. The Samsung ML-2010 came in next with print quality marginally better than that of the others, but was no match for the HP and Canon.

Overall, in terms of quality, the fight was between the HP LaserJet 1020 and the Canon LBP-1210-the Canon lost because it did not do as well as the HP in the photo test. We must say, however, that if you don't plan on printing photographs on your mono laser, you'll be hard-pressed to find any differences between the print quality of the HP and that of the Canon LBP-1210. The Samsung put up a decent performance; so did the Brother HL2040. The Lexmark may have been the fastest, but couldn't match the HP and the Canons in terms of quality. Despite being a good printer, the Xerox Phaser 3117 ended up looking very ordinary because of the stiff competition from the others.

HP Laserjet 1020
Impressive overall

So Which One?
This was the toughest conclusion we've had to make in years. In terms of speed, the printers are less than 2 or 3 seconds apart, and really, you're not going to notice an extra second or two of waiting. However, what made this decision really hard was the fact that we had to spend hours testing, retesting and staring at our results to find subtle differences in the prints. Finally, we took the prices into consideration, which we thought would help us decide, but that ended up giving us a headache, too!

The Xerox Phaser 3117 costs a mere Rs 4,500. We daresay this is the cheapest laser printer on the planet! This is even more of a feat when you consider that the toner for the Xerox costs Rs 4,200.

We've given up trying to figure how Xerox manages this financially-speaking, and decided to award it the Digit Best Buy Silver. If all you need is a printer, cheap, and don't care too much about service and support, toner cartridges, and the like, the Xerox Phaser 3117 is the obvious choice.

Xerox 3117
Laser Printer

The HP LaserJet 1020 is the Digit Best Buy Gold winner. Good print speeds, impressive print quality, and decent pricing puts HP on the winning track. When you consider the lifetime, unit-replacement warranty it offers, the easy availability of consumables, and toner prices, there's really no need for us to make the decision-the HP wins hand down!
The Canon printers lost out due to high pricing and high cost per page. The Samsung ML-2010, Brother HL2040, and the Lexmark E120 were equally good.
If your own research shows that you will not have any problems with servicing, consumables, and warranties, a Canon is almost as good a buy as the HP.

Colour Laser Printers

Samsung CLP-300

Decent overall

Samsung's new CLP-300 colour laser is touted as the smallest colour laser in the world, and we agree with that claim. This smart-looking printer has been designed the ground up as an entry-level colour laser for professionals.

The printer has just a single button and four LED indicators-one for each toner. The paper tray holds 150 sheets and juts out from the bottom. The toner cartridges are small cylindrical tubes and slide into their respective grooves-the black cartridge is bigger; good, considering it will be used more. The photo conductor drum can be removed, and the printer uses a carousel mechanism-each colour has to be developed on the same drum in four different loads.

The printer can be connected to a PC via USB, but you can also get the CLP-300N, which adds an Ethernet port for network printing. Installation was a breeze, and all you get is drivers and a status panel called Smart Panel. The status window is fairly informative, and provides realistic toner usage. The driver is fairly comprehensive and has numerous options to play around with.

Samsung claims a speed of 16 pages for black, and the printer achieved 14 ppm. Our laser printer test document, consisting of six pages, was printed in 1 minute and 40 seconds-and hence falls just short of its claimed 4 ppm for colour. The photo document took 36 seconds to print; the delay can be attributed to the carousel mechanism the printer uses. The Combi-document was printed in just 29 seconds-a fair speed.

On the quality front, the Samsung CLP-300 saturated the black, killing vividity. Reverse-text (yellow on black) showed traces of black. Finer details were reproduced perfectly, except in the areas immediately surrounding dark areas of the printout. Colour gradation was also good, but we've seen better...

The printer costs Rs 15,500, and the four cartridges retail at Rs 10,500. The black toner is rated to give 2,000 pages, but the colour cartridges manage only 1,000 pages. The cost per page is similar to what's on offer from competing vendors.

Overall, Samsung's CLP-300 offers decent print quality, acceptable speeds, and reasonable pricing. However, keep in mind that this printer will not do justice tographics-heavy work. 
16 ppm (black); 4 ppm (colour); 300 MHz; 32 MB memory (max); 24,200 pages duty cycle; USB 2.0; 150-sheet paper capacity; manual duplexing.

Price: Rs 15,500


Features :3.5
Print Speed : 4
Print Quality : 3.5
Value for money :3.5
: 3.5


HP LaserJet 2600n
Good for small workgroups

The HP LaserJet 2600n is an entry-level colour laser printer with an Ethernet port; a version without inbuilt Ethernet is also available.

The LaserJet 2600n is fairly bulky, but clever design makes it look compact. The paper cassette is located at the bottom, and fits snugly inside the body. It can hold up to 250 sheets; you can increase this by adding an optional paper cassette. A manual paper feed lets you feed in a single sheet at a time.

The 2600n is targeted at workgroups, so it has a two-line LCD display. This is placed at an awkward angle; you'll have to bend to be able to see it, and it's not backlit. It's handy when setting up networking, or while troubleshooting. Apart from drivers, you also get Business Marketing Toolkit-links to How-Tos for marketing material, tutorials on Microsoft Office products, and more.

