Color printers. (Test Lab) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by William Harrel
Color printers cost much less now than just a few months ago. In fact, some color printers are less expensive than entry-level monochrome lasers. If you shop around, you can find a printer that can do color for less than $500.
So, you ask, why on earth wouldn't you buy a color printer? Well, there are several issues to consider. First (and, for some applications, most critical), no matter which type of color printer you buy, you'll take a tremendous performance hit. The fastest printer reviewed here is capable of only two pages per minute--and that's generating black-and-white text! By contrast, even the slowest monochrome laser printers churn out pages of text at the rate of four pages per minute.
Another important consideration is print quality. While some of these printers provide resolutions of 300 x 360 dots per inch (the Tektronix and the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 560C and 1200C/PS print at 600 x 300 dpi), the different technologies required to produce color are not capable of printing text as well as lasers can. Although you may not notice until you look very closely, your text won't print as crisply and clearly on color printers, which also don't produce half-tone and gray-scale images as well as lasers.
Color printers can also be expensive to use. Laser printers typically print at a per-page cost of about $0.01 or $0.02. Some of the inkjet printers reviewed here, such as the HP 560C and the Canon, can match that price for black-and-white text, but most of these printers have a per-page cost well beyond that of lasers. At the extreme end, the FARGO printing in dye sublimation mode costs $2.79 per page.
But hey, you need color, right? And if you do presentations or create documents with lots of graphics, especially charts and graphs, the impact of your work will be greatly improved with color. So if you don't print high volume or a lot of strictly text documents, one of these color printers might be right for you. If you do print a lot of color documents or need heavy text capabilities, you might consider owning two printers.
What Kind of Color Printer Do You Need?
OK, so you've decided you need color. You have several other issues to address, the two most important being price and the type of color printing your application calls for. Will you be printing on paper or transparencies? Do you need a proof printer for desktop publishing? Typically, the application determines the price. But not always. Things have changed over the past year.
The printers in this review range from $500 to $3,000 (you can pay a lot more, but the cutoff point for this review is a street price of $3,000). Until this year, the kind of technology a printer used determined its price. At one time, you'd pay thousands of dollars for a high-end proof printer, such as a thermal wax printer or dye sublimation printer. For transparencies and color runs, such as newsletters and fliers, you'd use an inexpensive inkjet. Recent releases of high-end technologies in low price ranges as well as formerly low-end technologies with newly enhanced capabilities have muddied this distinction.
FARGO's printer brings thermal wax technology to the desktop for less than $1,000. On the other hand, typically inexpensive inkjet technology has moved into the higher-end market in printers such as the IBM and the HP 1200C/PS. Wach lists upwards of $2,500. When you contrast these more expensive inkjet printers with the Canon and the HP 560C, each of which costs something under $600 on the street, you can see the necessity of understanding what kind of technology you need and what features you should and shouldn't pay for.
Typically, inkjet printers have been the color printers of choice for the average desktop. They're relatively inexpensive. Supplies (ink cartridges) won't send you to the poorhouse, and inkjets generally print reasonably well on plain paper and transparencies. The technology works by spraying droplets of cyan, magenta, yellow, and (sometimes) black ink from ultrafine nozzles. This kind of printer is ideal for an office on a tight budget that produces a few presentations a year and wants occasional splashes of color in mostly text documents.
Four inkjet printers are reviewed here: the IBM, the HP 560C and 1200C/PS, and the Canon.
Thermal Wax Printers
Thermal wax technology employs a very large ribbon coated with page-size panels of cyan, magenta, yellow, and (sometimes) black wax. The ribbon passes over a tightly focused heat source, causing the wax to melt onto the paper. A thermal wax printer is ideal for an office that does a lot of presentations and handouts. Thermal wax delivers bold colors and reasonable quality. However, thermal wax printers are typically more expensive to use than inkjets. The FARGO, for example, costs about $0.45 per page to run, compared to the HP 560C's $0.02. Adding to the expense is the need for special paper. While many thermal wax printers can use plain paper, you'll get much better results on a glossy coated stock created especially for the wax transfer process.
