Making An Impression

Published Date
01 - Aug - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Aug - 2005
Making An Impression
It's been roughly a year since our previous  laser printer tests and boy, have the markets changed since then! During this period, the fight between inkjets and lasers has intensified, but the laser camp is rejoicing-they have some solid, positive reasons working for them.

Gone are the days when laser printers were the domain of only the rich multinational corporations that had the capacity to shell out way too much money for bulky, ugly-looking devices, which seemed more appropriate in a boxing ring than in a swanky office.

Even in terms of market size, the equation has changed. The market has grown tremendously, as a recent survey revealed. According to a survey by US-based research agency AMI, Indian small and medium businesses spent nearly half a billion dollars on printers in FY 04-05. What's more, the market is expected to grow at a fair clip of about 20 per cent this fiscal.

So with all this action happening, it seemed wise to take the plunge and find out what the fuss was all about. This test will help you decide which laser device is ideal for your business! We segregated the devices into three broad categories for the tests: colour laser printers, mono laser printers and mono laser MFDs.

Mono Laser Printers
The mono lasers, based on their duty cycles, were divided into two groups-with duty cycles of 15,000 pages per month and below, and those with duty cycles of over 15,000 pages per month.

The former category is aimed at the SoHo segment-SoHo printers aren't required to print many pages on a daily basis. Printers that could easily print in excess of 15,000 pages per month were put into the 'Workgroup' category-ideal for larger businesses that need a workhorse for a printing machine.

SoHo Category

The mono lasers (black and white) we received were surprisingly small and nothing like the bulky devices we are used to. Once unpacked, the extensive packing made us suspicious of their build quality.

One observation was that all SoHo printers were missing LCD screens and just had some buttons placed on the device, coupled with a few blinking LEDs

The Samsung printers beat everyone quite comfortably, as they were the sturdiest of the lot-a noteworthy mention is the Samsung ML2250, which had a smooth, classy finish. Keeping with tradition, the Lexmark E230 looked sturdy and classy as well. This black-and-silver beauty will add to the looks of your designer office!

Once we were done with the exterior inspection, we proceeded to note down their other features. We started with the capacity of the paper trays-because all of us have, at some point or another, been in a rush to print out a report and seen the "Paper Tray Empty" message.

Judging by their compact build, we weren't too hopeful. Again, we were surprised! Almost all printers in this category matched the capacity of the Workgroup category-a 250-page tray.

The exceptions in this were the Canon LBP 2900 and WeP 1600, which had 150-page trays. In fact, WeP decided that even their workgroup printer would not need too many pages at once, and included only a 150-page tray in their WeP 2500 model.

The Canon LBP 2900 and Lexmark E230, allow you to add a paper tray; something the others don't. Not one of the printers we received, though, could perform automatic duplex printing.

In terms of box contents, the Canon LBP 2900 was the only printer to ship without a data cable. For their '1600' printer, WeP decided to go retro and shipped a Parallel Port cable. Thankfully, the rest shipped with USB cables. USB 2.0 was the overall choice, but if you need them, all the printers also had Parallel ports.

How We Tested 
Our test bed comprised a Pentium 4 3.2 GHz processor plugged onto an MSI 75P Neo FISR2 motherboard with 512 MB of Corsair 400 MHz DDR RAM, a Gainward nVidia GeForce FX 5950 graphics card, and a 250 GB 7200 rpm SATA Maxtor hard disk. We used Windows XP with SP1 as the OS, and the system was loaded with the latest chipset and graphics drivers. We also installed the USB patch for XP and connected the devices on the USB 2.0 port for optimal performance. We used 100 g/sm paper from Berga (A4 size) for printing.

The printers were categorized as colour printers and monochrome printers.
We further divided monochrome printers into two sub-categories: those with duty cycles of less than 15,000 (SoHo) and those with more than 15,000 duty cycles (Workgroup).

Laser printers
Features: Printers were rated on various features: Duty cycle, memory card readers, duplex printing, input and output tray capacity, input buffer, maximum resolution supported by the printers, and so on. They were rated on the basis of features they supported.
Performance: We tested the performance on three parameters; speed, quality, and efficiency.
Speed and Quality Test: We used a text document to test the raw print speeds of the printer. The quality settings used were Normal and Best. To test their ability to handle various aspects of a regular document, we created a combi-document with black text, interspersed with graphs and images. We clocked the time it took them to print this document in normal and best quality modes, and analysed the print quality. The final test for colour printers was the photo test, where we printed an A4 size image. We clocked the time taken to complete the print and examined the quality of the print. The settings used here were the highest quality available.
Laser MFDs: MFDs have a scanner, printer and copier. Some even have fax facility. MFDs with fax facility earned bonus points.
Features: The printer part of the features that were noted remained the same as in the laser printers. In the scanner part, the maximum scan resolution, bit depth, scanner type, scanning element, scanning area, etc., were noted. In the copier and fax part, the ability to work as a standalone device, maximum number of copies in multi-copy mode, memory for storing fax pages, and more, were noted.

Printer Test: The test process here was exactly the same as that of the laser printers.
Scanner Test: We tested the scanners for speed using an average of five previews of an A4 size image. This was done when the scanner was fresh out of the box to incorporate the warm-up time. Scanners with a higher warm-up time didn't fare as well as the others. We also tested the warmed up scanners to negate any possibility that a scanner might scan faster than the others once warmed up.
We imported the same A4 size image at 150 dpi and 600 dpi, in Adobe Photoshop, and scanned a full text document in B&W mode at 200 dpi. The scanner then underwent a test to determine its colour differentiating abilities using a Kodak IT8 card with different shades of colour-each with a little difference from the preceding one. Next, we tested the resolution card to figure actual scanning capabilities by checking for its native resolutions. We scanned the card at 300 dpi at threshold colour depth to see how many boxes it could differentiate in between the lines. Finally, we did an OCR test to check the scanner's ability to differentiate light and dark areas. A print article was scanned into ABBYY FineReader Pro 7.0, and verified for wrongly-interpreted letters in the software. We then gave a percentile value to the devices.

