Setup a home office: 7 colour laser printers reviewed
We round up seven of the best colour lasers for the home and small office
Choosing a printer is all about picking the right tools for the job. Take this month’s lasers: we’re featuring small machines for a quiet home office, right up to heavyweights supporting multiple simultaneous users.
The fastest turns out black and white pages at 27ppm, and the pages they create are of unbelievably high quality. If you print business graphics, or virtually any kind of non-photographic colour, a laser is the ideal purchase.
But choosing a printer isn’t simply about picking the one matching your budget: we’ve gone through each printer’s consumables and worked out the total running cost in the long term.
Buyers Guide, plus how we test
It’s often the case that a laser printer’s output quality isn’t the overriding factor in your buying decision.
This month’s printers all create superb results – although there were often distinctions to be made, it’s important to note that none of the devices on test this month will embarrass you in a presentation. Far from it, in fact.
Quality & Speed
These distinctions often make their presence felt with what’s known as “banding”, which is where solid blocks of colour exhibit horizontal lines across them, the result of tiny imperfections in a printer’s mechanism.
Colour accuracy is also important. Although you’re never going to use any of these printers for photographic work, it’s crucial that your prints emerge looking as close as possible to the on-screen original.
This is particularly true if your prints are going to be seen by clients or customers.
Speed is an issue that crops up due to the two different methods used to produce colour prints. Devices with four individual toner cartridges can generally produce colour prints in a quarter of the time taken by those with one four-colour toner cartridge.
This is because the latter has to run the paper through its fuser mechanism once for each colour. If colour is only a rare requirement in your office, you can often save money by opting for a slower, four-pass printer.
Features & Design
Once you’re happy with a printer’s speed and quality, the next consideration is its features.
With prices ranging this month from less than $218 to $421, it’s no surprise that we have virtually every area of the single-user and small workgroup market covered.
The distinctions start small – cheaper printers have diagnostic LEDs rather than full-blown LCD panels for things like status displays and menu systems.
Eventually, the features become more serious. Some printers this month have network ports, allowing you to share them between many users at once without attaching them to a host PC.
Other printers have more complex multipurpose trays, allowing you to feed in envelopes and so forth. Cheaper printers tend to have single-sheet multipurpose trays, which isn’t much good if you do large runs on non-standard media.
It’s also worth paying attention to the number of pages you can fit into your prospective printer’s standard paper tray. If the only person using your printer will be you, you don’t need much more than a 150-sheet tray.
If your printer will frequently be used by several people, or you intend to connect it to a network, you’ll need a larger tray.
That brings us to the question of add-ons for your printer. Not surprisingly, cheap, single-user laser printers don’t have much scope for adding extra paper trays, or network adapters once you’ve bought them.
Larger printers tend to have hidden ports that allow you to add more memory, or duplex units, or larger paper trays for more users.
Finally, there’s the question of running costs, the one area in which laser printers are decidedly harder to choose between than inkjets. Laser printers are designed to be used more intensively and for longer periods than inkjets, and as such have more user-replaceable parts.
Some of the cheaper printers here have only one set of consumables – the toner cartridges – and even then you might go years without needing to replace them.
Others allow you to swap out the belt that moves a sheet of paper through the mechanism, the photoelectric drum that charges your page with an image before toner is put on to it, and the waste toner container that claims a small amount of surplus toner each time you print.
Typically, these extra components last for tens of thousands of pages, but over time you’re likely to need to replace them.
How we test
We run a series of tests on each laser printer we review, aiming to find out whether the manufacturer’s speed claims are accurate, and to evaluate quality.
We use a document published by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), the first page of which is designed to simulate the average printed page.
It has 5% toner coverage and a colour letterhead at the top. We print this page 20 times in black and white and 20 times in colour to see how close the printer comes to the maker’s speed claims.
We also print a 24-page DTP document, which is a mixture of large graphics files, charts, text and photographs. This is a demanding test for a laser printer.
We also evaluate a printer’s TCO. Each printer here will eventually need new toner, and some will need other new parts. The graph on page 68 shows how much your printer will cost each time a replaceable component expires.
|Analysis: colour laser total cost of ownership|
Analysis: running costs explained
The graph below looks daunting at first glance, but it’s a simple enough concept. Up the left-hand axis is the total cost of a printer’s lifetime ownership, and across the bottom is the number of pages printed.
|Printer mono speeds explained (click on image for full size)|
After you’ve paid the initial purchase price, every time a consumable runs out and needs replacing, the amount of money you’ve spent on your printer goes up. So each bump in a printer’s line on the graph represents a required purchase.
This reveals some interesting truths – namely that, with the notable exception of the Samsung, cheaper printers tend to be dearer in the long run.
Take the Xerox: it’s one of the cheapest printers to buy, but if you keep it long enough to print 10,000 pages it becomes the third most expensive.
|Quality printer scores explained (click on image for full size)|
Conversely, the Brother is initially the most expensive printer to buy, but it’s actually likely to be middle-of-the-pack for TCO (total cost of ownership).
Just because we’ve extrapolated to 10,000 pages doesn’t mean you’ll print this many, particularly if you’re buying for a home office.
A small, slow printer such as the Samsung will inevitably print fewer pages due to its intended environment: the home.
And if you only print ten pages a week on the Xerox – not unfeasible in a home environment – it will take you more than four years to even reach the purchase price of the Brother, which is why it’s important to have a clear idea of your own printing habits before you buy.
So before you make a decision, work out how many pages you’ll print per week, multiply that by the number of years you expect to have the printer – remembering lasers will last much longer than inkjets – then find the corresponding spot on the TCO graph.
The lowest line at that point will be the printer that makes the most economic sense for your office. After that it’s just a matter of reading the reviews to finalise your choice.