If you send only a few letters a day, you can print your company letterhead and logo along with the letters, using a color inkjet. But if your business is big enough to go to Kinko's for stationery, or if you're printing a 50-page proposal or 400-page Gothic novel, or if your budget balks at buying costly, coated inkjet paper to get crisp text, there's still no substitute for a basic black-and-white laser printer. And while the lowest laser price seems to have stuck at $199 for a couple of years, what you get for that $199 keeps going up.
The most obvious improvement is speed entry-level monochrome lasers have climbed from 8 or 10 to 12 or more pages per minute; two of the newest, HP's LaserJet 1012 and Lexmark's E220, are rated at 15 and 18 ppm respectively for letter-size output.
Another is clever, compact design. Both of these printers are small enough to share your desktop with your PC and maybe even an inkjet printer as well and almost idiot-proof in terms of drop-in toner-cartridge loading and simple controls (basically, each has a power switch, cancel-printing, and resume-printing-after-pausing-to-refill-the-paper-tray buttons).
Which is your best buy? Well, we found that the smaller one isn't all that smaller and the faster one isn't all that faster, so it'll come down to your preference in paper-handling and print quality.
Lexmark's Junior Varsity
The E220 is a half-price cousin of the Lexmark E323 we reviewed in May: The latter boasts 20-ppm rather than 18-ppm performance and comes with 16MB rather than 8MB of memory, as well as offering a faster onboard processor and not only PCL 5e but PostScript emulation. But the Lexmarks share the same 20-pound case, with a 15.5 by 14.5-inch footprint and inkjet-style, vertical-loading paper tray that holds 150 sheets of letter- or legal-sized stock.
Paper performs a U-turn in the printer, exiting face down or away from you in a 100-sheet vertical output bin with pull-up plastic guide. A second input slot just ahead of the main tray permits single-sheet feeding for letterhead, envelopes, or transparencies, with a fold-down front door for a face-up, almost-straight paper path.
Unlike the LaserJet 1012, the E220 offers the option of a second input tray a $155 drawer that fits under the printer, increasing its capacity from 150 to 400 sheets. It also offers a single slot for expanding buffer memory from 8MB to a maximum of 72MB, as well as both parallel and USB ports. (Neither of these $199 lasers comes with a printer cable, and both will need an external Ethernet or WiFi adapter, or at least connection to a networked PC, if you plan to share them in a small office.) The Lexmark's rated duty cycle is a hard-working 10,000 pages per month.
The software driver lets you choose between 300- or 600-dpi resolution or a tweaked-600-dpi "1,200 Image Quality" mode for graphics, as well as setting and optionally saving various combinations of formatting options such as N-up printing, watermark background text, or pop-up instructions for manual duplex (both sides) printing.
Lexmark skimps a little by providing a 1,500-page starter cartridge in the box; the E220's real toner cartridges are estimated to last for 2,500 pages and priced at $100 (for the regular cartridge) and $80 (for the return-to-Lexmark-when-empty, promise-you-won't-use-third-party-toner-or-refills model). The latter helps preserve Lexmark's profit margins while saving you a few bucks, yielding a cost per page of 3.2 rather than 4 cents.
HP Gets Small
At 14.6 inches wide by 9 inches deep, HP boasts that the LaserJet 1012 is only half the size of the LaserJet 1000 and 1300 models that used to be the company's most desktop-friendly laser printers. That's a little misleading, because it represents the device's size when closed, with the 150-sheet paper tray pushed back into its recess and the front panel folded up. Open for business, the 15-pound printer is about six inches deeper, i.e., takes as much desk space as its Lexmark rival.
The HP does, however, flaunt the "big printer" touch of a horizontal, photocopier-style paper tray instead of vertical, inkjet-fashion input. Whether testing laser or inkjet printers, we confess we're prejudiced in favor of flat stacks complete with a paper-protecting plastic cover rather than slightly more skew-prone vertical slots that leave paper exposed, so the LaserJet had a bit of a head start in our testing.
On the other hand, neither its paper capacity nor 8MB buffer is expandable there's just the 150-sheet tray plus a 10-sheet "priority input" shelf above it for envelopes or special media (the printer always looks there first before loading paper from the main tray), both of which feed a face-down, 100-sheet output bin with pull-out paper support atop the printer.
And unlike the Lexmark (or most other printers, for that matter), the HP doesn't let you open a hatch or flip a lever to route envelopes on a straighter path than regular paper. Nor does it match the E220's dual inputs there's just a USB port, though a blank panel and engraved icon below it indicate where a different model the LaserJet 1015, which we can't find listed for sale in the U.S. adds a parallel interface.
Finally, the HP's duty cycle of 7,000 pages per month is lighter than the Lexmark's, though its estimated life of 2,000 pages for a $70 toner cartridge splits the difference between its rival's two toner options with a cost per page of 3.5 cents.
The HP printers we've reviewed this year have supplemented their software drivers with an elaborate, browser-based "HP Toolkit" interface for perusing printer status data and ordering supplies; it's invariably caused problems or crashed during setup on our main Windows 2000 test system. By contrast, HP's actual drivers are always trouble-free and helpful, even to the point of phraseology a check box and illustration to choose "Flip Pages Up," as opposed to "Top/Short Edge" versus "Side/Long Edge Binding," when setting up manual duplex printing.
The 1012 matches the E220 in letting you choose straight 600 by 600 dpi or mock 1,200 dpi (what HP calls "FastRes 1,200") output; it doesn't bother with a 300-dpi mode, but adds a toner-saving or draft mode that produces somewhat faint, grayish text for in-house use.
Flip a Coin
As you might guess, the difference between 15 and 18 pages per minute of engine speed didn't make a titanic difference in real-world print jobs the HP finished our 20-page, all-text Microsoft Word test document in 1 minute and 35 seconds, while the Lexmark took 1 minute and 17 seconds (only five seconds more than the 20-ppm E323 model had in our review). Our one-page business letter with company logo appeared in 15 seconds on the HP, 13 seconds on the Lexmark.
Given a 55-page mix of graphics and text in an Adobe Acrobat PDF file, the E220 Lexmark finished an even minute ahead of the 1012 4 minutes and 9 seconds for Lexmark, 5 minutes and 9 seconds for HP. Using our cheap copier paper, both printers offered a slight but noticeable boost in output quality when we switched from their native 600-dpi resolution to "1,200 quality" mode. Interestingly, while the graphics-optimized mode slowed the LaserJet (from 51 to 168 seconds for six full-page, dark-background PowerPoint slides), it actually accelerated the Lexmark (from 244 to 109 seconds).
In both presentation or proposal graphics and our 8 by 10-inch digital-camera print (which took it 44 seconds versus the LaserJet's 55), the Lexmark traded its extra speed for somewhat more noticeable banding or striping of solid areas. HP narrowly won our print-quality judging for text documents, too both offered exemplary sharpness, but the LaserJet's text was a bit darker (using default toner-use settings).
So with slightly sharper, darker output and classy horizontal-tray versus vertical-slot paper feeding, the HP LaserJet 1012 wins this comparison, right? Well, not quite : the Lexmark E220 scores for its superior expandability and available straight-through paper path as well as fractionally higher speed, and is also considerably quieter; our HP unit became relatively hot and made a noticeable whistling whine, as well as the usual soft whir, during printing. But both of these $199 printers make a strong argument for putting a workhorse, low-consumable-cost laser alongside your colorful but cartridge-guzzling inkjet.
Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.