We copied a text document in B&W and rated the MFDs on their speed and quality of the printout.
Warranty and Price: The number of years of warranty, type of warranty, number of authorized service centres, price of the printer and the toner and the rated cost per page were also taken into account and rated accordingly.

How the Awards Are Given
The scores from features, performance and price were given weightages suitable to the category. An overall score out of 100 is calculated. The product that scores the highest here is adjudged the winner of the Best Buy Gold award for this category. The second highest score gets the Digit Best Buy Silver award.

The Canon LBP 2900 and 3200 came without a troubleshooting guide. The concept of providing manuals in PDF form is catching on fast, as it saves the manufacturer a bundle in printing costs.

However, we should here mention that connecting printers has become easier and a troubleshooting guide isn't really required anyway! Lexmark, however, bundled every manual you could possibly think of!

One observation was that all SoHo printers were missing LCD screens and just had some buttons placed on the device, coupled with a few blinking LEDs.

One major thing we found missing was support for different OSes. As a business, the last thing you want is to have to bear the cost of deploying separate printers for each group of OSes that run on your network.

Here, the Samsung and Lexmark printers outshone every other printer with support for Windows, Linux and even MACs. The rest only support Windows and/or Linux. Keep this in mind if your company uses MACs.

We then came to one of the most important features in an office printer: Network support. You will need Ethernet support if you plan to deploy the printer on an office LAN. Unfortunately, none of the printers were network-ready. The Lexmark, both Canons and the Samsung ML 1710P, at least had the option of upgrading to one later. So, if you feel your business might grow and need a network-capable printer in the future, choose one of these for your office.
With inspections and observations out of the way, it was time to get on with the tests.

We started by noting down their warm-up times. This is the time a printer takes to get 'ready' to print its first page. Despite claims by Canon about zero warm-up time, we found that their LBP 2900 and 3200 printers took 6.1 and 5.2 seconds respectively.

Though the Canon LBP 3200 had the shortest warm-up time, the Xerox 3116 was a close second at just 5.4 seconds. Samsung's ML 1710P and WeP's 1600 came in last with times of 10 and 9.8 seconds respectively.
Keep in mind, however, that although some printers may take longer to warm-up it's the printing speed and quality that eventually matter more. For a SoHo environment, a 10-second wait for the first print may not matter so much!

In terms of print speeds, the fastest were the Canons-the LBP 3200 being the fastest. It managed to print our text test pages in a mere 9.06 and 9.16 seconds at 'Normal' and 'Best' qualities respectively.

The Canon LBP 2900 took 11.33 seconds at Normal quality, and 11.4 seconds in Best quality mode. A pattern was emerging: hardly any time difference between printing in Normal or Best modes was being thrown up. The sole exception to the rule turned out to be the WeP 1600. At 14.2 and 24.6 seconds respectively, it finished last.

If you need to print a large volume of documents, but do not really need photo-quality print-outs, the Canons are perhaps your best bet-they'll save you a great deal of time. At an average rate of 3 seconds saved per print, your employees will wait 3,000 seconds less for every 1,000 documents printed-or more succinctly, close to an hour of work time saved per 1,000 prints!

Since these printers are meant for offices, they will be called on to print documents containing graphs, charts and text. We also tested all the printers with our combi-document.

Here, the Xerox 3116, with a score of 12.43 seconds, narrowly beat the Canon LBP2900 and LBP 3200 with scores of 12.55 and 12.57 seconds respectively. Coming in last, again, was the WeP 1600 with a time of a little over 16 seconds. Quantifying this further, a 4-second deficit means 66 minutes wasted for every 1,000 prints!

Surprisingly, apart from the WeP and Xerox, all printers were even faster when printing in 'Best' quality mode, returning faster scores than when printing in Normal mode! 

We really were disappointed with the WeP 1600, which took over 27 seconds to churn out the page. This is probably due to a slower buffer memory, but the fact remains that it took twice as long as the Canon LBP 3200.

Speed, however, is not always the deciding factor when buying a printer. No client will be impressed by the fact that you have a 10-second printer-it's the quality of print that matters most.

Smudged and faded printouts are a definite no-no for business prints, and we checked the printers for the quality of text print, using our point size document.

The first printer we tested was the Canon LBP 2900. The quality of print was simply amazing, with a crisp, bright look, and even the smallest of point sizes perfectly legible. The Samsungs (ML1710P and ML1520P) and Lexmark's E230 matched the Canon letter for letter, with good quality prints.

Judging by the quality of prints, we felt that the Lexmark focussed more on quality than on speed. Throughout our quality tests, the Lexmark took the Canon 2900 head-on, and even edged ahead a few times.

The printer that disappointed us, throughout was the WeP 1600. It spat out some dull-looking prints. The Canon LBP 3200 was not much better, and seemed to have sacrificed greatly on quality to gain speed, and ended up second last in the text printout quality test.

Another point to note here is that the Samsung printers had only 300 and 600 dpi resolutions, while the others had 1,200 dpi as their best. Yet the Samsungs held their own…

All this testing showed us that the Canon LBP 2900 was the fastest and among the best in terms of the quality. So, if black and white text printouts are all you need, buy this one now!