Two of the printers reviewed, the Tektronix and the FARGO, use the thermal wax process. Another two, the Citizen and the Star Micronics, use a similar printing process called thermal transfer. The difference lies in the type of ribbon used. Instead of fullpage panels of wax, the ribbon contains all four colors on a continuous strip. The heat mechanism runs over the ribbon as the pins in a dot-matrix printer do, printing one thin band at a time.
Dye Sublimation Printers
Dye sublimation (often shortened to dye-sub) printers employ a printing technology similar to that of thermal wax printers. The differences are a specially coated paper and a ribbon coated 6with dye, rather than wax. Another major difference is that the heat source is capable of precise temperature variations, allowing for nearly perfect color reproduction. (Another name for dye-sub technology is photorealistic.) The typical users of this type of printer are desktop publishers and artists who use photographs.
Most dye-subs cost well beyond this review's cutoff point of $3,000. However, FARGO offers an upgrade that turns its printer into a dye sublimation printer. Remarkably, the upgrade costs less than $250, providing, with the original cost of the printer, photorealistic quality for under $1,250.
Other Color Technologies
There are two other types of color printers available: laser and solid-ink. Color laser printers work as black-and-white lasers do. Solidink printers use pellets or sticks of crayonlike wax. Solid-ink printers print on almost anything and are great for people who design product packages. Both technologies are expensive. I couldn't find any of either type that cost less than $3,000.
If you're ready to add some color to your printing, read on. This month's Test Lab has reviews, samples, facts, and figures to help you with your choice.
Usually, a primary printer-testing concern (other than print quality) is speed. Color printers are by nature slow. I did, however, note during the tests if a printer is atypically slow. Instead of concentrating on speed, the tests were designed to show print quality, primarily color and clarity. Other major concerns in this review are value and the appropriateness of a printer for specific applications, such as how well it fits into tight spaces.
To test how well each printer produces text, I printed a five-page Word for Windows document containing several different fonts in various point sizes. To test how well each printer performs on transparencies, I used a PowerPoint presentation containing several charts and graphs and multiple colors. To test how well each prints photographs, I printed several Photoshop images.
You can assess for yourself how well each printer performs by comparing the results of one of the tests (see the sidebar "Photoshop Output Samples").
Canon calls its inkjet printer a Bubble Jet. This compact, lightweight printer (less than ten pounds) is a breeze to set up and use, and the 360- x 360-dpi print quality is remarkable. The printer comes with a comprehensive online user's guide, complete with full-color pictures and clear step-by-step instructions.
One of the few things I don't like about this printer is the way it delivers its printed pages. It feeds the output pages onto the desktop, which defeats the purpose of the printer's being so small. You need at least another 8 1/2 x 11 inches in front of the machine to catch the final printed pages. Another drawback of this paper-delivery design is that your pages stack in reverse order; this is not a problem in printers that deliver the pages face-down. If you print many long documents, the reverse-order output can be a nuisance. But then, this printer is not designed for high-volume, long-document printing, and if I needed an occasional document containing color, I wouldn't let this output design deter me from buying a BJC-600.
Two other small problems I had with this printer were slow ink-drying times on coated paper and an atypically slow printer driver. While the BJC-600 turns out much better print quality on special coated paper designed for inkjet printers, you have to be careful not to pick up or move your pages too soon, or you can smear the ink. But smearing ink is a problem common to all inkets.
The BJC-600 performed very well on the print tests. Text at various point sizes and typeface styles printed relatively crisply and clearly, even on plain paper, where ink absorption can greatly affect quality. On the PowerPoint transparency test, the BJC-600 performed a little slowly, but the results were well worth waiting for. The gradients in the background, behind the words and graphics, didn't contain any noticeable banding, and the colors were bold and surprisingly close to those on my color-calibrated desktop publishing monitor.
What really surprised me, though, was how well this printer reproduced some of the color photographs. Typically, inkjets don't do well with gray-scale and continuous-tone color photographs. Considering that the BJC-600 is an inkjet (you can't expect anything close to dye sublimation quality), it did quite well (see the sidebar "Photoshop Output Samples"). Colors are reasonably crisp, and the photograph details are discernible, which is about all you can ask of a printer in this price range.
