HP's Color Laser: Faster, Smaller, Cheaper

By Eric Grevstad | Posted July 29, 2005

How can you tell when a technology or product category has really hit the mainstream or evolved from the geek elite to a mass-market consumer item? You've seen it happen with external hard drives, inkjet printers, and monochrome laser printers, and it's always the same: First the products get affordable. Then they get small. Then they get cute. Ladies and gentlemen, color laser printers have reached Stage III.

To be sure, the HP Color LaserJet 2600N isn't as compact as today's toaster-sized monochrome personal lasers — although at 16-by-18-by-15-inches, it can fit on all but the smallest desks instead of requiring a separate stand. The 2600N also weighs 41 pounds, making it much easier to move than many 70- or 75-pound color lasers.

Nor does it match those mini monochromes' $100 to $150 price tags, although it's way, way under the $1,000 line that was once a color laser landmark: With an Ethernet as well as a USB port and a real paper drawer instead of a flapping, inkjet-style tray, the HP costs $399. That's the same as Konica Minolta's USB-only Magicolor 2400W, although some retailers discount the step-up or Samsung's CLP-510 to under $400.

What makes the 2600N stand out from such competitors is that it doesn't use a four-pass color engine (capable of printing, say, 20 pages per minute for black text but slowing to five ppm when layering black, cyan, magenta and yellow for color jobs). Instead, it's a single-pass design, rated at eight ppm for monochrome and color alike. That means it'll outrun its rivals when printing PowerPoint slides, advertising flyers or newsletters, but isn't the fastest choice for lengthy black-and-white documents.

Finally, it strikes us as kind of cute, with a family resemblance to last spring's single-pass Color LaserJet 3500, with more of an Ikea-home-appliance (breadbox? mini dishwasher?) look as well as weighing 45 percent less.

An Inkjet Alternative?
Of course, while $399 is cheap for a color laser printer, it's three or four times the cost of a good inkjet printer — which can almost match the speed and print quality of the 2600N and indeed surpass its quality when printing photos on glossy paper.

But buying the inkjet's preferred coated paper (instead of cheap plain paper) and replacing its short-lived ink cartridges (instead of higher-capacity laser toner cartridges) will quickly turn any savings to extra expenditures — even before you consider the Color LaserJet's superior stamina for a busy office, with a rated duty cycle of 35,000 pages per month.

Speaking of toner cartridges, while it doesn't put a USB cable in the box, HP earns our applause by outfitting the 2600N with full capacity instead of half- or two-thirds-empty "starter" cartridges as penny-pinching competitors do. A replacement black cartridge is rated for 2,500 pages and costs $75; the cyan, magenta and yellow cartridges are rated for 2,000 pages and cost $83 apiece.

We figure that works out to a consumables cost (not counting paper) of three cents per black-text page and 15.5 cents per color page — middling rather than excellent economy by laser standards, but super-frugal compared to most inkjets.

When you take the 2600N out of the box, the four toner cartridges are already stacked inside the printer, but you must remove each one and pull out a strip of sealing tape, reinsert each cartridge, and then remove various other pieces of tape and plastic and affix plastic pieces to the paper tray and output catch tray. Inserting the cartridges properly took a few seconds' of trial and error, but was hardly a traumatic experience, though one bit of shipping material tore leaving a stub still in the printer, causing error messages until we removed the magenta cartridge and found the snag.

Nice Pages, No Waiting
HP says the cartridges offer "Smart Printing" technology, meaning each cartridge contains a development system and imaging drum as well as toner, so there are no other parts to replace (although we can't help wondering if the unit might need a tune-up or at least a new transfer belt after 50,000 or 100,000 pages).

Similarly, HP brags that "Memory Enhancement" technology manipulates the printer's 16MB of RAM so that the printer never needs a memory upgrade. We were skeptical, or at least suspicious that the Color LaserJet 2600N would steal a hefty amount of our PC's memory and/or processing power. But we had no trouble printing full-page images, and the "Now Printing" dialog boxes disappeared swiftly instead of causing a noticeable wait to regain control of the system.

The 2600N has a 600-by-600 dpi print engine, but HP's ImageREt 2400 system fine-tunes dot placement to simulate higher resolution. Both photo images and solid color areas were indeed somewhat cleaner when we accepted the ImageREt default rather than telling the software driver to stick to 600 dpi quality.

The driver offers a good variety of N-up, scale-to-fit and watermark options as well as guiding you through manual duplex or double-sided printing. A set of buttons and a two-line LCD provide manual default-setting and job-canceling controls, but we found the LCD too dim to read easily so stuck with the driver and HP's browser-based status and configuration menus.

A loading slot at the bottom front lets you feed envelopes, special stock or letterhead for print-first-page-on-different-paper jobs. Above that, a pull-out, 250-sheet drawer serves as the primary paper supply for pages that exit face down in a 125-sheet output bin at the top. A 250-sheet second drawer is $150, but there's no duplexing option.

Easy Reading
The 2600N comes close to meeting HP's claim of a first-page-out printing time of 20 seconds; our one-page letter with spot-color company logo took 22 seconds (or 24 after letting the printer sit idle for a few hours to shift from its 190-watt working to 13-watt standby mode). That ties or narrowly beats most of the affordable color lasers we've tested — and the HP is quieter than most, too, if you'd like to put it near your desk phone instead of down the hall.

With longer color jobs, the single-pass 2600N easily outran its four-pass peers: Six full-page PowerPoint slides with white backgrounds took 67 seconds, while six PowerPoints with dark backgrounds took 73 (versus, for example, 200 for the Konica Minolta 2300W and 345 for the Color LaserJet 2550L in earlier reviews). The HP printed our 55-page Adobe Acrobat manual in six minutes and 48 seconds, one of the fastest times we've recorded.

As mentioned, however, a single-pass design can't keep up with four-pass or even $120 monochrome lasers when printing in black and white: The HP took two minutes and 37 seconds to print our 20-page text document in Microsoft Word, double or almost triple the time of assorted competitors.

We were also disappointed with the 2600N's output when printing photos on plain paper; 8 by 10-inch images averaged 42 seconds, but looked darker and grainier than we'd like. But with that exception, the HP's quality earned a thumbs-up: Even tiny text fonts were sharp and legible, while PDF and presentation files and flyers and newsletters with small photos were bright and crisp.

Color laser printers are still priced and positioned more for workgroups than for individual desktop users, but that's changing fast. The Color LaserJet 2600N makes a lot of sense for almost any small office; we'd call it the most desktop-friendly color laser to date.

Pros:

  • Smaller, lighter, cheaper, quieter and easier to use than most under-$800 color lasers — and faster when printing in color. Excellent text and charts

Cons:

  • Single-pass design is relatively slow for black-and-white jobs; mediocre photo output

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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