Getting back to the tests, the difference in resolutions would become clearer if we used image- or graph-heavy documents, and so, obviously, we did a quality check of our combi docs as well. We tested in both, Normal and Best modes and the results were more or less identical. This proved the very impressive quality of the printers, even in Normal mode.

The clear winner, in terms of performance, was the Canon LBP 2900. This printer sacrifices marginally on speed, but gains an incredible advantage in terms of quality.

The Xerox 3116 had the worst results, and the Samsung ML1520P matched it smudge for smudge! In both cases, the reverse document, with white text on a purely black background, was nowhere close to legible.

The Samsungs faltered because of the 600 dpi limitation, and Xerox was a disappointment in terms of scores.

There were surprises to come, especially when we saw the WeP 1600 tying for second place with the Samsung ML1710P.

Although this printer could print at the same resolution as the 1520P, it gave us our best scores on the white text on a black background box and just about edged out the others in the resolution of the pie-chart test. Here, it was joined by Xerox, which scored the same.

We were quite sure that the 3200 would win all speed tests, but once we were through with the quality tests, everything went haywire…

The final tests also included a warranty check. A long warranty period with on-site warranty is naturally preferred. In terms of number of years, all except Canon and Lexmark provided a 3-year warranty, and all, except WeP and Xerox, provided on-site warranty.

At 100, Samsung in India has a fairly large number of service centres, WeP has 190. Xerox had only 100 service centres, and was beaten to fourth place by Canon with 130.

Coming in last was Lexmark, which offers only a 1-year on-site warranty, and just 34 service centres across the country for support.

Now the biggest cost you will incur (apart from buying the printer) will be the cost of printing the pages. A few manufacturers will give you the printer with a starter toner that has less capacity than the ones you would buy in the market. When it runs out, you will to buy a new one. So we did a per page cost comparison.

We noticed that only WeP and Xerox were shipping their printers with starter toners, which can print about 1,200 and 1,000 pages respectively. A fresh toner can print roughly 3,000 pages-almost thrice as much.

The Canon LBP 2900 was the least productive, with a toner life of 2,000 pages. Lexmark offered 2,500, and all the others promised a toner life of about 3,000 pages.

In terms of cost per page, the Canon LBP 3200 reigned at only Rs 1.16 a page. The Xerox 3116 came in second costing Rs 1.25 per page, while a Lexmark printer would set you back by Rs 1.3 per print. A Samsung, though, will cost you all of Rs 1.49  per page.

Surprisingly, the Canon LBP 2900 was more expensive to use in this regard despite being one of the cheapest printers. It sets you back by Rs 1.74 per page.

Buying Guide 
When buying a laser printing device, you must consider your options carefully. Unlike software, there are no upgrades to features, so if you miss out on a feature that you may require later, you have no option but to buy a new device.

Options You Should Look For
At the end of the day, a couple of seconds here and there in terms of printing speeds don't really make much of a difference, but what matters really are the features provided 'on-board'.
Duplex Printing: This means printing on both sides of the printer automatically. This option is very important as printing on only one side of the paper is a waste, and results in increased paper costs. A lot of laser printers come with Automatic Duplex print as an option, and should be preferred over printers that don't have this feature, or only provide manual duplex-you need to manually flip the paper and put it back in the printer.
Networking: This is extremely important if you are using your printer in a business or SoHo environment, where multiple users need to be able to print using one printer. You can just set up and share a networking printer and allow all users to print directly to the printer. Some printers offer networking as an option, so you need not pay for the feature now, but you need it later you can add a network card.
Memory Buffer: This feature becomes important when considering a networked printer. You should have an adequate memory buffer to speed up the printing process if a lot of people will be using the printer.
Additional Paper Trays: As your company grows, your printing needs too, will grow. You should look for a printer that allows you to add additional paper trays, so that people are saved the hassle of filling up the paper tray.
Size: Although not as important as the first four aspects, size does matter, especially if your office is small and space is at a premium. Bigger devices can generally handle heavier workloads, so factor this in as well accoording to your company's printing requirements.
Keep the points mentioned above in mind when making your final decision. Choosing the right device can save you a lot of hassle and money in the long run.

So it is clear that the speed and quality of the Canon 2900 comes at a slight premium in terms of cost per page. Though a difference of 60 paise might not seem like much, when you extrapolate this over the life of a toner, you end up spending Rs 1,200 more per toner than with the Canon 3200. The cost per page becomes a deciding factor for businesses that have high volumes of printing.

As you may have guessed, the fight was extremely close. The verdict is that the Canon LBP 2900 just about edged out the Lexmark E 230 to take the Digit 'Best Buy Gold' award.

The Lexmark E 230 was a surprise winner here. We thought it would lose out hugely in terms of speed but it seemed it had more than made up for it in terms of quality, features and price. So, the Digit 'Best Buy Silver' award goes to the Lexmark E230.
Workgroup Laser Printers
Having just finished working with printers from the SoHo category, one startling difference we noticed when moving on to workgroup printers was the size. Not all of these printers were as compact as the previous category-the Samsung 2551N and Brother 6050D, for instance seem to be saying "bigger is better".

Since our last test with inkjets, the Brother printers have improved incredibly in terms of ease of installation. There were no hiccups this time around, and even the earlier infamous Brother installer program has been has been improved upon. The signs are encouraging!

It was Samsung, though, that won the ease-of-installation award! There's AI at work for sure, because the installer just magically does everything quickly and automatically without any nagging questions or instructions.

