Color Laser Printer Product Face-Off

By Scott Koegler | Posted April 27, 2004

Color printing is great and can put a professional face on your business documents. You've probably already found this out since the majority of printers in use today in small businesses are ink jet printers that invariably print color. You've probably also found that color ink jet cartridges get expensive quickly, and every printer uses its own version, making it tough to stock a reasonable supply. Then of course there are the problems involved with sharing printers on a small business network.

I tried three color laser printers to see how they handle standard printing tasks like letters, Web pages, and simple brochures. I also tried sending some unusual paper stock through the machines to find out how they fared printing color on heavy and glossy stock. All of them performed acceptably with some differences in the way each handled particular tasks, but I would be satisfied with either of them to handle my office needs.

The Color Laser Printer Contenders
These three printers can be bought for around $1,000, and are all in the same classification with regard to speed and general capabilities. One criterion that differs a bit is the print resolution, but in practice I was hard pressed to be able to tell the difference. The printers included HP Color Laser 3500n, Konica Magicolor 2350EN, and the Lexmark C510.

Ready for Networking
Each printer is network ready, meaning they can become shared devices on your small office network. They all have USB connectors (define) so they can be connected directly to a computer, and the Konica also has a parallel port. The HP relies on an external print server (included with this model) that connects to the printer's USB port.

Connecting each printer to my LAN (define) was simple but each was slightly different. In each case, I installed the printer's software and drivers from the included CD, then simply connected an Ethernet cable from the printer to my network switch. I was then able to click the "Add printer" icon on each computer I wanted to be able to use the printer. The printers appeared as available devices when I browsed the network, and I was able to add them just as I could any other printer.

The simplicity of actually making these printers available over a small business network is worth noting, especially in the small office environment where there is little time — and maybe even less understanding — of such networking features.

Speaking of Specifications
The technical specifications for these printers differ only slightly, and the important elements are print speed and print resolution. Of course, print speeds are different for color output and black, text-only printing.

Print resolution has been a main criteria in evaluating printers for a long time. While resolution does matter, these printers are intended to be used for producing business documents, not as printing presses. Each vendor describes their printer's output resolution in their own terms. The Lexmark C510 has "2400 Image Quality", the HP Color Laser 3500n has "ImageREt 2400" and the Konica Magicolor 2350EN "9600 x 600 dpi-class photorealistic image quality". Regardless of actual resolution, I was equally impressed with the results from all three printers when viewed at standard viewing distance.

Each of these printers has a wealth of controls that allow fine-tuning for color, paper type and weight, and complex graphic controls. Even though the majority of print jobs is likely to be the more standard business documents, if a particular job requires special settings, you're likely to find them either within the settings of the print control or on a menu on the printer itself. So, if your results aren't up to your expectations, dig into the controls and do some experimentation. You'll probably find a setting that will improve the results.

Small Business Guide to Top-Selling Color Laser Printers

Into the Test Lab
I tested printing both text and images on all three printers, and tried a variety of paper of different weights. As expected, black text on standard office paper looked superb on all the printers, and the color images were equally impressive. I didn't attempt to use any color control tools, so there were differences between color output from each printer, but each was within acceptable range.

The HP 3500n prints color pages significantly faster than either of the others. This is because the 3500n applies all four colors — Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black — in a single pass, whereas the others print one color at a time, making them about 4 times slower than their monochrome speeds.

I also used some heavy weight card stock and printed on both sides of the paper. The results on both sides of 90# card stock for non-glossy paper were as good as they were for the standard 20# paper. When I tried the same print job with glossy 90# stock only the Konica printed the image successfully. However, after I used the Lexmark's menu and print controls to more specifically identify the type paper and the results were great. I was able to make similar changes using HP's controls in the print dialog and the printer then produced great output.

Top In Its Class
Color laser printers are affordable, mainstream output devices that are easy to set up and can produce consistent professional results. The fact that one device can be shared by several users not only spreads the higher cost of the printer, but consolidates supplies purchases. In addition to toners, Laser printers require more supplies than ink jet printers. Items like transfer belts, fusers, and image drums need to be replaced at different intervals that differ based on the printer, making the calculation of per-page costs difficult. But in general color laser printers have been found to be from one cent to ten cents per page less expensive to operate than ink jet printers.

If there is one printer in this collection that has an advantage, it's the HP Color LaserJet 3500n because of its ability to print color pages at roughly the same 12 pages per minute rate as it prints black.

Scott Koegler has been in the technology field for more than 25 years, and has written a book about systems integration as well as hundreds of articles about computers, software, digital photography, and networking over the last 12 years. He has been an IT executive in industries as diverse as health care, printing, and custom apparel.

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