Smaller, Zippier : Laser Racers

Published Date
01 - Mar - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2006
Smaller, Zippier : Laser Racers
Being as expensive as they were initially, laser printers were only to be seen in large offices. Besides, early laser printers were huge, and occupied entire desktops. Few at the time-the mid 1990s-would have imagined a laser printer shootout like the one that follows, for the Small office / Home office (SoHo) segment. Costs have indeed dropped drastically. And so has the cost per printed page, which is now less than a rupee. They've gotten smaller, too: one can now buy laser printers as small as a cubic foot.

Roughly speaking, monochrome laser printers-with the exception of a few that are meant for office use-are reasonably affordable, and colour lasers are still on the expensive side. Even if the colour printer itself is affordable, the running costs are too much for the typical home user: a colour cartridge costs nearly Rs 6,000, and a printer needs three colour cartridges/toners in addition to a black toner.

In what follows, we've compared affordable and compact monochrome laser printers from Brother, Canon, Epson, Samsung and Xerox-one from each manufacturer-all of which are targeted at the home user segment. We also have two heavy-duty printers from Brother and Xerox, but these were not compared with the rest, since they are meant for office use. See the boxes on the Brother HL-6050 DN and the Xerox Phaser 3425 for information on these.

In the colour laser printer section of this test, we had three printers-one each from Brother, Canon and Epson-set against each other.

We hope this test takes some of the guesswork out of the decision making if you're opting for a laser printer.

Mono Laser Printers
The cost of an inkjet printer may be less than that of a mono laser printer, but the cost of printing isn't-and that's why getting yourself a mono laser makes sense, assuming you do a lot of printing.
Resolution And Memory
A salesperson for a printer may tell you about high resolutions, great processors, and lots of memory. These factors are indeed very important, but are not the only considerations.

The resolution of a printer determines the precision of the prints-technically, it indicates the sharpness of pixel reproduction on paper. Most of the printers we tested support a resolution of 600 x 600 dpi; Brother's HL-5170 DN and Canon's LBP2900 are a notch ahead, supporting 2400 x 600 dpi.

The installed memory and processor play an important role in the speed of the printer. The installed memory on the Epson EPL-6200L is the lowest in the category at 2 MB, whereas Brother's HL-5170DN has a remarkable 32 MB. The others feature 8 MB of memory, which is sufficient for a home user.

Build Quality
Both Samsung's ML-2010 and the Xerox Phaser 3117 were compact, but seemed fragile, especially the input trays. At the other end, the Brother HL-5170 is the most rugged.

Indicators And Buttons
An LCD screen on a printer is very useful, especially for signalling problems with a print job or with the printer itself. However, none of the printers have one-except for the two heavy-duty ones which we've covered separately. Except for the Canon LBP2900, all the others have more than one LED; of these, one was dedicated to error signalling. The Epson EPL 6200L doesn't have any buttons except for an on/off switch, so job cancellation can only be done from the computer. Brother's HL-5170 has three LED indicators, and buttons that can be used to cancel and pause/ resume a print job.

Network Support
Network support is not necessary for home users, but since we're also considering small offices, this could be a decisive feature. The Brother HL-5170DN is the only printer in our comparison that has Ethernet installed; it is an optional feature on the Canon LBP2900, meaning you can buy a compatible network card and install it if and when you feel the need.
The Driver Interface
Drivers are necessary to install and run the printer. But a driver is also an interactive tool for setting up print jobs and more.

We found the Epson EPL 6200L's driver a little awkward. It didn't malfunction, but it doesn't have settings for Normal, Draft and Best. In sharp contrast, the Canon LBP2900 has an over-friendly driver interface. It offers printing modes such as 'Standard', 'Text/Lines', and even 'Web Pages'. The Canon LBP2900's driver interface includes a progress indicator-in case of an error, the interface either stalls the print job or cancels it, and issues an error message on the screen.
Figures for the sub-sections under performance-speed and quality-have been mentioned in the comparison table for monochrome lasers so you can get a better idea of how each printer performed.

Brother HL-5170DN

You might notice that neither of our winners lead in the performance department; also, there isn't much difference between the two. The Samsung ML-2010 ranks second-next only to the Canon LBP2900-in the performance department.

The stated resolution is an important aspect when judging a printer, but the best way to know about a printer's print quality is by actually comparing printouts by various printers. This is not always possible, as outlets normally do not let you take demo printouts. Our performance analysis therefore concentrates on real-world tests, where we use different types of test documents containing graphs, textures, varying point-size text, images and colour gradients.

Samsung ML-2010

One of the key discriminators in the tests was white text on a black background with varying text sizes. The Canon LBP2900 and the Brother HL-5170DN produced good contrast, and hence scored better. The Canon LBP2900 topped in the quality analyses by producing much better prints of our combi-document. Apart from the Xerox Phaser 3117, which scored somewhat lower than the others, the differences amongst the rest are negligible.

