Today's fancy colour inkjet printers can churn out some truly fantastic looking pages but most of them do so at a snail's pace. And printing more than just a few pages a week makes running costs skyrocket, as replacement inkjet cartridges rank among the most expensive consumables.
But if you don't have a colour craving there's a cheaper, faster alternative - the personal laser printer. Where once you'd have had to turn over top dollar for a good model, today's laser printers are nothing less than modern marvels: even the cheapest manage to couple great quality with good speed.
For those in business, or home users with a need only for monochrome output, a personal laser printer will outperform all but the very best inkjet models.
Try it for size
Laser printers have conventionally been rather unwieldy beasts, with both bulk and weight conspiring against any companion-like presence on the desktop. These days the situation has much improved, with the likes of Epson's EPL-5800 weighing the same as just four bags of sugar. Sweeter still, the sizes have reduced considerably: Samsung's super-cheap ML-4500, for example, has the profile of a compact bread bin.
That said, seating a laser printer right under your nose isn't necessarily such a wise idea. Laser printers, even so-called 'personal' ones, chum out ozone - a gas that we could use rather more of above the polar icecaps, but which smells horrible down here at ground level. Moreover, it's not terribly wise to inhale it in quantity: if you've ever stood next to a photocopier for a few minutes and felt nauseous from the emitted fumes, you'll understand why.
Kyocera is one manufacturer that goes to great lengths to promote the environmental qualities of its printers, even highlighting the fact that its FS-1000 model pumps out 0.02 parts of ozone per million, which sounds pretty low to us.
The trouble is, it's rather difficult to make a comparison because the other suppliers bury their laser printer emission figures deeply, if indeed they're to be found at all. Nor will we pretend that we sat for hours breathing in the fumes - well, would you? - but Kyocera's model was certainly one of the quietest printers in operation.
Like us, you'll probably want to keep your laser printer at arm's length or more, but how do you hook it up in the first place? For the majority, the answer is through the parallel connector, just like any other printer. However, a few models, like the EPL-5800 from Epson and Samsung's ML-6040, also feature a USB interface. This might be a consideration if you're already running, say, a scanner and a zip drive through your PC's parallel socket.
For shared use, such as in a small office environment, a network connection might be called for. While most laser printers can be hooked up to a network with the addition of the appropriate interface card, don't make the assumption that they all can, particularly those marketed specifically as 'personal' printers.
The GDIs have it
The simplest laser printers don't worry about page description languages, contenting themselves instead with their lot as servile print engines, there to deal with whatever the computer throws at them. This type of printer is known as a Graphical Device Interface, or GDI laser, or direct-drive laser.
While conventional lasers require 2Mb of Ram or more to store page descriptions, along with their own onboard microchips to process them before printing, GDI models do not need processors, and only minimal amounts of memory to store data.
GDI printers rely on the host PC to do all the complex stuff of working out how to print a page, stepping in to print only when the computer has got the job underway. The upshot of all this is that GDI printers can offer the same level of quality as other lasers while being much cheaper than the electronics-laden opposition - just see the subA150 price tag of Samsung's ML-4500 for confirmation of this.
However, the flip side is that GDI printers siphon processing power from your PC whenever you're printing. This is not a problem if you're likely to be a light user, but longer print jobs - particularly those containing lots of graphics - can knock the performance of even a fast PC.
Does the amount of memory in a laser matter? Well, for non-GDI printers the answer is maybe. The printer uses its memory to store the commands of the page description language for each full A4 sheet. If the data for a complete page adds up to less than the printer's memory capacity, no problem; otherwise, an error could occur.
For the 'typical' laser printer user, 2Mb to 4Mb should be enough memory, but more is always merrier. Graphically rich pages will inevitably swallow up more memory so, if that's what you have in mind, aim for more Ram
If you're not sure, save money by starting low and expanding later: the LaserJet 1100's 2Mb of memory, for example, can be expanded to 18Mb, while Epson's EPL-5800 can go all the way up to an extravagant 256Mb - and it kicks off with a generous 16Mb.
As you might suspect, inkjet printers use ink to print pages. Laser printers, on the other hand, use a powder-like toner, which is heat-fused to the page as the paper passes through and out of the printer. Just like ink, toner needs replenishing. How often this needs doing depends on many factors, not least of which is the type of printing you'll be doing.
Manufacturers generally quote toner cartridge life in numbers of A4 sheets, based on a 'coverage' of five per cent of the page. If you imagine a completely black printed page, that would be 100 per cent covered, so five per cent coverage is representative only of a simple text document like a letter. Outputting lots of graphics pages, or mixed text and graphics, will therefore reduce the life of a cartridge to below its manufacturer's estimate.
When the toner runs out, you'll need to buy a new cartridge. The £49.99 cost of the Samsung ML-4500's replacement toner cartridges appears cheap on the surface, but at 2500 pages its estimated life is lower than most.
The Samsung ML-6400 and Epson EPL-5800 have similarly priced cartridges, and both have quoted lives of 6000 pages, but the Epson model has a handicap: every 20,000 pages or so you have to replace the print drum at further cost. Other lasers here incorporate the print drum and toner in one throwaway cartridge, with Kyocera's Ecosys unit being the most environmentally sound in terms of post-use recycling ability.
All of the tested printers offer toner saving modes, which essentially offer 'lighter' printing - perfect for draft runs.
Enough to drive you dotty
Another number to watch is the printer's resolution, measured in dots per inch (dpi), as things may not be exactly as they appear. For example, Kyocera's FS-1000 is claimed to offer a maximum 1200 dpi but, as with many other laser printers, resolution enhancement technology is at work here: the FS-1000's 1200dpi is actually interpolated from a true resolution of 600dpi giving it no baseline advantage over the other basic models under review.
What's more, regardless of resolution we cannot imagine any home or small business user being disappointed by the output - at least, the text output - from any one of the printers we tested.
The deciding factors of any printer test are quality and speed. With a laser printer, you're pretty much guaranteed good text output speed, as our test results demonstrate. The 'slowest' printer on test - the Samsung ML-4500 - still manages to chum out close on seven text pages per minute, which is sheets ahead of similarly priced inkjet printers.
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