Canon MultiPass F20 Review

By Eric Grevstad | Posted January 24, 2003
Are ordinary inkjet printers an endangered species? While basic printer prices fall toward the vanishing point (unlike the costs of their refill ink cartridges), multifunction printers that double as desktop copiers and scanners are proliferating. And Canon USA offers home offices and small businesses one of the newest, cutest, and most compact models in the MultiPass F20.

We don't say "one of the cheapest," because Lexmark has driven multifunction prices to as little as $149 with its PrinTrio and the MultiPass F20 costs all of $250. However, that's still far more frugal than buying a printer, flatbed scanner, and copier separately, and the Canon doesn't take nearly as much desk space — its footprint is about 16 by 22 inches (by 10 inches tall), and connects to your PC with a single USB cable (not included).

Nor is the F20 a bare-bones model, although it has no fax functions and its scanner lacks a document feeder for making copies or optical character recognition (OCR) translations of multipage articles or reports — you must lift the lid and place pages on the glass one at a time. For one thing, it's a capable personal copier even if your PC's turned off, with a helpful two-line LCD menu and front-panel controls for features ranging from zoom (25 to 400 percent) to two-pages-onto-one-sheet copying (the front-panel LCD prompts you to replace one page with the next before the side-by-side printout).

For another, it doubles as a 2,400 by 1,200 dpi photo printer — using, it's true, a generic four- instead of finer six-color ink system, but able to produce borderless 4 by 6-inch prints and even print contact sheets or thumbnails of images right from a digital camera's memory card via a PC Card slot and adapter. (A CompactFlash adapter is in the box, along with a coupon to mail in for a free Secure Digital/SmartMedia/Memory Stick adapter.)

Add high-quality if not high-speed printing on plain as well as coated inkjet paper, and you've got an appealing one-piece solution for homes that don't need massive volumes of printing, but need occasional copies of financial statements or scanning of photos into e-mail attachments.

Setup is straightforward — we liked that the MultiPass' power supply is internal, with just a cord instead of an external power brick to plug into a wall socket — with a supplied poster guiding you through the job step by step, right down to not connecting the USB cable until after you've installed the printhead and ink cartridges and begun software installation (there's even a clear plastic warning sticker covering the USB connector to hammer the point home).

Since the top of the unit doesn't lift up like the Lexmark PrinTrio's, you'll find yourself kneeling and peering into the MultiPass' recessed interior to snap in the printhead and ink — rather than the waste-reducing, separate color cartridges of midrange and high-end Canon printers, the F20 uses just one black and one tricolor container. The cartridges are downright cheap compared to most inkjets' — just $7 for the black and $19 for the color ink tank — but they're also quite small; Canon rates the color unit for 170 pages and black tank for 320 pages, though the latter gave us our first low-ink warning after only half that.

A slanted, 100-sheet input tray folds out from the rear of the printer, with a face-up, fold-down output tray up front. (Printing on thick specialty stock obliges you to move a lever inside the carriage.) Canon's printer driver offers reverse-order (Page 1 on top) or, for multiple copies of multiple pages, collated output, as well as a handsome variety of resized, watermarked, 2/4/9/16-page thumbnail or poster, and image-enhancing print options.

It's accompanied by a customizable software toolbar that lets you configure source document/image size and output resolution and file format for various one-click scan-and-import functions, automatically scanning whatever you put on the glass — as long as it's not a legal-size page; the glass measures 8.5 by 11.7 inches — and opening it in a supplied image viewer or your favorite image editor; the bundled ScanSoft OmniPage SE software for OCR; or sending it as an attachment to a new e-mail message.

The 600 by 1,200 dpi scanner (up to 9,600 dpi via software interpolation, though you'll probably simply choose 75, 150, 300, or 600 dpi via the software menu) offers 8-bit grayscale and 24-bit color depth. It's neither the fastest nor sharpest flatbed on the planet: A 4 by 6-inch photo appeared on our PC screen in about 10 seconds at 75 or 150 dpi, 21 seconds at 300 dpi, or a minute at 600 dpi, and while the first three were fine for e-mailing and (small) printing, the last was a disappointment, not crisp enough to admire at full size. But it's perfectly adequate for capturing e-mail attachments or report illustrations.

We were more impressed with the F20's copying abilities, with the abovementioned control panel and reduction, enlargement, and side-by-side functions proving a pleasure to use (we doubt home offices will need more than the machine's maximum 99 copies of anything). Using normal rather than draft quality mode, 10 copies of a laser-printed page took 2 minutes and 35 seconds and looked fractionally fuzzier than the original, but perfectly legible.

We stuck with normal mode because the Canon's draft mode produces some of the faintest or grayest text we've seen — it's dubious even for in-house use, rendering moot the multifunction's advertised top speed of 14 black or 10 color pages per minute. But normal mode was a pleasant surprise, yielding sharp, dark black text and colored areas with almost no banding even on cheap copier paper.

Patience Is a Virtue
Granted, the MultiPass isn't fast — our five-page, single-spaced Word document took 90 seconds; one-page letter with colorful company logo 20 seconds; and six-page Adobe Acrobat document 4 minutes and 55 seconds. But its output was so attractive that we saw little need to double those times for high-quality mode — normal-mode prints on plain paper were as good as any we've seen, although for the fanciest business correspondence, we might opt for normal mode with what Canon calls "high resolution" (i.e., coated inkjet) paper. That combination slowed our five-page Word document to three minutes; our one-page letter to 1 minute 23 seconds; and our six-page PDF to almost 10 minutes; but all were of knockout quality.

Given glossy photo paper, the F20 also did a worthy job as a photo developer. Our 8 by 10-inch, 2-megapixel image took three and a half minutes in best mode, while borderless 4 by 6 prints took about half that, and both looked sharp and bright.

All told, we think this printer/copier/scanner fills a nice niche for home offices or small businesses that have both limited desk space and limited budgets, yet don't want to compromise on quality (well, compromise beyond the point of giving up a document feeder and fax). We're just concerned that shoppers might walk right by the $250 Canon in favor of its $150 rivals. Maybe a sticker on the box saying, "Our Black Ink Refills are $7 — Theirs are $28"?

Adapted from Hardware Central.

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