Test Drive: HP Color LaserJet 2500

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted December 02, 2002
By Eric Grevstad

The young 'uns come running to sit on our lap by the fire and hear our stories - well, actually they say they'd rather run into the fire than hear our stories, but we remember, anyway, about the first HP LaserJet printer back in '84. A whopper, it was, easily half as big as your desk, and it cost three thousand buckaroos. But it started a trend that couldn't be stopped; businesses have relied on high-speed, high-quality lasers to crank out their black-and-white text pages ever since.

But while monochrome lasers (much faster and sharper than that first LaserJet) have shrunk to the size of a box of Tide and to prices starting under $200, and color inkjet printers have bloomed in billions of offices and homes, very few are enjoying the speed and sharpness of a laser for their color print jobs. That's because color lasers' cost - usually $2,000 or more - and bulk - usually closer to a refrigerator than a desk accessory - have made them niche products shared by lucky workgroups in networked offices.

Well, HP is finally helping to change that. While Minolta-QMS has carried the low-cost color laser banner for a few years, it's unlikely to match the splash that's sure to come from the printer giant's new entry: a color laser that's both compact and cheap enough for a small office or even a busy home office.

Both "compact" and "cheap" need a little qualifying: The Color LaserJet 2500 is about the size of a small TV set, 15 inches tall with a 19 by 18-inch footprint, and movable by one person (53 pounds). So it'll technically fit on your desktop, but is frankly still a bit bulky (and, compared to today's whisper-quiet inkjets, a bit noisy) to have right next to you rather than on a separate table or printer stand.

And while the 2500L model has the eye-catching price of $999 complete with USB and parallel ports and 64MB (expandable to 256MB) of memory, its only paper tray is an inkjet-style, fold-down 125-sheet flap that strikes us as comically skimpy for feeding a laser printer. You'll really want either the $1,199 Color LaserJet 2500, which has a 250-sheet bottom drawer in addition to the fold-down tray, or $1,499 model 2500n, which adds an Ethernet print server for office sharing. (Heavy-duty offices can check out the 2500tn, which adds a third, 500-sheet tray for up to 875 pages between refills; it's $1,899).

Those cautions aside, the 2500 is cute and capable enough to make even someone with modest, inkjet-class color printing needs muse, "I gotta get me one of these": It's reasonably fast, admirably sharp even using cheap copier paper (no need for costly coated inkjet stock), and built to last, with a monthly duty cycle of up to 30,000 pages.

Like all color lasers, the 2500 sends a page through four passes or works like a team of four lasers with cyan, magenta, and yellow as well as black toner cartridges - its rated black-text throughput of 16 pages per minute divides exactly to 4 ppm for color jobs. The latter can be beat by the fastest desktop inkjets, though the former can't (remember the shopper's motto that advertised laser print speeds are fairly accurate, but advertised inkjet speeds should usually be divided by two).

Our five-page, various-fonts Microsoft Word test document printed in 35 seconds; our one-page business letter with colorful company-logo letterhead took the same. (First-page-out delays averaged about 20 seconds for black and 25 seconds for color printing.)

Twenty pages of text took 1 minute and 33 seconds, while six pages of mixed text and color illustrations (from an Adobe Acrobat PDF document) took 2 minutes and 11 seconds; all 55 pages of the Acrobat file printed in 26 minutes. Several times, however, the printer fell silent and we thought the job was done only to realize the HP was taking 10 or 20 seconds' pause, even with its 64MB buffer, before tackling a detailed color page.

HP says the Color LaserJet's 600 by 600 dpi engine can blend colors within pixels to perform 2,400 dpi-class image printing; we're not quite so sure, since an 8 by 10-inch digital camera photo was ready in just 36 seconds but looked merely adequate, not as vivid as the best color inkjet prints (to be fair, this was still on plain copier paper; the LaserJet can't use coated or glossy photo stock). And some areas of solid color showed faint, widely spaced banding, as if from a scratch on the imaging drum; performing the printer's cleaning/maintenance routine cleared up all but the largest color areas.

But after all, the 2500 is meant for business correspondence and presentation printing, not consumer photo projects, and earns high marks in that sphere. Even tiny text was crisp and legible, as you'd expect from a laser. Banner headlines were smooth and black, not jagged and gray, and charts and images popped off the page. For mostly-black office printing with a dash of spot color or spreadsheet charts, the Color LaserJet is a capable choice.

Reasonably Simple Setup; Reasonably Low Costs
Setting up the printer, from beginning to open the box to finishing the software installation and making our first prints, took just under an hour with our Windows 2000 desktop and USB cable (alas, you can't cheat and connect two PCs to the non-network version using both the parallel and USB ports).

The hardest part of setup is removing all the strips of tape and orange plastic spacers that secure the packaged printer and cartridges. The HP's imaging drum (including the transfer belt that's a separate component in some designs) resembles a jumbo-sized, well, laser or copier toner cartridge that slots easily into place beneath the printer's swing-up top panel.

Just above it, you lower the black, cyan, yellow, and magenta cartridges into position - one at a time, reclosing the lid and pressing a "rotate carousel" button on the top between inserting each (think of a high-tech cowboy loading a revolver). It's simple enough, as are HP's browser-based status and diagnostic menus, though we might have welcomed an LCD menu to provide clearer prompts than the five status lights (for each cartridge and the drum) and carousel, cancel-print-job, and "go" buttons atop the printer.

HP says the drum will last for an average of around 7,000 pages (5,000 if you print entirely in color, 20,000 entirely in black); it costs $165 to replace. The black cartridge ($79) is rated for 5,000 pages, with the three color cartridges ($95 each) rated for 4,000. This adds up to a bottom line of 2.4 cents per monochrome or 12 cents per color page - somewhat pricey compared to larger, workhorse monochrome lasers; pretty thrifty compared to desktop inkjets.

A Score, But Not a Slam Dunk
On the minus side, HP isn't that thrifty compared to its abovementioned rival Minolta-QMS; the latter's new Magicolor 2300DL packs comparable size and speed but is priced at $799 with Ethernet as well as parallel and USB interfaces, so if you can live with a little less onboard memory and standard paper capacity you can save $400.

That famous-brand price premium, plus the whirs, whines, and thunks that made the unit noticeably harder on the ears than the inkjets we've tested lately, keep this from being a rave review, and make us think the LaserJet 2500 is still more of a small-office niche player - for, as mentioned, heavy-duty text printing coupled with a steady trickle of color charts and presentations - than a mainstream, mass-market inkjet replacement. But color lasers' day is coming. You young whippersnappers mark our words.

Pros: A crisp and colorful laser printer that most offices can afford; easy setup and maintenance.

Cons: Not quite compact or quiet enough for desktop placement; a bit pricey when configured with paper trays and network port.

Reprinted from www.hardwarecentral.com.

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