In contrast, the Brother installer prompts you to connect the printer, and if you tried to be cheeky and connected it earlier, the printer is just not detected.

Samsung SCX-5315F 
The Samsung SCX-5315F was in a class of its own, and hence was not included in the comparison. It was priced much higher, at Rs 64,999, and was the only copier-based MFD we received. It had a black toner drum and cartridge system.
A maximum print resolution of 1200 x 1200 dpi was supported. The input tray could hold 550 sheets of paper, while the ADF tray could hold 30. The input paper capacity can be enhanced by adding an optional paper tray. It also has a side-sliding bypass tray to input special media, such as cards and labels. This MFD supported automatic duplex printing, and the monthly duty cycle of this printer was an impressive 18,750.
A scan resolution of 600 x 600 dpi at 24-bit colour is supported by the CCD scanner, for up to A4 size. A maximum of 999 copies in multi-copy mode is supported. At 21.3 kg and with a footprint of 43.4 x 45.9 cm, this is a heavy and large MFD.
There is an option to install an internal network card, and a 33.6 Kbps modem. There is also a special 'Toner Save' button that reduces the size of the printed dots and saves ink, in turn, reducing the cost per copy. It also has advanced features such as 'Clone' copy, which reduces the original document into a number of smaller copies on print media. There is also an 'Auto Fit' copy mode using which, the scanned document is automatically enlarged or reduced to fit the size of the media. Its 'Power Save' button saves power by putting the MFD into standby mode, and the 'Paper Save' button reduces two pages of a printout to fit on a single page.
In the printing speed test, though, this MFD scored just about average. But the quality was the best. In the scanning speed test, it was slower than every MFD that we tested and took 689.03 seconds to scan a photograph at 24-bit and 600 dpi-more than 50 per cent higher than the closest competitor. But the quality, again, was excellent and the colour differentiation, outstanding.
If you have an office with large volume of printing, this must be considered.

Feature Set
In terms of resolution, the Samsung ML 2250 and 2551N were the only ones to offer a real 1,200 x 1,200 resolution, while the rest managed 600 dpi.

In terms of paper tray capacity, the Samsung 2551N and the Brother HL-6050D were way ahead of the competition and provided a 500-page tray as compared to 250 pages for the majority and a mere 150 for the WeP 2500. Except for the WeP 2500, all printers provided an option of adding another tray to boost paper input capacity.

One feature that was found sorely missing on Samsung's 2250 and 2551N as well as the Xerox 3420P, was automatic duplex printing. All other printers offered this.

In terms of the bundled accessories, almost all printers were similar, except for the Brother HL 5170DN, which did not have a data cable, and the WeP 2500, which came with a parallel data cable.

As for operating system support, every printer in this category supported Windows, Linux and Mac. The exception was the WeP 2500, which also had support for Unix-the only printer we've come across in all categories to offer this.

For a workgroup printer, a screen is essential, because you need to be able to set certain functions without having to muck around with the printer drivers.

The Brother HL 5170DN, Samsung 2250 and WeP 2500 were the only ones without one. While the lack of a screen is forgivable in the SoHo category owing to lower prices, it is sacrosanct for a Workgroup printer.
Thankfully, all printers in this category had USB 2.0 capability, as well as a parallel port connection. Networking was more important though, and all except the Xerox 3420P were either network-ready or offered an upgrade option. We fail to fathom how Xerox omitted a networking option on their heavy duty printers.

In terms of build quality, the Samsung ML2250 was a clear winner, with the Samsung 2551N coming in second. Both these printers are extremely sturdy.

Rounding up the bottom half was was the WeP 2500, which really looked shoddy compared to the Samsungs. To be fair to it, though, it's not like the WeP would crumble if you touched it, and was reasonably sturdy-it's just that the Samsungs are just built like brick walls!

We now come to the part where we stop judging a book by its cover, and put these devices through the rigours as we did in the SoHo category.

HP Color LaserJet 2840 
The HP Color LaserJet 2840 was the only colour MFD we tested. This colour MFD is targeted at SoHo users that want to have laser quality printouts.
The footprint of the MFD is 49.8 x 53 cm, which is a little larger than the other MFDs. The software and driver installation part was a whole new experience: the first part of the installation introduces you to the MFD and its various components-how to use and take care of them. The installation was simple, but took about 15 minutes, which is a too long.
This MFD is packed with features to the gills. It featured 96 MB buffer memory that is upgradable to 224 MB with one 100-pin SD-RAM module. The interpolated scanner resolution is 19,200 x 19,200 dpi is the highest we have yet seen.
Various types of memory cards such as CompactFlash Type I and II, xD-Picture card, SecureDigital, MemoryStick, MemoryStick Pro, SmartMedia and MultiMedia Cards are supported. A 10/100 network interface is available for connectivity along with a 33.6 Kbps modem.
This CMYK printing MFD comes with four toner cartridges-one for each colour. The printer's monthly duty cycle is a huge 30,000 pages, putting it way ahead of all the MFDs that we tested.
We were disappointed by the average performance of the 2840 during our speed tests, though. The black text page was printed in 19.74 and 64.44 seconds in Normal and Best modes respectively. The combi-document also printed at a slow pace, and the photo printout in Best mode took 167.53 seconds-much higher than that taken by any other colour laser printer.
The text print quality was found to be very crisp and this MFD scores in this area. It took a minute-and-a-half to scan an A4-size colour photograph at 24-bit colour depth, which is not bad, but it isn't great either. The colour differentiation of the scanned IT8 card was also above average, which means that the scanner is good for scanning colour photographs. In the colour copying test, the colour copy was found to be almost identical to the source document. It took 41.15 seconds to copy the colour document.
The LaserJet 2840 comes with 1-year on-site warranty, and HP has a whopping 273 service centres in 104 cities. At Rs 69,990, this workhorse is surely worth considering.

