Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


Shopping for a printer isn't that different from shopping for a car: Some models have an alluring flair, but those typically guzzle gas. Sometimes it's smart to go for a subdued model that gets great mileage. Ink or toner is the gasoline that runs a printer: The model you choose now will determine how much you'll pay for a long time to come. Laser printers can seem not just subdued, but positively boring compared to the inkjet models that line most store shelves. All the affordable models can only print in black and white, not color-forget cranking out greeting cards and 8-by-10 blowups of photos-and still cost more than most inkjet models.

In return, however, laser printers can save a lot of money over time. Printing a page of black text with an inkjet will typically cost 5 to 10 cents per page in ink alone, while the toner used in laser printers only costs a penny or two per page.

Laser printers also work much faster than inkjets, as much as three times faster. They also tend to produce darker blacks than most inkjets, and discerning eyes may notice slightly sharper text from a laser printer. Lastly, the toner in laser printouts doesn't run if it gets wet, unlike most inkjets' output.

We test-drove four inexpensive laser printers from Brother, Lexmark, Hewlett-Packard and Samsung, all intended for use in homes or small offices. They go from $122 to $200 at retail (list prices appear below), and all work with Windows and Mac OS X. The Lexmark and Samsung models also tout compatibility with several major versions of Linux.

Across the board, these four printers worked quietly and quickly, delivering a 12-page document in about a minute (HP's psc 2510 inkjet printer/scanner took more than three minutes for the same file). Beyond their standard USB port, some also include a parallel port for connection to old computers; they lack an Ethernet port for easy connection to any home network, but the printer-sharing software built into Windows or the Mac Os should suffice for most home users' needs.

HP's LaserJet 1012 (Win 98 or newer/Mac OS 9.1 or newer, $200) was among the fastest printers we tested, turning out 12 pages in only a minute. It includes a 150-sheet tray to store paper, the usual in this price range. Its text looked sharp-but images appeared somewhat muddy. Price-conscious shoppers should look first at the Samsung ML-1710 (Win 95 or newer/Mac OS 9 or newer/Red Hat, Caldera, Debian, Mandrake, Slackware, Turbolinux, SuSE Linux, $200): Street prices of $122 to $190 made it the cheapest printer in this group. Print quality for both text and images was excellent, and the paper tray held a generous 250 sheets.

The Brother HL-1440 (Win 95 or newer/Mac OS 8.5.1 or newer, $180) includes both USB and parallel ports, plus a 250-sheet tray. Its text was as sharp as any of the other printers, the Brother's image quality surpassed the other printers, providing good detail in a broad range of gray tones. Its relatively small 2 megabytes of memory may make you wait longer for large print jobs, but this can be upgraded to as much as 34 MB.

For text, the Lexmark E220 Win 95 or newer/Mac OS 8.6 or newer/Red Hat Linux 7.2 or newer/SuSE Linux 7.3 or newer, $200) was fast and quiet, but its images weren't great, marked by thin horizontal gaps. A few of our test pages were smeared with dark blotches of toner, and when at rest the printer would occasionally startle the cat with a strange burping sound. The Lexmark includes parallel and USB ports, and holds 150 pages. An optional add-on tray can hold an additional 250 sheets.

Laser printers are typically very quiet, and this bunch was no exception. The HP seemed to be slightly louder than the other printers, but even that was a relief from the usual racket of inkjet printers at work. All four printers include a manual feed slot, so you can easily print on an envelope or letterhead without removing the paper you normally use.

None of these low-end printers support the PostScript print language, which may make them inappropriate for complex desktop publishing applications. But for letters and business documents, these printers do the job impressively and inexpensively.


Articles by Kevin Savetz