The job of the departmental laser printer has gotten a whole lothas taken place in printer technology recently. Lance Concannon puts five of the best through their paces. harder in the past few years. Especially since people realised that you got better results if you printed off several copies of a document rather than simply printing the original and then photocopying it. In addition the cost difference simply isn't an issue any more. Also, with today's new whiz-bang applications, pretty much everybody's a power user, so the printer's expected to produce more than just text. People want everything from simple charts to high resolution images. In short, it means that printers have a far higher expected work load, and the work they're expected to produce is of increasingly higher quality.
The departmental printer - aimed at groups of around 20 or above - is where most of the development has taken place in printer technology recently.
These machines are expected to be the most versatile, whether pumping out the odd letter in an office of 15 people or taking on the needs of anything up to 50 printer-intensive workers. Fortunately the manufacturers are more than aware of what the market is calling for. This is why pretty much all of the printers reviewed here come in a very simple, basic configuration and can be fitted with a host of options to turn them into gargantuan paper-churning mills capable of taking on the workload of an entire business.
When buying hardware it's important to accurately assess your organisation's needs. Think about how many people are going to use the printer now, and how many are likely to be using it in 12 months time. There's no point in skimping on the budget in the short term if an influx of new staff or a dramatic change in role is going to force you to buy a larger machine within a year. It's worth finding out about the options which are available for the machine you're interested in, paper finishers, extra capacity trays, alternative interface cards, memory expansion, internal hard disks - if you pick the right machine it will be able to grow with your needs.
Manageability is likely to be a big issue at any site where you employ over five printers. Most manufacturers deliver some kind of remote control and/or network management utilities. The ability to monitor the status of all your printers from a single console has obvious benefits, allowing you to get that empty toner cartridge before the MD tries to print out his 300-page report on the IT department's performance. If used wisely, the reporting capabilities of printer administration tools can help you to work more efficiently, by working out where the strain in your system is, which machines are under used or which departments are hogging the most resources. All such information is crucial if you are to include the intelligent management of printers into your successful IT strategy.
Large laser printers are complex and expensive beasts and their procurement is not a matter to be taken lightly.
LEXMARK OPTRA S2455
THE LEXMARK OPTRA S2455 SHOULD BE ON YOUR WISH LIST
As well as being one of the more physically compact machines on test here, the Lexmark also provided a very good "out of box experience", taking no more than a few moments to get the machine into an operational state.
The documentation supplied with the machine is both comprehensive and easy to follow and the driver installation routine enjoys a very user friendly interface. Once installed the drivers are easily manipulated, should you require to alter the machines configuration. As standard the machine ships with 4Mb of memory, this can be expanded to a maximum of 68Mb. In the base configuration the machine is supplied without a network card, but Lexmark offers a healthy selection of interface options. In terms of available options the Optra is a very flexible machine, allowing you to build from a quite basic 24ppm desktop printer to a gargantuan device with enough features to satisfy even the most demanding of departments.
The device scores high in the usability stakes, its control menu is displayed clearly on a large LCD screen and is easily navigated with a few simple buttons. Routine tasks such as unblocking paper jams and changing the toner cartridge are also very easy. Lexmark supplies its own MarkVision network printer management software with the Optra family of machines.
This package performs pretty much along the same lines as most of its competitors, allowing you to keep track of all printers on the network from a single console. As one would expect from such a package it offers a variety of alerts to inform the system administrator when something is wrong with a particular printer and also produces usage reports.
As far as print quality is concerned the Lexmark is a fine machine, and with up to 1200dpi printing and a selection of image enhancement functions it delivered almost perfect text and images. It passed practically all of our quality tests with flying colours. If you need a monochrome laser printer which can handle images well, the Optra should be on your wish list.
A fine machine which manages to pack a lot of punch into a relatively small form factor. While it lacks some of the real high-end features of the HP machine, it's still a very fine machine.
Lexmark 01628 481500
BULKY LASER PRINTER PROVED A LITTLE AWKWARD TO SET UP
This 20ppm offering from Epson was a little awkward to setup. The drivers, which were supplied on several floppies rather than a CD were somewhat less than intuitive to install. While people who are experienced in the sometimes arcane hardware installation procedures of Windows 95 should manage to successfully install the printer with a little tinkering, inexperienced users may find themselves becoming a little frustrated at the cumbersome and unhelpful installation instructions - the manual offers little consolation.
It's not only during installation that the printer displays poor usability.
The control panel on the device is very cluttered and quite unintuitive - offering very little information to the user. Once we managed to successfully install the driver, Windows repeatedly insisted that there was another Epson machine (stating completely the wrong model type) and attempted to install new drivers every time the PC was rebooted. Whether this was a problem with Windows or with the Epson setup we're not sure, but we didn't experience it with any of the other printers. Even after clearing the PC of previous installations and completely re-installing the drivers the Epson persisted to present us with unfathomable difficulties and offered little or nothing in the way of meaningful error messages. These are precisely the kind of difficulties IT support staff want to avoid.
