For the past couple of years, most of the attention in the printer world has focused on ink jets, and with good reason. Ink jet printers have become incredibly cheap, and they're good at a wide variety of jobs, ranging from business letters and party invitations to high-resolution color photographs.
Laser printers, by comparison -- the wonder tools of the '80s and early '90s -- seem too dowdy and too expensive for home use. But there's a good reason to consider a laser printer for your home office or a college dorm room. Lasers are still faster and cheaper to operate. And they produce better-quality letters, business documents and reports that don't require color -- most of the stuff we print every day.
Over the past two weeks I've tried a couple of inexpensive new lasers, the $200 Samsung ML-1210 and the $300 Brother HL-1440. I was impressed by their speed and quality. While they don't quite match high-end printers designed for office networks, they're fine for everyday jobs.
First, the difference between lasers and ink jets:
Both work by laying down zillions of tiny dots on the page, which your eye sees as text and images.
Ink jets do it by squirting droplets of ink on the paper from a print head that passes over the sheet a line at a time. By combining black ink with the three pigments, ink jets can produce remarkably lifelike color.
Laser printers, more accurately known as page printers, use a laser or light-emitting diode to record dots on a light-sensitive drum. The image is transferred to paper using toner that's fused to the page. Most laser printers are monochrome. Color lasers that use four toner cartridges are available, but start at $1,500 -- too pricey for anything other than heavy office use.
Although ink jets have improved to the point where they can produce extremely sharp text, they have to slow down considerably to do it. Even so, laser output still looks more professional in business documents. Laser printers also are faster -- about eight pages per minute at the low end. Some ink jets claim similar speeds, but that's usually in a draft mode.
Lasers are much cheaper to operate over time, an important factor if you do a lot of printing. With $80 toner cartridges that produce 2,500 to 3,500 pages, they cost about 3 cents per page.
Ink jets cost two to three times as much to run in black-and-white, thanks to cartridges that cost $30 to $40 and last only 300 to 500 pages.
Until recently, the main drawback to laser printers has been their price tag, but the machines I tested indicate that the gap has narrowed.
The Samsung ML-1210 packs plenty of power into a small package. Thanks to a design that loads paper from the top and ejects it into a vertical tray, the printer occupies just over 1 square foot of desktop space.
In addition to a 150-sheet feed tray, you'll find a separate manual feed slot for heavy stock or envelopes, which can be diverted to a front panel output slot with the flip of a lever to avoid excessive bending.
The ML-1210 handles envelopes as well as any printer I've used, and unlike many, it doesn't crease or mutilate them.
Its 600-dot-per-inch print engine is adequate for business correspondence, producing clear, crisp text and sharp graphics at 12 pages per minute -- a new speed record for a printer in the price range. Unfortunately, the ML-1210 falls short of its more expensive cousins in dealing with photographs and images that contain graduated fills. They display noticeable "banding," and the software driver offers no settings to improve the quality. If you require high-quality photo reproduction, look elsewhere.
Setting up the ML-1210 was a simple matter of hooking the printer up to my computer's parallel port and installing the Windows driver software from a CD. The unit also comes with a Universal Serial Port connector and will work with most Windows and Macintosh systems.
At this price, you can't expect many bells and whistles, but the ML-1210 does offer a toner-saving mode that saves money if you're willing to put up with slightly lighter output. A button on the top panel will reprint the last page that appeared, and its software supports "thumbnailing," which produces reduced images of 2, 4, 9 or 16 pages on a single sheet.
If you can live with its photo reproduction limitations, the Samsung is a great desktop bargain. For information, surf to www.samsungelectronics.com/printer/.
For $100 more, the Brother HL-1440 is better suited to full-scale office operations, with a 15-page-per-minute print speed and a 250-sheet, bottom-feeding paper tray that can handle letter or legal-size paper. It also occupies considerably more desk space than the Samsung model, with a 14- by 17-inch footprint.
With a default resolution of 600-by-600 dpi and a high-quality mode of 1,200-by-600 dpi, the HL-1440 produced excellent text and graphics and performed considerably better than the Samsung with photos. It came close to matching my standard comparison printer, a Hewlett Packard Laserjet 4M war-horse that has served our office well for years. The Brother lacked the HP's crispness and clarity with photos but did a better job reproducing subtle shades of gray. A sophisticated software driver allows you to tinker with graphics output to your heart's content.
Unfortunately, the HL-1440 couldn't reproduce some of my complex test pages at its top resolution because of a stingy 2 megabytes of on-board memory (the cheaper Samsung came with 8 MB). When it ran out of memory, it printed the page at lower resolution, along with a warning page explaining what it had done and suggesting that I add more RAM.
The printer, which comes with USB and parallel port connectors and works with most varieties of Windows and newer Apple Macintosh, was easy to set up, thanks to a CD-ROM that contained a clear, animated, step-by-step video.
I did run into a problem getting the printer to work at anything close to its rated speed. I called Brother's toll-free help line, where a technician told me the HL-1440's software driver has a problem with the high-speed parallel port controller in my Dell 4100 computer.
The company is working on a fix. Meanwhile, the technician said, I could use the USB interface or install a driver for an ancient HP Laserjet 2P printer. The latter worked, but limited my resolution to 300 dpi. If you buy this printer any time soon, use the USB connection, which works at full speed.
That glitch aside, the Brother turned out to be a solid office performer, with features that include multipage output, last-page reprint, and an optional network interface. If you're planning on reproducing complex pages with photos and graphics, buy some extra memory. For information, surf to www.brother.com/usa/.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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