In terms of warm-up speeds, none could touch the Brother 5170DN and 6050D. They clocked just 5.9 and 6 seconds respectively for their warm-ups.

The worst performer here was the WeP 2500 with a whopping 20-minute load up time. The first time you insert a toner cartridge, it loads a lot of toner to enable subsequent faster printing, which was apparent later on, as this was one of our faster printers from here on! The Xerox Phaser 3420P came in third behind the Brothers with a time of 19 seconds.

Though warm-up times are important, if you need to print documents continuously, you need not pay too much attention to these times.

Moving on with the speed tests, the WeP 2500 easily outclassed everyone here with text print times (Normal and Best) of 9.35 and 9.377 seconds respectively, followed by the Brother 6050D at 10.95 and 13.29 seconds respectively.

Coming in last was Xerox with scores of 13.52 and 15.11 seconds respectively.

For the combi-document, the Samsung beat the WeP with ease, logging times of 12.75 and 14.53 seconds, as compared to 16.3 and 18.12 seconds for the WeP 2500.

In our combi-document test, we were surprised by the Samsung 2551N, which took a confusing 156 seconds to print in Normal mode and 160 seconds to print at Best quality. These figures made it lose out immensely.

The results suggest that in an environment where you need to only print text documents, you should opt for the WeP 2500, since it will print all your documents fast, and without compromising on anything visible in terms of quality.

Having finished with the speed tests, it was time for the quality tests...
In the text quality test, the Xerox reigned supreme, followed by Brother's 6050D and 5140. The worst performer in this test was was the Samsung 2551N.

In the 'white text on black background box' in our combi-document, the Brother 5170DN, WeP 2500 and Samsung ML2551N tied for the top honours, but sadly, were still nothing special.

Others, such as the Xerox Phaser 3420P, smudged the prints. All manufacturers, except Xerox and WeP, offered a 3-year on-site warranty.

In terms of economy, the Brother HL 6050D was the most economical with a cost of just 63 paise per page.

The Brother HL 5170DN and 5140 were joint second, with a cost of 87 paise per print out. The most expensive here was the Samsung 2250, which will set you back by nearly Rs 1.50 per print-more than twice as expensive as the Brother HL 6050D.

If you are looking at a printer that can output reams of prints at a reasonable speed and quality, printers such as the HL 6050D, will cut your printing costs down hugely and bring them to manageable levels. The printer will give you roughly 7,500 pages on a single toner. The toner cartridge, too, is not as expensive as those from rivals Samsung and WeP.

Download SoHo Laser Printer PDF File

Unlike the SoHo category, the winner here was quite clearly one of the Brothers as they had consistently outperformed or at least matched the rest of the pack. The question was, which one?

When the smoke cleared, we had our winner but it was the closest fight we have ever seen! The Brother HL 6050D won by less than a hair's breadth from the Brother HL-5140 to secure the Digit 'Best Buy Gold' Award. The Brother Hl 5140 gets the Digit 'Best Buy Silver'. The competition was close enough to even warrant a tie.

If you need out and out performance and features and don't mind paying for it, the HL 6050D is the printer for you.

However, if you are budget conscious and don't mind trading in a few features and performance to save some money, you need not look beyond the HL5140.

The third Brother, the HL-5170, came in a close third, and definitely deserves a mention. This printer has great features, but average performance considering its price.
Colour Laser Printers
The printers in this category were every bit as big as the workgroup printers and would more than fulfil your colour requirements-unless you are looking for photo quality prints. That said, the photos we printed on regular paper came out rather well,  making these printers an excellent buy if you need occasional working drafts of your designs or reference photos.

Even here, as was the case with mono lasers, the paper tray capacity varied between the Canon LBP 5200 that offered only a 125-page tray, Epson offering a 180-page tray and both, Samsung and Brother providing 250-page trays.

Canon again did not bundle any data cable, and Samsung, true to its style, bundled everything you could think of. Canon was also the only printer to support just one OS-Windows. Epson and Brother supported Windows and Mac, while the Samsung supported Windows and Linux!

Apart from the Canon 5200, which had no screen, all the others featured a monochrome display with simple menu functions configurable from the printer itself.

Only the Epson AcuLaser C1100 and Brother HL-2700CN were network-enabled. The Canon and Samsung CLP500 offered networking as an optional 'accessory'.

In terms of sheer build quality, none of the printers could hold a candle to the Brother 2700. A rock solid and extremely sturdy-looking printer.
The Samsung CLP500, though not flimsy overall, seemed as though some of its side trays or doors could break easily.

If anyone knows how to make a printer warm-up quickly, it is Canon. The warm-up time of the LBP 5200 was a mere 4 seconds, as compared to the second-best time of 8 seconds by the Samsung CLP 500.

The Brother HL2700CN needed marginally more at 9 seconds. Epson lost out hugely here, taking a cool 20 seconds to get warmed up.

Though the Epson took 20 whole seconds to charge itself up, it redeemed itself in our speed tests-completely decimating the competition.

Clocking just 9.42 seconds to print the text page in normal mode and 9.5 seconds in best mode. This isn't even comparable to the second-best times of 14.91 seconds by Brother and 15.25 seconds by Samsung for normal mode.

Canon did surprisingly badly and came in last with a time of 20.17 seconds.