The standard model ships with 4Mb of RAM, and can be expanded to a maximum configuration of 68Mb. The printer features a 500-sheet paper tray as well as a manual paper feeder which can be used to hold a further 150 pages.
All in all the device is quite bulky in comparison to the Lexmark Optra, especially as it is using a slower and lower resolution engine. The Epson does ship with a couple of remote control utilities, but offers little in the way of good printer management software.
Print quality for the 600dpi machine was perfectly good, but given the price and specification of other machines reviewed here, it's hard to recommend this machine for any purpose. One of the machine's few redeeming features is that it comes supplied with a built-in Ethernet card as standard.
Quite bulky and technically outdated by some of the other machines here.
Poor usability and a relatively high price make it quite difficult to recommend this machine. Epson needs to update its product line in this market sector.
Epson 01442 261144
KYOCERA ECOSYS 3700+
IN TERMS OF SPEED IT DELIVERS REASONABLY IMPRESSIVE RESULTS
Despite coming in at the very low-end of the market, this entry-level 18 page per minute from Kyocera managed to deliver reasonably impressive results, particularly in terms of speed. The system was relatively easy to setup, although it does require a little more attention than some of the other machines in this test as it requires a waste toner collector bottle to be fitted. However, the drivers are nice and straight forward.
The machine enjoys quite compact dimensions and is by far and away the smallest machine in the test. Like most others in this category the machine features 4Mb of memory as standard and has a maximum upgrade capacity of 68Mb.
The control panel is clear and concise, and has a larger than average LCD display which presents the control menu to the user. This is navigated with the help of eight large and clearly labelled control buttons. The panel also gives users a graphical representation of more common problems such as low toner or running out of paper.
While the speed fairly obviously wasn't up to that of the more highly specified machinery, the point is that the Kyocera didn't lag too far behind. Certainly when printing quite small jobs of, say, less than five pages, the speed difference is pretty much negligible. Unfortunately, the print quality of this 600dpi device isn't quite up to scratch with the rest of the machines in this test. It suffered particularly when attempting to print large areas of black, which appeared very pale and uneven. The machines text quality doesn't look too bad to start with, but really suffers when compared to that of the better machines in this test.
Nonetheless, this is an entry-level offering and if your office space and budget are both on the small side you would do well to consider the Ecosys 3700+.
A nice little printer that's, compact, inexpensive and well featured.
Unfortunately in the present company it's slightly outclassed in terms of performance, although that's not a criticism of the printer itself.
Ideal in a small office environment.
Kyocera 0118 9311500
HP LASERJET 8000DN
THIS LASER PRINTER BOASTS THE MOST BELLS AND WHISTLES
The LaserJet 8000DN is by far the most overly specified machine in our grouptest. Installation and setup are quite complex to get to grips with - this isn't the kind of machine that can be installed by untrained personnel. This is largely because it features its own internal Web server which allows the machine to be controlled and managed by the system administrator via a Web browser.
Rated at 24ppm, the machine features a 133MHz MIPS processor and was shipped to us with 24Mb of internal memory, this can be expanded a whopping maximum of 196Mb which gives you some idea of the kind of heavy load this machine is capable of handling. The standard model is fitted with two 500-sheet paper trays and also features a manual sheet feeder. On top of the monolithic machine is the control panel which consists of a small LCD screen and a handful of control buttons to steer you around the menu system - which is fairly intuitive. The printer ships with HP's JetAdmin network printer management software which allows system administrators to keep track of the status of all the printers on their network from a single console. The software produces reports to help you work out where your resources are being stretched and lets you know which machines in your domain are in need of attention. This is probably the most widely used tool of its type.
The 8000DN model ships as standard with a 10-100 network interface card, as the vast majority of these machines are connected to corporate networks.
All of the expected options are available, you can fit the machine with a hard drive, alternative interfaces and of course countless paper finishing add ons.
In our performance and quality tests the LaserJet 8000DN performed admirably and did particularly well in the large document speed test. Both text and image quality were among the best.
This machine is a big purchase, it's ideally suited to corporates who can benefit from the countless manageability advantages it has to offer.
However, smaller organisations without the IT skills resources required to get the best from this machine might want to consider something a little less feature-rich.
Unsurprisingly a very strong offering from the market leader, there's no doubt it was built to cope with a heavy workload and designed for use in the large corporate environment.