While Canon claims the printer itself prints at 170 characters per second in high-quality mode, it takes a long time for the printer driver to rasterize (process) the data and send it to the printer--up to two or three times longer than with the other printers reviewed here. I encountered this sluggishness whether printing color graphics or monochrome text. In fact, the first time I printed from Word, it took so long for the data light on the printer to begin flashing that I thought the computer had crashed.
The BJC-600's drawbacks are minor and do little to take away from its overall quality and value. It's hard to beat this printer for quality.
CITIZEN NOTEBOOK PRINTER II
Of all the printers in this month's roundup, the Citizen Notebook Printer II is the only true portable. If I couldn't find anything else nice to say about this printer, I'd have to admit that it's truly a remarkable testimonial to technology. It weighs in at under three pounds, and that includes the battery pack! It's about four inches wide and less than a foot long--small enough to fit neatly into a briefcase or the carrying case for your notebook computer. And you get it all for less than $400 (except the battery, sold separately for $69).
In addition to your small initial investment, you'll find that using the printer is inexpensive also. Black ribbons, which print up to 50 pages, are $4.99, and color ribbons are $6.99. The yield you'll get from the color cartridges is considerably less and depends, of course, on what you print.
The sheet feeder holds up to 5 pages, but Citizen offers a 30-page sheet feeder for $69. If you plan to use the printer on your desktop, you should opt for the larger sheet feeder. The Notebook Printer II's built-in page feeder is a little temperamental. It took me a while to get the hang of inserting the paper just right, and even then it required some babysitting.
The Notebook Printer II uses a thermal transfer process and prints at 360 x 360 dpi. It did quite well on the text tests. The results were slightly better on coated paper. The plain-paper pages showed some slight blotchiness in large black letters. Frankly, the PowerPoint overheads were a little too sophisticated for this printer. It didn't do well on the gradient backgrounds. However, I did some tests using solid colors and was quite pleased with the results. If you're on the road and need to print a few transparencies quickly, this printer will serve you well, as long as you don't try to get too fancy.
As for printing photographs... well, if you plan to print photographs, this isn't the printer for you. Keep in mind that the primary application for this printer is to tote along with your notebook computer. It's really not practical to try to work with photographs on most notebook computers, anyway.
You can use this as a desktop printer, especially if your work-space is very limited. However, you should consider doing so only if your printing volume is very small--say, a few pages a day. And if your primary output is color, especially full-page color transparencies, you'll probably find the Notebook Printer II to be too slow. Citizen recommends an output ratio of 90 percent black to 10 percent color, which sounds about right. You should consider this printer as a color-is-there-if-you-need-it solution.
But hey, if you need a good notebook printer to whip out documents or print out faxes in your hotel room or car (a cigarette-lighter adapter is available for $49), I can recommend this one. In fact, I'm considering adding it to my road-warrior arsenal. What's another 2.6 pounds, anyway?
Circle Reader Service Number 372
Of the eight printers reviewed here, the Primera is the most interesting and provides one of the more exciting options. This compact desktop printer provides thermal wax technology for less than $1,000 and photorealistic dye sublimation printing for less than $1,250. While this printer is not practical for high-volume color operations or desktop publishing settings where you need to proof large 24-bit photographs, it does provide good-quality color on a budget.
Out of the box, the Primera is a thermal wax printer. To get dyesub, you have to spend another $249.95 for a special ribbon, paper, and a Windows driver upgrade. At 203 dpi, the printer's maximum resolution, the thermal wax quality is mediocre. Colors are great, but the low resolution makes output grainy and jagged. This printer is not really practical for printing text; the quality is not acceptable. However, FARGO does offer a black ribbon for text printing, so you could use the printer for that if you needed to.
The real story behind this printer is the dye-sub upgrade. Like magic, when you change the ribbon and paper, and then choose Photo-Realistic from the Windows driver, this printer is transformed into a high-quality color-proofing printer. The Primera's dye-sub output is nearly perfect (see the sidebar "Photoshop Output Samples").
