Dell, the most successful builder of what were once called "IBM clones," did not stray from those roots when it got into the printer market this spring. Instead of making hardware from scratch, it found a low-cost supplier, Lexmark, and rebranded its printers as its own.
The results so far for consumers -- one color inkjet and two printer-scanner-fax combos -- may not add much variety. But they do add up to some good deals, even factoring in the USB cable you'll need to buy because Dell left it out of the box.
Consider the first of those three models, the $89 Personal Inkjet Printer J740. Its setup on a Windows XP computer took moments, and the printer was smart enough to sense what paper we'd loaded -- plain, coated, photo or transparency sheet -- and change settings accordingly.
(Note that all three Dell printers support only Windows 2000 and XP, not Win 98 or anything older.)
The J740 pumped out good-looking black pages at a reasonable, if unremarkable, 5.8 pages per minute. A color page printed out at the "Best" setting in a relatively speedy 3:17, but the image was flat and lacked color saturation.
The distinctively Dell parts of this printer are software and supplies. Dell's bundle includes a driver that makes changing print settings easy, plus time-limited versions of Paint Shop Pro, a graphics editor we've always liked, and its companion, Image Expert.
Dell's software lets you order replacement ink cartridges from its site, the only source available -- Lexmark cartridges won't work, despite the printers' shared DNA. That could prove to be an annoyance, since Murphy's Law dictates ink will run out late on a Friday afternoon. A package of both black and color replacement cartridges listed at $53.55, with free ground shipping.
Dell's two multi-function printers offer a similar mix of decent-quality Lexmark components and Dell-only software and service, but these models' ancestry is even more obvious. The Personal All-in-One Printer A920 ($89, on sale for $80) is a rebadged copy of Lexmark's $100 PrinTrio X1150; the All-in-One Printer A940 ($129 but discounted to $116) is, under the skin, Lexmark's $150 X5150.
Setup was straightforward with each, although the A920's printer component needed a fussy print-head alignment routine.
As printers, both units will satisfy casual use if time isn't of the essence. The A920, like its Lexmark sibling, was painfully slow, delivering just 3.5 text pages per minute at default settings. A color image took almost 8 minutes at the "Best" setting. The A940 was faster, at 6.3 pages per minute for black images and 4.5 minutes for the same color image at the same setting.
Black-text print quality was equally good, if not outstanding, for the two units. Neither color print was particularly true to the original, but the more vivid A920 output offered better contrast.
The A920 scanned an 8-by-10 color photo at its highest setting in 1:15; the A940 took eight seconds longer but provided discernably brighter and more detailed results. Both devices offer one-button same-size copying in black and white and color, with more options via Dell's Control Center software.
The bundled FineReader program will import text in scanned images into Microsoft Word or another text editor; other bundled software lets the A940 send faxes via a PC's modem.
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