HP 0990 474747
QMS' HIGH-END PS-2425
REQUIRED THE LEAST FUSS OF ALL THE HIGH-END LASER PRINTERS
QMS is perhaps one of the printer industry's lesser known manufacturers, which is unfortunate as its hardware is certainly on a par with its better known competitors. The PS-2425 is a high-end departmental 24ppm printer which offers similar performance and features to the LaserJet 8000DN.
Setup and configuration of the device was fairly straightforward, although it has to be said that both the documentation and driver installation routines could be a bit more user friendly. Regardless, we found the QMS required the least fuss of all the high-end machines to reach an operational state.
The machine comes as standard with two 500-sheet paper trays and also features a 100-sheet multi-purpose feeder tray. QMS has given the machine a technology which it calls Emulation Sensing Processor, which allows the printer to automatically decide which of its four in-built printer emulation modes to use for an incoming document. The modes featured are PostScript Level 2, HP PCL 5e, HP-GL and Lineprinter. QMS even offers its competition to HP's JetAdmin - QMS Crown Admin 2, which has been written for Windows, Macintosh and Unix platforms.
The machine ships as a 600dpi device but it can be upgraded with a daughterboard option to 1200dpi.
In our performance tests the QMS machine provided strong results, almost identical in fact to those of the HP machine. Also, we could find nothing to complain about in the print quality test. As you can see from the image print samples, its midtones look a tiny bit washed out compared to the HP sample, but this really is splitting hairs.
As far as usability is concerned this machine falls somewhere in the middle of the those we've looked at. While it's fairly easy to operate if you've spent the past few days doing nothing except meddle with printers, it might not be so straightforward if the subject isn't your forte.
The biggest weakness of this machine is that its manufacturer doesn't enjoy the kind of global strength corporate marketing of some of its rivals.
In terms of performance and features the QMS is right up there with the HP and would serve well in any high pressure environment. It has the added advantage of being certified by the Association for Payment Clearing Services for cheque printing.
QMS 01784 442255
PC WEEK DEVISED A SERIES OF TESTS DESIGNED TO SIMULATE REAL WORLD USAGE
In order to accurately assess the capabilities of each machine we devised a series of tests designed to simulate real world usage.
First we timed the machines as they printed a single page document containing only text, to find out long it would take them to print off a simple letter.
It's no secret that in many offices the departmental laser printer has all but replaced the photocopier.
So, to test the printers ability to produce multiple original copies (or "mopies" as HP would have us call them) we time the machines while they printed out 10 copies of the single page document.
In order to find out how the printers would cope with large documents we set the clock going while the machines crunched away at a 30-page document.
The document contained a mixture of text and embedded images likely to be found in most business documents - such as charts, tables, graphs and so on.
Finally we used VNU Labs' specifically design quality test document to asses each machine's print quality. This allows us to spot any weak areas the printer might have and also lets us find out just how good the machines are at printing both monochrome and dithered colour high resolution images.
You can see the results of the speed tests in the table (see above). Obviously it would be unfair to compare printers with different rated speeds.
However, some manufacturers simply don't produce 24ppm printers in the mid-range departmental class, choosing to use different print engines to the norm.
The point of our departmental laser printer tests is to allow you to see just how well some of the supposedly slower and faster machines actually compare to each other when being placed under real day-to-day office usage.
We've included a portion of the quality test printouts alongside each review in order to let you see the differences for yourself.
OPTRA HITS TOP
LEXMARK OPTRA PROVES TO BE PRACTICALLY A BREED APART
The thing that this grouptest makes completely apparent is that even though these machines all supposedly fall into the same product category (i.e. midrange departmental lasers) there are yet more sub-divisions in that category. Take for example the comparison of the three 24ppm minute offerings. Although the QMS and the HP machines have a lot in common and will be certainly competing for the same customers, the Lexmark device which offers similar performance is practically a breed apart. Its small form factor and wildly different feature set make it look as though it's aiming at an entirely different market.
Of the two lower-speed machines the Kyocera is the clear winner, its high usability rating, pert casing and surprisingly good performance factor put it head and shoulders above the supposedly higher specification of the Epson. However, it has two things against it. Firstly, as you can plainly tell from the print samples, its quality is far from perfect.
Secondly, even though it's fast and well specified for a small printer we feel it simply won't be able to cut it in a larger department. We believe the Kyocera machine belongs firmly in the small business environment.
This leads us back to the 24ppm devices. As has already been mentioned, little separates the QMS and HP machines in terms of performance and quality, although the HP does manage to edge in front on the strength of a slightly stronger feature set and of course the all-powerful JetAdmin network printer administration software. But in terms of technical wizardry we have no hesitation in awarding the Lexmark Optra S2455 our Technical Excellence award, for managing to squeeze great, high resolution quality and reasonable performance into such a small package.
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