However, photorealistic output comes at a price. Cost per page jumps from $0.45 to $2.79. And the printer slows to a crawl. Also, you need to be aware of the way the printer driver rasterizes images. The Primera really has no built-in processor. Image processing is performed in your computer's RAM, which means you'll need a good complement of memory in your computer to print big photographs. I have 16MB in my Pentium computer, and some of the large test photographs (over 8MB) locked up the system. For some reason, the printer didn't make good use of the 50MB virtual-memory swap file.
While FARGO claims that the Primera prints on plain paper, it doesn't really do so with the same finesse as the other thermal wax printer reviewed here. As with most other thermal wax printers, you must leave a large (about three-fourths-inch) margin at the bottom of the page to accommodate the way the page passes in and out of the printer four times. For this printing system to work, you must use perforated A4-size paper and then tear the perforated strips away to cut the page down to letter size. You can print on plain letter-size pages, but only if you can live with the reduced print area. Keep in mind that using special paper adds to the expense of using the printer.
The Primera is not for everybody. In fact, it's more practical to use as a second specialized printer. One of my friends in the silk-screening business uses it to do dye-subs for showing his customers proofs of artwork. Then, if they want to see how a graphic looks on a T-shirt or sweatshirt, he prints a thermal wax version on T-shirt transfer paper and irons it onto a garment. This is an amazingly low-priced thermal wax and dye-sub printer, but it's not for everyday printing.
Circle Reader Service Number 373
HEWLETT-PACKARD DESKJET 560C
A recent upgrade to Hewlett-Packard's popular 550C, the 560C is a reasonably priced, well-built ink-jet printer. It prints well on plain paper and exceptionally well on special glossy paper and transparencies. This printer is easy to set up and a breeze to use. It takes up a little more room on your desktop (and costs a little more) than the Canon BJC-600, but it appears to be a bit sturdier.
Unlike many of the printers reviewed here, the 560C comes with a highly interactive printer driver that lets you select media and output types by clicking on easy-to-understand icons. The variety of options includes separate settings for printing graphics, such as charts and graphs, and for printing monochrome or full-color photographs. You can also choose separate settings for plain or glossy paper. When you select glossy paper, the 560C waits longer between pages, giving the ink time to dry and avoid smearing. There is even an Extra Drying Time setting.
On the print tests, the 560C performed like a champ. Text prints well at both large and small sizes, even on plain paper. Graphics print well on plain paper but appear a little washed out, which, because of absorption, isn't surprising. The photographs look good but hardly up to proof-printer quality, which you really can't expect from an inkjet. Where the 560C really excels is in printing transparencies. Colors and gradients are nearly perfect. The bars in my charts were almost identical to those in PowerPoint on the monitor.
The 560C is capable of resolutions of up to 600 x 300 dpi; however, except on large text (higher than 18 points), you'll notice little difference in the quality of the output, whichever resolution you use. For example, I couldn't tell the difference between the gray-scale and black-and-white graphics.
Like many of the printers reviewed here, the 560C supports a variety of paper sizes, including legal and envelopes. You can select paper size from the Windows printer driver or from the front panel on the printer. Other options, such as resolution and print quality, are also selectable from the control panel.
If you have an earlier DeskJet, you can use font cartridges designed to work with it. You cannot use emulation cartridges, such as the PostScript emulation cartridges typically supported by HP LaserJets. Emulation cartridges require printer RAM. Inkjet printers typically have only small buffers for downloading fonts, and in that respect they're similar to dot-matrix printers. Exceptions are PostScript inkjets, such as the HP 1200C/PS and IBM Color Jetprinter PS 4079.
This is the part of the review where I usually discuss some of the product's shortcomings. But there really is no good reason not to recommend the 560C. You get a great printer at a great price, as well as Hewlett-Packard's exceptional reputation and quality.
