Buyer's Guide: Low-Cost Laser Printers

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 27, 2002
Eric Grevstad
www.hardwarecentral.com

Hewlett-Packard shareholders opposing the company's planned merger with Compaq point to the latter's PC business as an unprofitable, low-priced commodity market, the antithesis of HP's legendary success selling premium printers and high-profit-margin supplies. Trouble is, the printer market is getting pretty cutthroat, too. Why else would Hewlett-Packard introduce a $249 LaserJet positioned below its previous entry-level $400 model?

The LaserJet 1000 is HP's response to popular, under-$300 laser printers from Brother, Lexmark, and Samsung -- like them, a monochrome laser that's cheap and compact enough to share a desk with a color ink-jet, letting users switch between the laser's fast, sharp text for word processing jobs and the ink-jet's slower but colorful charts and digital images. (Today's USB ports make linking two printers to one PC much easier than yesterday's manual switch boxes.)

We decided to compare the 1000 with another $249 personal laser - the Samsung ML-1250. Going by advertised specs, the Samsung wins - it's rated at 12 pages per minute with 1,200 by 600-dpi resolution versus the HP's 10 ppm and 600 by 600 dpi, and has both parallel and USB ports to the LaserJet's USB only. But does the HP have other advantages besides a sterling brand and reputation for quality?

HP LaserJet 1000
The 1000 is a chunky, breadbox- or ottoman-shaped printer that takes roughly 16 by 19 inches of desk space and weighs 16 pounds. Aside from two status-indicator LEDs, its clean design is utterly unmarked by buttons, switches, or menus -- if you want to set paper size or other defaults, cancel a print job, or switch to toner-saving mode, you use the software driver (Windows 98, Me, 2000, and XP only). And if you want to turn the printer off, you unplug it.

The last unnerved us slightly, since the online manual warns the printer could be damaged if you don't always connect the USB cable to the PC before connecting the AC power cord, and we know far too many users who aren't fussy about which order they plug cables in.

Setup is easy, although the printed documentation is limited to diagrams on a brochure and the box flaps; we fumbled a moment getting the paper tray seated properly, but the toner cartridge virtually falls into place. Replacement cartridges, rated for 2,500 pages of text, cost $65, and the printer's duty cycle is a sturdy 7,000 pages per month. The LaserJet comes with a proprietary cable, with a USB connector for your PC at one end and a processing pod at the other that plugs into what looks like a parallel port at the back of the printer.

HP does drivers better than anybody; the 1000 driver installed on the first try on our Windows 2000 desktop, which doesn't sound like much but is impressive compared to some of the reboots and tangles with the Add New Hardware wizard we've seen with other USB peripherals.

Accessed via the Properties button in most applications' Print dialog box, the driver offers a good variety of and ample ways to change default settings, including customizable watermarks and N-up printing of one, two, four, six, or nine pages per sheet (with your choice of reading across or up and down). Particularly impressive is the ability to seamlessly scale output to a choice of paper sizes, letting you, say, print your resume on a postcard.

You can opt for 300- rather than the usual 600-dpi printing, which makes virtually no difference in text speed or (save for small fonts) quality but produces faster, fuzzier graphics; turn HP's image Resolution Enhancement Technology on and off; or stretch cartridge life with a toner-saver mode. The last is suitable only for the draftiest in-house drafts -- not only does it print gray instead of black text, as most ink- or toner-savers do, but prints outlined or hollow letters.

T he front tray holds up to 150 sheets, which normally do a U-turn to rest face down atop the printer (dangling a ways over the edge; we never approached the rated 100-sheet output capacity, especially with legal paper, for fear it would fall off). Pulling down a rear panel yields a straight-through path. There's no secondary feeder or slot for letterhead or envelopes, which go into the main paper tray (which doesn't slide out) like everything else.

The LaserJet 1000 is an excellent text printer. Your first page of crisp, black text appears in just 15 or 16 seconds, and subsequent pages purr out at the promised 10 ppm: A five-page document took 39 seconds, while a 20-pager took 2 minutes and 3 seconds.

