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Printing in Color, Without Draining It From Your Checkbook

May 19, 1997|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

It continues to amaze me how quickly color inkjet printers get better and cheaper. Now it's possible to get a printer with good color and black text for under $200. For under $300, you can get a printer that will produce color photos that look almost as good as what you get at a photo lab.

I looked at four low-cost color printers: the Epson Stylus Color 400 Ink Jet ($249), the Canon BJC 4200 ($299), the Lexmark 2055 ($259) and the Hewlett-Packard 694C ($299). (All prices are approximate.)

I was impressed with the versatility of all four printers. All share the ability to produce reasonably crisp text and very good-looking photos, making them suitable for both home and office functions. For years I used a laser printer to get clean-looking correspondence, but any of these printers would be adequate for my needs.

In fact, I've long since replaced my laser printer with a color inkjet. I don't print color very often, but when I do, it's a nice touch. In addition to all those boring black and white letters and article drafts, I use mine to print out Web pages, small quantities of brochures with a color photo and occasional color family photos to share with friends and grandparents.

I once used the printer to quickly create about 50 lost-dog posters with a photo of Shaggy (though it turned out she was incarcerated at the pound). Sometimes I'll even spice up my boring letters with a splash of color or a small photo.

Each of these printers has two cartridges, one for black and one for color. That's important, because some low-cost printers force you to choose either black or color, or to print black by combining colored inks. That not only uses more ink, it also produces a rather washed-out black.

The black text produced by all four of these printers is pretty good. And when you're ready to print in color, you don't have to swap cartridges.

To help me test the printers, I enlisted the help of Lee Hill, a part-time photographer with a large collection of scanned photo images. We tested each printer's photo-quality mode by using high-end glossy or satin inkjet paper. This paper isn't cheap--it can cost up to $1 a sheet--but it's necessary if you want to come close to what you'd expect from standard color prints. Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Canon also offer special photo-quality inks for pictures.

Each machine was tested in its default photo-quality mode. The Epson won, followed very closely by the Canon. The HP model came in third and the Lexmark fourth.

Hill and I initially disagreed about the HP. I liked the way the photos looked until he pointed out that the colors, though nice to look at, were not as true to the original photo. I think that's OK for my family snapshots and vacation photos, but I can understand why Hill, a serious photographer, would be disappointed.

We were able to improve on the photo quality of each printer by fiddling with the software controls, but frankly, I doubt that most people would want to bother. All the printers are very slow in photo-quality color mode, each taking at least 15 minutes for a full-page photo.

We also tested the printers for quality and speed when printing text on plain paper in the normal mode. Printer manufacturers publish speed specifications in terms of pages per minute, but these can be deceptive because they're typically calculated by printing several pages. What I care about is the time it takes to print the first page or two. People typically use these printers to print one- or two-page letters and can get pretty impatient if they have to wait nearly a minute before that first page is ready.

When it comes to quality, the paper you use can make an enormous difference. Each printer maker sells its own brand of paper, which they say is optimized for their printers. I don't believe it. Any manufacturer's inkjet paper seems to work well on any printer. There are lots of other brands of inkjet paper that also work well.

Nevertheless, I tested all the printers using cheap copy paper because it's the lowest common denominator and typical of what most people use. I use cheap paper for most of my printing, but keep a supply of better-quality inkjet paper for special jobs.

The Lexmark, which was last in photo quality, was the winner when it came to text. It was clear and it was also the fastest, at 20 seconds to print the page. The black ink costs just under 3 cents a page, and the machine has a 150-sheet paper capacity.

The Canon was a close second on text quality, but at 44 seconds, it is considerably slower. Hewlett-Packard came in third. The text looks respectable, but it's not quite as crisp as Canon's and Lexmark's. This is most noticeable when you look at it with a magnifying glass or when you run it through a copy machine.

The Epson was last on text mode because of "wicking," meaning that the small white space in letters (such as in an e or an o) gets filled in. Again, it's not highly visible to the naked eye, but very obvious when magnified or copied.

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