We clocked the printers for warm-up times and print speeds. The Xerox Phaser 3117 was the fastest in the speed tests, but that alone wasn't sufficient to make it the winner. The Brother HL-5170DN performed remarkably better than the Brother HL-6050DN when printing our 36.9 MB PDF file.

How We Tested 
The Test Bed
The test bed we used comprised an AMD 64 3000 (socket 754) processor fitted on an MSI K8T Neo motherboard. The combination was well supported by 1 GB of DDR 400 RAM and an nVidia GeForce 5950 GT 128 MB graphics card. The hard disk was a Maxtor 120 GB SATA, and the OS was Windows XP with SP1. The system was loaded with the latest chipset and graphics drivers. We connected the sample printers to our test bed via the USB interface. To derive optimum performance, the USB 2.0 patch was loaded onto our Windows installation. Berga (A4 size) paper served as the medium for printing.

The many parameters we considered were weighted differently. Parameters such as resolution, memory, network support, etc. were given more importance.

Performance was broadly categorised under speed and quality. The speed tests were done by timing the printer from the instant we clicked on the Print button in the Print dialog box to the time the page dropped out onto the output tray. These tests were carried out using different types of source files such as a regular text document, a combi-document (containing text, images, concentric circle patterns, a colour gradient bar, etc.) and a business type document that had graphs, logos and photos apart from text. A full-page photo printout was timed for the colour printers.
Under Quality, we looked at certain distinguishing patterns in each of our source files; for instance, in the photo printout test, where we used a photograph of a face, not every printer could properly reproduce skin colour and wrinkles under the eyes and forehead. The printers were rated on how well they could reproduce such details. The quality of the printouts from the mono laser printers was judged mainly on the basis of text, graphs, concentric pattern reproduction, and the quality of white text on a black background.

The price of the toner was given more consideration than the cost of the printer, but that's not to say that the cost of the printer didn't affect the results.
Narrowing Down The Winners
The overall score is based on the scores obtained from the Features, Performance and Price segments. These segments are again weighted over each other, keeping in mind the typical home or small office user. Performance was rated over features and price-price was given the lowest weightage in the tests for both colour and mono printers. That said, price was given relatively higher consideration in the case of mono laser printers, because those who opt for colour laser printers would be more concerned about performance and features.
We chose the winners based on the final score obtained upon applying all three parameters.
The Verdict
The Price as a factor also plays a role in the final tally, especially the price of the toner/cartridge. The Brother HL-5170DN scored only reasonably well in performance, but it raced ahead in the features departments. It is priced at Rs 21,900, and the toner is Rs 4,315. The Samsung ML-2010 is affordable at Rs 9,990 but it isn't as feature-rich as the Brother HL-5170DN.

The HL-5170DN from Brother is the Digit Best Buy Gold winner, and the Samsung ML-2010 gets the Digit Best Buy Silver.

We should make a special mention here of the Canon LBP2900 for the output clarity it delivered. At Rs 8,995, it is the most affordable printer amongst all the ones we tested.

Colour Laser
In the tests we conducted last year and the year before, we also received printers with 300 x 300 dpi resolution. This year has seen a change in this figure:

all three printers in this segment have a minimum resolution of 600 x 600 dpi-a step above 300 x 300.

Network Support
The Epson Al-C1100 and Brother HL-2700 CN are higher up in the features segment as their printers are network-ready; Canon LBP5200 preferred to provide Ethernet as an optional interface. We think they should reconsider this, since network support is important for offices-printers as large as colour lasers are much more likely to be shared over a network than to be used as desktop printers.

Physical Considerations
All three printers are very heavy. The lightest is Canon's LBP5200, at slightly over 15 kg. Since the printers are huge, we considered the dimensions in our comparison, taking the footprint (base area) into account. Canon's LBP5200 is unusually large, particularly because its tray capacity is 125 (A4) sheets, and because of its different toner/cartridge arrangement.

Displays And Memory
Only the Brother and the Epson have an LCD display. Moreover, the Canon LBP5200 has a meagre 8 MB of installed memory, and they actually justified it by stating Hi-SCoA-a compression technology. Brother HL-2700 CN and the Epson AL-C1100 have 32 MB of installed memory, upgradeable to 576 MB and 256 MB respectively. In addition to this, the Brother has a Compact Flash memory card reader slot.

Epson AL-C1100

The usefulness of a memory card reader varies; for example, those using the printers on a network would have little need for one, whereas a photographer might. But in general, this feature is not a real value-add, since there's only a two-line LCD display. An image from a digital camera cannot be previewed on a two-line dot matrix LCD screen; moreover, a file name such as "DSC0046.jpg" doesn't tell you much about the image!

The perfect machine for a small office setup 
If your specifications are simple-that is, if you need a mono laser printer that produces good printouts while being cost effective-your search ends here. Brother's HL-6050 DN is a network-ready printer for your office that has an input tray capacity of 500 sheets (A4). The printer measures 40 x 42.5 x 31 cm, and weighs 20 kg. The drawer-based paper tray has a nifty arrangement to display the paper level in the tray: we liked this idea, since there's no way you can otherwise deduce the paper level once the tray is shut. An LCD panel with a sufficient number of buttons enables proper interaction with the printer; note that very few mono laser printers incorporate an LCD display. There's also support for Linux in addition to Mac and Windows.