Circle Reader Service Number 374
HEWLETT-PACKARD DESKJET 1200C AND 1200C/PS
At first glance, the 1200C appears to be a grown-up version of the DeskJet 560C. However, a closer look reveals that it is much more. In its standard configuration, the 1200C emulates PCL5, the same language used by Hewlett-Packard's popular LaserJet printers. What this means is that the printer can use the same fonts, the same memory, and the same font cartridges. It also means that you get HP's Resolution Enhancement technology (REt), which improves the quality of certain types of graphics.
For $910, you can upgrade the 1200C to PostScript, making the printer a 1200C/PS. For $729 more, you can upgrade to Post-Script Level 2, which provides increased speed and graphics quality but costs too much. The Level 2 upgrade takes the printer above the $3,000 ceiling for this review. I looked at the 1200C/PS with 4MB of RAM.
This printer performs well and prints well, although a little slowly. The text and graphics overheads were exceptional. As with the HP 560C, you can print at either 600 x 300 dpi or 300 x 300 dpi. However, the 600 x 300 resolution is not available in color. I was especially impressed with how good text looks on plain paper. The Photoshop photographs were a bit disappointing, though. They were much too dark, and some of them were too large for the printer to handle in the 4MB of RAM. You can, however, upgrade the RAM to 20MB.
Hewlett-Packard sells several special paper selections and its own brand of transparencies. I got the best results on HP paper but saw no difference in different types of transparencies.
This is an ideal color printer for a network. It supports parallel, serial, and LocalTalk interfaces, and it can detect which port data is coming through and switch appropriately. What this means is that you can hook up both a Mac and a PC to the printer and use them simultaneously. You'll also find a variety of optional networking I/O cards for interfacing with Novell, Windows NT, UNIX, and just about any other network you can think of.
While this printer is a little too powerful and expensive for most desktops, it's certainly worth considering if you do high-volume color printing or even high-volume text printing with frequent color output. If you do only occasional color printing, this may be too much printer for your application. But if you do a lot of presentations, this is the ideal printer for overhead transparencies, and you can use it to proof 35-mm slides and print audience handouts.
IBM COLOR JETPRINTER PS 4079
Need a good color printer with lots of options? Check out the IBM Color Jetprinter PS 4079. It's the only printer I found in this price range that supports oversize sheets up to 11 x 17 inches. When you're printing color, there are a number of advantages to oversize sheets, including the ability to print out two-page newsletter spreads and to proof bleeds (areas where ink runs off the paper) on smaller sheets.
But oversize-paper support is certainly not the only feature to recommend this printer. It prints at a crisp 360 dpi. Text and graphics output is quite respectable on both plain paper and special coated paper. Transparencies are impeccable. About the only place where this printer falls behind the Canon and HP 560C models for output quality is in printing photographs. The Jetprinter reproduces colors and detail well enough, but backgrounds contain some slight unsightly patterns. However, as I've stressed throughout this article, you shouldn't rely on an inkjet printer to print color photographs.
The printer provides two emulation modes, both PostScript Level 1 and IBM-GL Plotter. And it automatically switches between them, without your having to change anything on the control panel. Also supported are parallel, serial, and LocalTalk interfaces, and the printer can sense which port the data is coming through and switch appropriately.
You can upgrade the Jetprinter to 16MB of RAM. The unit I reviewed had 4MB. Unlike the HP 1200C/PS, the Jetprinter was able to print all of the test images with 4MB. I also hooked the printer to my Mac and PC at the same time to run simultaneous print jobs. The printer successfully communicated to the Mac that it was busy while I printed from the PC, and then successfully printed the Mac document when the PC had finished.
In addition to support for Windows, you also get drivers for the following DOS applications: Harvard Graphics 3.0, Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro 3.0, and WordPerfect 5.1. You'll also receive support for the Macintosh, for RISC System/6000, and for OS/2.
Granted, this is more printer than most people need. But unlike some of the printers reviewed here, it is the only printer you'd need. It prints text quickly and transparencies flawlessly, and I even had reasonable results with a couple of gray-scale images. The ink cartridges are large and provide high yield. It costs only a few pennies per page to operate the printer.
Unless you're unable to handle the initial cost of the Jetprinter, which is much higher than the cost of the other printers covered in the roundup, there's really no reason not to buy it. It's a great printer for people who do a lot of color printing. And remember that you get what you pay for.