Grayscale graphics are sharp and attractive, though they slow printing, probably because the 1000 has only a measly 1MB of onboard memory. A 50-page Adobe Acrobat document of mixed graphics and text looked great, but took 8 minutes and 9 seconds, and the "Printing" dialog box didn't disappear from our monitor until the 6-minute mark. The LaserJet's whir when printing is quiet enough to be no bother, though we noticed a dull click at the end of each job and a faint smell of toasted paper.

Samsung ML-1250
The $249 Samsung ML-1250 looks identical to Samsung's $199 ML-1210, with the same 14-inches-square footprint, 14-pound weight, and parallel and USB ports. It uses the same rated-for-2,500-pages toner cartridges, which Samsung sells for $79 (though we found them on the Web for $62) -- and, in the same cost-cutting annoyance, comes with a starter cartridge good for only 1,000 pages, and no printer cable.

Like its sibling's, the Samsung holds up to 150 sheets of paper in a near-vertical bin at the back; pages do a vertical rather than the HP's horizontal U-turn to rest in a 100-sheet output bin, back side toward you (page 1 on top of the stack), against a prop at the front.

The Samsung beats the HP when it comes to handling envelopes, letterhead, or other special stock; not only is there a separate input guide or slot, but flipping down a lever at the front yields a straighter paper path, ejected at the front rather than rear of the printer.

It also boasts a higher duty cycle (up to 12,000 pages per month), as well as buttons to resume a manual-feed job (or print a demo page) and cancel a job in progress. Pressing the latter when the printer's idle, even if you've turned off your PC, reprints the last page of the last job, which is both a handy way to get another copy of a letter and a security concern for the paranoid.

Samsung supplies drivers for Windows 95 and NT, Mac OS 8 or higher, and Red Hat Linux as well as Win 98/Me/2000/XP, but flunks the ease-of-installation test: After installing the driver for our Windows 2000 desktop, we repeatedly tried the instructions on both the setup poster and online PDF documentation for running the Add New Hardware wizard and configuring the USB driver, only to get "Unknown device" and "This folder does not contain a driver for your device" errors. Eventually, we found the ML-1250 in the Printers control panel and manually changed its listed parallel port to USB, which did the trick.

The driver offers similar resolution, watermark, and multiple-pages-per-sheet options to Hewlett-Packard's, with somewhat fewer scaling or print-to-fit options balanced by the ability to print an image or sign as a jumbo poster on overlapping sheets. Perhaps the Samsung's best feature, accessed either via the driver or by simply pressing a front-panel button, is its toner-saver mode, whose output is nearly as dark and crisp as normal text.

Everything we've said on this page, except for dark rather than grayish toner-thrifty printing, applies to the ML-1210 as well as the ML-1250. So what justifies its $50-higher price - especially since it comes with less buffer memory, 4MB versus 8MB? Well, the ML-1250's memory is expandable (all the way to 68MB), and DOS application fans might appreciate that it offers true PCL6 printer-language compatibility instead of the 1210's strictly host-based/Windows GDI output, which can mean more efficient, quicker printing.

To be honest, however, we didn't notice any difference with our Windows applications -- nor did the Samsung's 12-ppm engine prove substantially faster than the HP's 10-ppm hardware. Our five-page Word document took 38 seconds to the LaserJet's 39, while our 20-pager took 1 minute and 52 seconds, only 11 seconds less than its rival. Text quality was a tossup, or equally excellent from both.

And, efficient PCL6 code notwithstanding, the Samsung took far longer with our 50-page Adobe Acrobat document - 18 minutes and 19 seconds, with annoying pauses after every two or three pages, although the Samsung's greater memory let it clear the "Printing" dialog box sooner (three and a half minutes). The ML-1250's "1,200-dpi class" setting did yield slightly sharper (if lighter) photo images than the LaserJet's, but it's also slightly noisier in operation.

The Verdict
So which is the winner? Both are capable, compact choices for cranking out top-quality text. The Samsung ML-1250 offers more convenient paper-handling and a superior toner-saver mode; the HP LaserJet 1000 offers easier setup and operation (with a more polished software driver) and is the better value, thanks to its supplied printer cable and full instead of half-empty toner cartridge. But if you already own a parallel or USB cable, we'd vote for the $199 Samsung ML-1210 over either of these $249 models.

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