The front of the printer pops open to reveal the cartridges. Installation is simple. The developer unit is on the inside of the front panel, so you have to be careful not to drop anything on it. HP claims 8 ppm for black printouts, and this one managed between 6 and 7. The same ppm speed is claimed for colour, but our six-page test document took 1 minute and 5 seconds to complete-reasonable for this category of printers.The 2600n delivered crisp test printouts, and even 2-point text was sharply reproduced and perfectly legible. With the Combi-document, finer details were spot on, and even colour gradations were near-perfect. In the photo-target document, only skin tone  lacked a little.      

Cartridges cost Rs 13,515. The black cartridge is rated at 2,500 pages, and colour cartridges at 2,000. Cost per page works out to Rs 1.20 for black and Rs 1.70 for colour. Decent print speeds, good quality printouts, and reasonable pricing and running costs making this a good printer for small workgroups.
600 dpi; 35,000 pages duty cycle; 8 ppm (black and colour); 16 MB memory (max); USB 2.0, Ethernet 10/100, 250-sheet input paper cassette; manual duplexing.
Price: Rs 19,999

Features : 4
Print Speed : 3.5
Print Quality : 4
Value for money : 3.5
: 4

Canon LBP-5000

Too expensive

Canon's LBP-5000 is priced atRs 29,999, so it doesn't fit in the entry-level segment. It's more of a mid-range colour laser. Canon has taken a minimalist design approach, which is OK, but we would have liked an LCD. The two-tone colour is nice, and the clean lines help hide its bulk. The 250-sheet paper tray fits snugly.

Eight LEDs indicate different problems such as paper jam, toner empty, warnings, etc. There are no buttons; this is strange, considering the lack of an LCD. The driver is comprehensive, though, and additional features such as watermarking, manual duplexing, etc., are certainly there. Instead of basing printing on dpi, Canon uses presets such as Graphics, General, etc., and a help box to inform you when to use them. Canon's status window is still the best across the printers we tested. While installing the drivers, our machine hung, but a restart fixed it. The LBP-5000 has a single-pass engine, so paper jams are few. Canon claims 8 ppm for both black and colour, and our tests revealed speeds of 7 ppm for black and 6 ppm for colour-commendable. The Combi-document took 23 seconds to print.

In terms of quality, the LBP-5000 delivers results as good as the HP LaserJet 2600n. 2-point text is clearly legible, reverse text (yellow on black) printed well, colour gradations were smooth across colour bands, and even the photo document was flawlessly reproduced with minimal loss of detail or tonal deviation.

Cartridges cost Rs 17,680. The ratings say you will get 2,500 black prints, and that colour cartridges are good for 2,000 prints. The cost per page works out toRs 1.60 for black and Rs 2.24 for colour, which is really expensive.

The Canon LBP-5000 delivers on speed and print quality, but loses out badly on price-in terms of initial investment as well as running costs. 
600 dpi; 8 ppm (black and colour); 8 MB memory plus system memory used; 250-sheet paper cassette; USB 2.0; optional Ethernet.
Price: Rs 29,999


Features : 3.5
Print Speed : 4
Print Quality :4
Value for money : 3.5
: 4

HP LaserJet 2605dn

Quality print but slow

The LaserJet 2605dn is HP's upmarket model from the 2600 series, but with additional features. It looks identical to the LaserJet 2600n, though under the hood it adds a duplexing unit.

The paper cassette holds up to 250 sheets, and you can manually feed in a single sheet at a time. The duplexing capability can be activated automatically via the driver, and is unchecked by default. Duplexing helps reduce paper usage and is useful when printing, say, an e-book.

Installation was child's play, and took no more than ten minutes. HPs toolkit allows a user to administer the printer and set various options such as paper type and size, toner density, etc. We had no problems setting it up on a network either-a network address is directly added using the onboard controls or via the toolkit. There is a plethora of options for managing the printer remotely-great for system administrators.

HP claims a speed of 12 ppm for black, but it only managed 8 in our test. The six-page colour document took 2 minutes to complete-really slow. The Combi-document took 34 seconds to print, and the photo document took 48 seconds. Overall, the LaserJet 2605dn was a really slow printer.

What it lost in speed, it made up for in terms of quality. The text document printed flawlessly, and the Combi-document saw every element reproduced as displayed on our screens. This is also the first colour laser printer we've seen that matched an inkjet's ability to reproduce skin tone correctly.

The LaserJet 2605dn is priced at Rs 26,999, and the total cost of the cartridges comes to Rs 13,515. According to the rated yield of the cartridges, the cost per page works out similar to that of the LaserJet 2600n-reasonable!

The HP LaserJet 2605dn has good features, is reasonably priced for the features on offer, and produces excellent printouts. The only gripe we have is the relatively slow print speed; except for that, the 2605dn is a good buy.
12 ppm (black and colour); 8 MB memory plus system memory used; 250-sheet paper cassette; USB 2.0; optional Ethernet.
Price: Rs 26,999


Features  : 4
Print Speed : 3
Print Quality : 4.5
Value for money : 3.5
: 4

Sanket Naik

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