STAR MICRONICS SJ-144
Now here's a small, easy-to-use, and inexpensive-to-operate color printer for everybody. Like the Canon, this printer takes up practically no space on your desktop; however, unlike the Canon, the SJ-144 does not feed its output onto the desktop, making this a truly compact model. You can print anywhere. I set it on top of my monitor, and it ran perfectly.
I got a little bolder and balanced it on top of a pile of books. The SJ-144 hummed along, barely moving. The Canon, on the other hand, shook my desk slightly. I would not have considered setting it anywhere but on a secure surface. Frankly, however, I could have run the SJ-144 in the palm of my hand, sideways, or upside down. But keep in mind that there are trade-offs for everything. The SJ-144 doesn't print quite as well as the Canon.
A thermal transfer device, the SJ-144 supports two resolutions: 180 x 180 and 360 x 360. These resolutions are a little misleading. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get the output to look acceptable on plain paper. Text was faded and blotchy, and some graphics were almost unrecognizable. In fact, the output was so bad with plain paper that I was about to declare this printer unusable.
But what a transformation when I used the coated paper! Text printed clearly and crisply. My transparencies looked good, too. About the only thing this printer can't do really well is photographs. At this price ($599), though, you can't expect a perfect photorealistic proof printer. What you get instead is compactness and convenience at a reasonable price.
And the printer continues to be a bargain. Monochrome costs about $0.05 per page. Color is a bit more expensive at $0.94 per page. You should use the color ribbon only when you're ready to print your final draft.
A very impressive feature of this printer is its ability to sense which ribbon is loaded. When you try to print a completely black-and-white document with the color ribbon loaded, the printer gives you a ribbon error message and stops to allow you to change to black-and-white. This is a great way to make sure you don't waste your color ribbons while printing black-and-white.
Most likely, this is not necessary to point out, but the SJ-144 is not a high-volume printer. It's designed for people who use their computers occasionally and don't print often. It's also designed for people who don't have a lot of desk real estate to dedicate to their printers. If you meet both of these criteria and want a printer you can set (and easily carry) anywhere, this one's a good option.
TEKTRONIX PHASER 220E
Of all the printers reviewed here, this one is probably the most market-specific. The Tektronix Phaser 220e is a thermal wax printer in the traditional sense. It's large, it prints best on special paper or transparencies, and it's primarily designed for use on a network or by a desktop publisher who works with color. While its colors are not as photorealistic as those produced on a dye sublimation printer, it works great for overheads and for color proofing. It's not inexpensive to use, so you'll need a second printer for text and other monochrome documents.
A huge device, the Phaser 220e weighs about 40 pounds. The model I looked at came with an optional second feed bin so that you can run paper from one tray and transparencies from the other. All that users on the newtork have to know when printing is which tray holds which medium.
Interface options abound, including parallel, serial, Local-Talk, and SCSI; and the printer can switch ports automatically. You can use the SCSI port to install a hard drive for storing fonts. The printer also supports PostScript, HP-GL, and PCL5 emulation, meaning that you can print in either PostScript, HP plotter, or HP LaserJet mode. And unlike the HP 1200C/PS, it comes standard with Level 2 PostScript.
Also impressive is the color correction technology (called TekColor) built into the Windows and Mac printer drivers. You can tell the printer to correct color based on standard output values or to match the monitor. This doesn't work flawlessly (monitors are capable of many more colors than printers), but it's a step closer to true color WYSIWYG.
The Phaser 220e performed well on all of the output tests. Text was clear and crisp at all sizes. The colors and graphics in the transparencies were impeccable. Even the photographs, though not quite up to dye sublimation quality, printed quite well. However, as with the other thermal wax printer in this review, you'll have to use A4-size paper and then tear away the perforated tabs to get a full letter-size page. Another great application for this type of printer is creating iron-on patches for clothing.
This is not the printer for most desktops. You should spend this kind of money only if you print color often. Desktop publishers should get good use from the Phaser 220e, as should people who do a lot of presentations.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]