The installed 32 MB of memory can be upgraded to up to 160 MB. Speaking of memory, Brother's HL-6050 DN was the only printer in the mono laser segment to feature a Compact Flash (CF) memory card reader. The printer supports three resolution modes-300 x 300, 600 x 600 and 1200 x 1200 dpi. For text-only printing, the 300 dpi setting is sufficient, and for documents that involve graphs and patterns, 600 dpi is ideal-1200 dpi for a mono laser is not something you'd often need to use.

To test the printer on the performance front, we printed various types of documents, from text to graphs, and also clocked the printer for these jobs. The HL 6050 DN did not disappoint us as far as the quality of printouts was concerned, but it did take too long to print our large (36.9 MB) PDF file-a little over four minutes. Windows XP's printer task dialog box showed the file being transferred at a very low 5 kbps. The delay could have been due to a bug in the printer driver, since the printer itself supports the high-speed USB 2.0 interface, and so does our test machine. Apart from this, the printer's response was spot on!

The Brother HL 6050 DN delivered better clarity than most in our sample business document test. The document featured graphs, logos, textures and pictures in addition to text. Other test printouts were very clear as well.

Cost of printer : Rs 27,750
Cost of toner : Rs 4,980
Rating : 4/5
The Xerox Phaser 3425 
The Xerox Phaser 3425 is as bulky as the Brother HL-6050DN. It has the same tray capacity of 500 sheets, 32 MB of memory upgradeable to 160 MB, and is network-ready.  The input tray features a paper level indicator similar to that on the Brother HL-6050DN.

The buttons are well placed below the LCD screen. Print jobs can be paused, resumed and cancelled right from the printer. The prompt response of the printer to button actions is impressive.

One gripe we had was with the power-on button, at least in the case of the sample we received: you need to push it real hard.

The printouts from the Xerox Phaser 3425 often topped the comparison chart, and this printer was often used as a reference point for clarity-thanks to the fine 1200 x 1200 dpi resolution. It is not easy to compare printers on the basis of the black and white copies they produce from colour graphs and images: the printer that produces the best resemblance tops the chart. In our tests-including the other mono lasers-the Xerox Phaser 3425 led the rest, and it narrowly tipped the Brother HL-6050DN in the overall performance segment. Printing the 36.9 MB PDF document took quite some time even on the Xerox Phaser 3425, but it was faster than on the Brother HL-6050DN.

The running costs for a printer matter more than the initial printer cost. This is where the duty cycle of the toner comes in.
To sum it up, the Xerox Phaser 3425 is a very good printer, but it's expensive as running costs go.

Cost of printer : Rs 32,250
Cost of toner : Rs 9,000
Duty cycle of toner : 10,000 pages (A4) at 5% coverage
Rating : 4/5

The Driver Interface

The Canon LBP5200 has an interactive driver that shows the progress and status of a print job. The interface is user-friendly as well. This only somewhat makes up for the absence of the LCD.

This part of the test was a one-sided affair. Here, we tested the printers for speed and quality. Speed was assigned lesser weightage than quality. Brother needs to do something about its drivers! The Brother HL-2700 CN did not perform as badly as the HL-6050DN, but the fact is that it did take a lot of time to transfer our 36.9 MB PDF document: other printers in the test did it on an average of less than thirty seconds.

Epson's AL-C1100 flabbergasted us with its clarity and precision in the photo printing test. And, it also clocked lesser time than its competitor. The Brother HL-2700CN's colour reproduction of a photo fell short of our expectation; and so it was nowhere near the quality delivered by the Epson AL-C1100.

The Canon LBP5200 managed to give some competition, but didn't really match up to the Epson AL-C110-which is undoubtedly the top performer, particularly in the quality comparison.

The Verdict
It was not hard to judge our winner. With an output nearly as good as the actual image on the screen, the AL-C1100 from Epson cannot be denied top spot on the podium. It did not lack in the features department, and isn't too expensive either. There was a tussle between Canon LBP5200 and Brother HL-2700CN; the latter set itself apart in the features and price departments, but the former was much better when it came to performance-both in terms of speed and quality.

The Canon LBP5200 lacked in the features department; whereas Brother HL-2700 CN had most features we were looking for. Every buyer must consider the cost of toner-both colour and black when buying a printer because people tend to forget that there are three colour toner and one black toner in a colour laser printer.

A Parting Word
Laser printers are definitely a cheaper alternative to inkjets when you're talking about bulk printing and speeds, but the initial investment is high. Another concern is size: most laser printers are massive, particularly colour lasers. Although the size may not be as important as the features and performance, it does matter if your office is small and space is at a premium.

We might see developments in this area, and laser printers might get smaller. They'll certainly get cheaper, of course, and we hope to bring you a more wide-ranging comparison next time round.

Team DigitTeam Digit

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