The Epson needed only 19.5 seconds to spit out our combi-document in Normal mode, and 20.74 seconds in Best modes. Samsung came in second with 26.2 and 37.9 seconds respectively, and surprisingly, Canon beat it in the High Quality test by a cool 5 seconds-just 32.7 seconds in best mode.

So, basically, if you need to print out lots of reports, company charts and presentations, the Epson will get the job done faster.

 Since these were colour printers, we decided to put them through a photo quality print test as well. It was only fair to check this out.

Epson did not disappoint us and gave us a crisp, clear printout in under 25 seconds. The Canon took 37 seconds and came in a respectable second. The Samsung and Brother took 52.79 and 102.36 seconds respectively, in the Best mode.

Though the Epson was clearly the fastest printer, we wanted to make sure it also offered quality. The Brother won the text fight, followed closely by Samsung. Epson while Canon tied for third place.

Canon, again, was the best in terms of colour differentiation and got the difference between the colour bars the best. All the others just stumbled through this test scoring roughly the same, except for the Brother, which did such a bad job that the photo was totally blurred.

In terms of results, what the above translates into is, if your office work basically comprises text documents and you don't need large photographs to be printed, it is advisable to opt for the Brother, but then, don't expect photo quality performance.

On the other hand, if you feel that you will need to print photographs or brochures (even rough drafts), you should definitely consider the Epson, as it offers far better performance.

In High Quality mode, Epson did a lot better than the rest and secured first place. Canon was close behind and finished the race only slightly behind. The Brother did rather badly, and came in last behind the Samsung CLP500.

We then obviously checked the photo printing capabilities of these printers and once again, Epson raced ahead to take the top spot beating Canon and Samsung to third and fourth places respectively.

For the Brother, we found that the skin shade looked yellowish. A similar problem was noticeable for contrast, where colours were smudged.

As we mentioned, if you are going to print photographs or graphics, stick to Epson.

We noticed that Samsung provided a 3-year on-site in warranty, while Canon gives you 2-years and Epson just 1-year on-site warranty. Not very friendly, is it?

The reason you need to worry about warranty for this category is the recent problems you are bound to face thanks to the heavy load.

There was no mistaking the winner here. It was a complete Epson show. The AcuLaser C1100 beat the rest comprehensively on the performance front. No printer was even near it in terms of the sheer speed and quality of printouts. It had almost all the features you can think of and was also priced very attractively considering the performance. It did lose out slightly in terms of warranty with just 1-year on offer.

It was also the most expensive printer to maintain at Rs 3.12 per page, but it won thanks to sheer performance and a superb price to match it. Without doubt, it was the Digit 'Best Buy Gold' in the colour laser category.

Mono Laser MFDs
As with printers, the criteria for categorisation was the duty cycles except that we felt that the Samsung SCX-4720F, despite having a duty cycle of 15,000 pages, deserved to be in the higher performance (workgroup) category, since it is priced at Rs 50,000.

But price notwithstanding, its feature set-duplex printing, networking and additional paper tray-were on par with the MFDs in the higher category, so despite a lower duty cycle, it was placed there.

This category consisted of the MFDs that have a monthly duty cycle of 15,000 pages or lower. There were four MFDs in this category including a Canon, a Lexmark and two from Samsung.

Of all the MFDs, only the Canon MF 3110 could print at a maximum resolution of 1200 x 600 dpi. The rest could not go beyond 600 x 600 dpi. All the MFDs had an input paper tray capacity of 250 sheets. This will be enough for a SoHo set up.

The Samsung SCX-4216F and Lexmark X215 came with an ADF (Automatic Document Feeder), which is good considering the fact that this category consists of lower-priced MFDs. An ADF is not, strictly speaking, a necessity for a SoHo, but having one sure doesn't hurt!

A higher printer duty cycle is always advantageous, since it is a statement of the reliability and performance of the MFD. Only the Canon MF 3110 had a duty cycle of 15,000 pages, while the other three had a much lesser duty cycle of 10,000. Toner duty cycles were somewhat identical, at 3,200 pages for Lexmark and 3,000 for the rest.
The cost per page of the Lexmark and Canon were neck-and-neck at Rs 1.13 and Rs 1.17 respectively due to the almost identical toner cartridge costs and duty cycles, while the Samsung MFDs had a higher cost per page of Rs 1.67, courtesy their costlier toner cartridges.
The cost per page is calculated as the cost of the toner cartridge divided by its duty cycle.

For the scanner part, the Canon MF 3110 sported the highest optical resolution of 1200 x 2400 dpi, while the others were at 600 x 600. We saw the same thing in the interpolated scan resolution, with Canon bettering the others with 9600 x 9600 dpi, while the others could only manage 4800 x 4800. Note that interpolation is implemented using software and hence, is not as important as the optical resolution.

All scanners in every MFD were flatbeds, and could scan at 24-bit colour depth. All of them had CCD scanning elements, except the Samsung SCX-4100, which has a CIS scanning element. Remember that a CIS scanner produces poorer scans as compared to a CCD scanner. All scanners had the usual functions like scan to e-mail client.

In the copier aspect, too, all scanners had similar features such as standalone copying, reduce or enlarge, and up to 99 copies in multiple-copying mode. Since these were grayscale printers, copying, too, was limited to grayscale. Ninety-nine copies is normally more than enough for a SoHo.

There was also a Fax unit on the Lexmark X215 and the Samsung SCX-4216F, while the Canon MF 3110 and the Samsung SCX-4100 didn't have one.

Features like broadcast faxing and scheduled faxing were available on the X215 and the SCX-4216F. Both these units had 4 MB of Fax memory, which is approximately 320 pages. While a Fax is indeed a good feature, SoHos don't often require one. We'd leave it up to you to decide whether you want this feature at a cost premium.

