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All 3 of New Inkjet Printers Are the Picture of Quality

November 11, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

If you're thinking of buying a color printer as a family holiday present, you might want to buy it soon. That way you'll have plenty of time to use it to make greeting cards, party invitations, banners, name tags and all the other things we technophiles like to make during the holiday season.

The good news is that all three of the major inkjet printer manufacturers have recently come out with new models. I've tested all three and you can't go wrong. The Hewlett-Packard 690C ($329), the Epson Stylus 500 Color ($279) and the Canon BJC-4200 ($279) are all able to print near-photo-quality color and near-laser-quality black and white. (Prices are approximate.)

Unlike some low-end models, all three have both color and black ink cartridges, which are not only more convenient but also ensure crisp black text.

When evaluating color inkjet printers, I look for paper handling, cost of consumables, page per minute in black, and quality of both color and black and white printouts on both regular paper and special high-quality paper. Ease of use, reliability and the software that comes with the printer are also factors.

I don't worry too much about how long it takes to print color photographs, because it will be very slow no matter which printer you buy. Many dealers show off color printers by handing you a test page--typically a color photograph on high-quality paper.

That's impressive, but long after your color greeting cards have been removed from the mantel, your family will be printing letters, reports, homework, financial statements and other essential but boring-looking documents. So when looking at print samples, have the dealer print out a regular old word- processing document using standard 10- or 12-point type and--if necessary--bring along your own cheap paper.

Each company sells various types of inkjet paper, ranging from about 6 cents to 15 cents a page, but I save that for special projects and do my day-to-day printing--and printer testing--on cheap copy paper. All three did a good job printing regular black text on copy paper, so declaring a winner is a bit subjective. I thought that Canon's was the sharpest, followed by HP. Epson's text came in a close third.

Epson did a fabulous job printing color photographs, but to get that quality you must use special glossy paper that costs more than $2 per 8-by-11 sheet. At that price, you might be better off using a standard photo lab. Canon's photo stock costs about 13 cents a page, HP's about 50 cents.

Speaking of cost, don't forget the price of ink cartridges--it can be significant. Epson makes it simple. The color cartridge, which costs $28.70, prints about 320 pages for about 9 cents a page. The black cartridge lasts for 600 copies and costs about 3.8 cents a page. HP's standard color ink will set you back about 9 cents a page, while the black ink averages about 4.6 cents per page. Canon's color copies cost about 15 cents each, while black costs either 3.8 cents or 7 cents, depending on which black cartridge you use.

Each printer handles about 100 sheets of standard paper, a lesser quantity of card stock, and special stock such as transparency film or iron-on T-shirt transfers. All can handle envelopes, but only the HP lets you insert an envelope without removing the paper.

Speed can be important, but don't necessarily believe a company's page-per-minute claim. Hewlett-Packard says it can do three pages per minute in normal black mode. I clocked it at 28 seconds for the first page and 23 seconds for each additional page. Epson advertises "up to four pages per minute." I counted about 30 seconds per page.

Canon says it can get up to five pages a minute, which might be true if you have a long document, but in my tests it took 45 seconds for the first page and 30 seconds for each additional page. My pages may be longer than what are used for standard tests, but I used the same page for each machine.

All three machines are bundled with software. The Canon 4200 comes with ColorDesk photo-editing software; Color Store, which creates labels, badges, T-shirts, certificates and other documents; and CreataCard, a greeting card program from American Greetings.

The Epson comes with both Mac and Windows versions of Adobe PhotoDeluxe, Adobe HomePublisher for Mac and Sierra Print Artist for Windows. The HP comes with the Disney Interactive 101 Dalmatians Print Studio CD-ROM and PrintPaks Family Fun Kit.

It's hard to declare a winner in this year's printer war. Although it's a bit more expensive, I'm partial to the Hewlett-Packard because of its printing speed, overall quality, rugged design and the way it handles envelopes and paper. Paper sits horizontally--the others have vertical paper feeds that can sometimes cause slippage.

The Epson, which is also impressive, comes with a two-year warranty. Canon and HP each offer a one-year warranty. If you plan to mostly print black text and don't mind changing cartridges when you're ready for color, the Canon offers very high quality and excellent economy.

Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at His Web page is at

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