A look now at the various miscellaneous features on these MFDs: the Canon and the Lexmark MFDs had the option to install a network card. Again, the SoHo segment may or may not use this option, and it's up to you to decide whether you really need it. All MFDs had USB2.0 as well as a parallel interface, except the Canon, which had only the USB2.0 interface. The Canon MF 3110 featured a large 64 MB buffer memory-way more than the others. This large amount of RAM is probably behind the considerably higher printing speed of the MF 3110.
As for operating system support, every printer in this category supported Windows, Linux and Mac

All MFDs supported all versions of Windows, while the Samsung SCX-4100 even supported Linux. All of them came with quick-start guides and manuals (some with manuals on CD). Without exception, they were all bundled with some OCR software. Power cables and USB cables, too, were provided with all MFDs.

MFDs weigh more than printers, of course. The Lexmark X215, weighing in at 13.6 kg was the heaviest, followed by the Samsung SCX-4216F at 13 kg. The Samsung SCX-4100 was the lightest of them all at 8.85 kg. It also had the smallest footprint of 42.2 x 40 cm, while the SCX-4216F had the largest footprint of 47.4 x 43.6 cm.

In terms of build quality, the SCX-4216F wins hands down. But if looks are important, none of the others match up to the Lexmark X215. It has a sleek, contoured gray-and-white body.

The Lexmark X215 is priced at Rs 20,999, and comes with the Fax feature, whereas the highest-priced MFD was the Samsung SCX-4216F at  Rs 34,995, which seems slightly on the higher side, especially when you are getting almost nothing extra for the premium.

We measured printing performance as we did with the laser printers. The first thing we clocked was the warm-up time. The Canon MFC 3110 and the Samsung SCX-4100 clocked similar warm-up times of 6.65 and 6.0 seconds respectively. The Lexmark was the slowest with a really slow 31 seconds, and the Samsung SCX-4216F stood third with 21 seconds.

Round Two saw the Canon taking over abd beating the other MFDs hollow. It printed our text document in a mere 11 seconds, while the best of the rest, the Lexmark X215, took 13.19 seconds for the same job. The Samsungs had a near-tie with times of 13.5 seconds and 13.53 seconds for the SCX-4100 and the SCX-4216F respectively.

We saw the same rankings in the Best mode text quality tests, where the Canon, with a time of 13.04 seconds, was a clear 1.3 seconds faster than the second-placed Samsung SCX-4100. The Lexmark was third with 15 seconds and the Samsung SCX-4216F came in last by a small margin, clocking 15.44 seconds.

In the combi-doc speed test, Canon's advantage was further emphasised: it clocked 12.57 seconds, and was at least three seconds faster than any of the others. It was, in fact, the fastest printer in the entire test! SoHo users usually print a lot of documents, usually a mix of text and graphics. So the score in the combi-doc test matters the most.

In the quality check tests, the MFDs were all closely matched, and we had a hard time finding faults with their output!

The Samsung SCX-4216F was marginally better; the other MFDs all scored the same. We were impressed with the quality, especially considering that these are entry-level MFDs.

In our combi-doc quality tests, we looked at the resolution of the pie chart, and despite a higher rated resolution of 1200 x 600, found that the Canon MF 3110 was not as good as Samsung's SCX 4100, which was the best. Samsung's 4216 and Lexmark X215 tied for second position, and the Canon was the last by a good margin.

The 'white text on black background box' disappointed us: none of these printers passed the test well, scoring strictly average points. Again, the Samsung SCX 4100 beat the others marginally. When we tried to read the different point sizes, we found that with every printer we could read all the point sizes, right down the smallest.

Things didn't change at the top when we tested our Best Quality combi-prints. The Samsung SCX-4100 maintained its lead! This printer is all about performance, whether it's speed or quality. Second-placed here, was the other Samsung, the SCX-4216F.

 In the scanner tests, the first test was, obviously, how fast the MFD's scanner could scan a test image. The clear winner here was the Samsung SCX-4216F, with a score of 6.7 seconds. The second-placed-only just-was the Lexmark X215 which logged a time of 7.47 seconds, followed by Samsung's SCX-4100 at 7.61 seconds.

The Canon was a disappointment here, taking an eternal 13 seconds to do the job. If your work involves bulk scanning, you might want to look elsewhere.

After speed, we came to our quality tests, and we were not surprised. The Canon scored much higher than the others. Scan quality was simply superb. The Samsungs tied for second spot and the Lexmark was last. We can conclude that if you don't scan too much, but want decent quality scans, you should opt for the Canon MF 3110.

SoHos sometimes require that a document be scanned and converted to a soft copy in a word processing application. An OCR application facilitates this and the output depends on the ability of the scanner to scan discrete characters in the document. In our OCR test, we tried to get these scanners to read a newspaper. The Canon and the Samsung SCX-4216F disappointed us, getting twice as many characters wrong as the Lexmark X215 and the Samsung SCX-4100, which tied for first place.

The single biggest use of an MFD is perhaps a combination of scanning and printing, i.e., copying. That makes this next test rather important. As always, we judged speed and quality and noted the tradeoffs.

The Samsung SCX-4216F was the faster copier and churned out a page in 11 seconds, while the Lexmark X215 took 11.38 seconds. The Canon took 13.8 seconds, and the Samsung SCX-4100 took a whopping 23 seconds to copy our test document. This translates to about six copies per minute.

In terms of quality, though, the SCX-4216F was a wee bit ahead of the SCX-4100. The Canon and Lexmark tied for third spot.

Coming to warranty and servicing, we were surprised to see that only Canon gave a 2-year warranty; the others provided just 1-year. All MFDs except the Lexmark X215 provided on-site warranty; Lexmark, for some reason, decided it would only give a carry-in, which would make life difficult if the MFD breaks down. You would have to carry it to a service station, of which Lexmark has only 34 in India!

Remember that the running costs of a MFD are far more that the purchase cost. The Lexmark was the cheapest here, requiring only Rs 1.125 to print a page. Only marginally, though, as Canon's cost per page is Rs 1.165. Compare this to the most expensive printers, the Samsungs, which cost Rs 1.667 to print a page.

At the end of the tests, the undisputed Digit 'Best Buy Gold' winner was the Canon MF 3110, even though it lacked a Fax unit. This was because of its printing and scanning speed. One other thing in its favour was the low price-Rs 19,995-and the higher duty cycle of 15,000. If you do not intend to use the Fax, opt for the Canon MF 3110 without another thought.

Choosing the 'Best Buy Silver' was not an easy task-the Lexmark X215 and the two Samsung MFDs were separated by just over a single point. But the Lexmark had a Fax, which the slightly lower-priced Samsung SCX-4100 didn't; besides, the Lexmark was priced considerably lower at Rs 20,995, while the Samsung SCX-4216F is steeply priced at Rs 34,995. Also, the Lexmark's duty cycle of 15,000 surpassed the 10,000 of the Samsungs.

The Lexmark X215 was therefore the Digit 'Best Buy Silver'

The Workgroup MFDs
MFDs with a monthly duty cycle of more than 15,000 were placed in this category, with the exception of the Samsung SCX-4720F, which has a duty cycle of 15,000. It was placed here because of its higher price and better feature set. Along with three MFDs from Brother, this category comprised four devices.

As far as print resolution is concerned, the Brother DCP-8040 and MFC-8440 supported a maximum of 1200 x 600 dpi. The lowest in the category was the Brother MFC-8220, at 300 x 600 dpi. All MFDs had an input paper tray capacity of 250 sheets and an ADF tray capacity of 50, with the exception of MFC-8220, whose ADF held 30 sheets. All MFDs supported additional input paper trays. An additional input tray is a bonus, and is useful in the workgroup MFD category.

Since an MFD in this category will be subject to a large workload, it's a good thing if it has a higher duty cycle. All the Brother MFDs boasted of a monthly duty cycle of 20,000 pages-considerably higher than that of the Samsung SCX-4720F, which trailed behind at 15,000.

The Samsung had a toner duty cycle of 5,000 pages while the Brother MFDs lagged behind at 3,300. However, the Samsung's toner cartridge was priced considerably higher at Rs 6,999, whereas those of the Brother MFDs were priced at Rs 3,030. The cost per paper of the Brother MFDs was, therefore, lower at Rs 0.91, while that of the Samsung was Rs 1.40. The cost per page of the Brother MFDs is too low to ignore, since it is 50 per cent lower than that of the Samsung as per the rated toner duty cycle.

Brother's DCP-8040 and MFC-8440 supported a highest optical scanning resolution of 600 x 2400 dpi, while the MFC-8220 could not do more than 300 x 600 dpi, which is lower than even that supported by the MFDs in the SoHo segment.

When it came to interpolated scanning resolution, the Brother MFDs supported 9600 x 9600 dpi, while Samsung's SCX-4720F was restricted at 4800 x 4800.

The Samsung SCX-4720F sported only a flatbed scanner, and the Brother MFC-8220 had only a sheetfed scanner. The MFC-8440 and DCP-8040 came with a sheetfed and a flatbed scanner.

A sheetfed scanner is useful when scanning documents longer than the conventional A4 size. We were surprised to find that the MFC-8220 supported only grayscale scanning, unlike the others, which supported 24-bit. All the Brother MFDs had a CIS scanning element, while the Samsung had a CCD element. As mentioned earlier, a CCD element is better than a CIS.

Only the Samsung SCX-4720F supported the 'scan to USB Flash drive' and 'print from USB Flash drive' features, where you can connect a USB Flash drive to the USB port on the MFD. You can then scan a document and save it to the USB drive as a BMP, TIFF or PDF file. You can also print a PRN, TXT, TIFF or BMP file from the USB drive without having to connect to a PC. This feature is helpful when, say, you need to scan a document, convert it to PDF and mail it to a client.

As far as copying goes, all scanners had similar features like standalone copying, reduce or enlarge, and up to 99 copies in multiple-copying mode. We think this is a bit low for the workgroup segment, though.

All the four MFDs had a Fax unit with the exception of the Brother DCP-8040. The Brother MFDs had memory that could hold 600 Fax pages, whereas the SCX-8720F could hold only 320 pages. This memory enables the unit to receive faxes and hold the pages even when in Standby mode.

The Brother MFC-8220 came with a handset for the Fax; a welcome feature.

In miscellaneous features, all MFDs with the exception of the Brother MFC-8220 had the option of adding a network module. All of them also had USB2.0 as well as a parallel interface. They all had 32 MB of buffer memory, which isn't really enough. But this issue is addressed by the memory upgradeability, which was available in all four MFDs.

The Samsung MFD supported Windows and Linux, while the Brother MFDs supported Windows and Mac. All of them came with quick-start guides and manuals (Samsung came with the manual on CD). The Samsung came bundled with AnyPage OCR, whereas the Brother MFDs came with OmniPage OCR software.

Power cables and USB cables were provided with the Samsung MF

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