A Faster Phaser

Xerox Phaser 6180N

Almost exactly a year ago, we reviewed a Xerox color laser printer priced at $499. The Phaser 6120’s standard Ethernet and USB 2.0 interfaces made it suitable for a small business, while its print shop- or graphics studio-worthy PostScript 3 and Pantone color and PCL support put it a cut above basic office models.

Today, it’s déjà vu all over again as far as Xerox’s brand new Phaser 6180 printer is concerned – it offers the same price and features, and it targets the same market niche. So what’s the difference from a year ago? The 6180’s color printing is four times faster. Isn’t progress wonderful?

One Pass = Finished Fast

Like other vendors, Xerox is letting single-pass printing trickle down to replace four-pass technology in all but its cheapest color lasers. With no need to loop a page through separate applications of cyan, magenta, yellow and black toner, the Phaser 6180’s color throughput is rated at 20 pages per minute, though monochrome jobs are still a tick faster at an advertised 26 ppm.

Xerox also boasts that the new printer can deliver the first page of a job in as little as 10 seconds, which we almost confirmed: Our one-page business letter with a spot-color company logo printed in 12 seconds, putting the 6180 among the fastest printers we’ve tested (i.e., matching many inkjet models’ pale and slapdash draft modes).

And though none scored a perfect 10, several black-and-white sheets arrived in a tenth or two under 11 seconds by our stopwatch. A 20-page monochrome Microsoft Word document printed in 57 seconds. Some other speed tests, however, were puzzling; we’ll get to them a bit later.

Weighing in at 54 pounds — a little less than some competitors, but bend your knees and lift with your legs when taking it out of the box — the Phaser 6180 is about half again as big as the 6120: It occupies a 16- by 20-inch (plus ventilation space) footprint and stands 19 inches high.

It’s more or less as noisy as it is bulky — by which we mean not outrageously so, but definitely happier on a separate stand or table instead of crowding your PC and drowning out phone conversations on your desk. Xerox says the unit draws 450 watts of power when printing, 70 watts on standby, and just 7 watts when left to sleep overnight.

Setup is straightforward. About one-third of the job is removing the usual dozen pieces of tape and plastic spacers that hold components in place during shipping. Another third is popping in the provided CD to install the software driver, which helpfully scans for and locates the printer on a network; an included PrintingScout utility offers status and toner-level information. In addition to 10/100Mbps Ethernet and USB connectors, there’s a parallel port for old-schoolers; a WiFi adapter is a pricey $219 option.

The final third of the process is installing the four toner cartridges. Though not preinstalled as some lasers’ are, the cartridges won’t take you more than three or four minutes — remove the foil wrapping, shake the plastic pod a few times to distribute the toner, pull a ripcord to make the cartridge open for business, and slide it into its properly labeled slot (black, cyan, magenta, or yellow) in the rack behind the front panel. We had a daunting moment when we broke one of the ripcords, but the front panel made up for it by the cute way it flips open halfway and then gradually lowers itself to the horizontal.

The 6180 has two paper trays: a 250-sheet drawer at the bottom and a 150-sheet tray that folds down from the front — it took us a minute to realize there was a second way to open the front panel in addition to accessing the toner cartridges. An additional 550-sheet drawer that fits beneath the main one is $399. Printed pages exit face down in a 300-sheet (we’d say closer to 200-sheet) bin on top of the printer.

A duplex unit is a $199 option for the $449-after-rebate Phaser 6180N base model we tested. If you need automatic double-sided printing, you can save a few sawbucks by buying the $599-after-rebate model 6180DN, which has duplexing as standard equipment.

Two, Two, Two Printers in One

Few workgroups or small offices will strain the Phaser’s rated duty cycle of 60,000 pages per month — which, as with pretty much every printer on the planet, would rack up an impressive bill if matched by actual use. The 6180 comes with a black toner cartridge rated for approximately 3,000 pages and cyan, magenta, and black cartridges rated for approximately 2,000, all priced at $90 each.

For better value, however, you’ll want to use Xerox’s larger-capacity black — 8,000 pages for $190 — and color — 6,000 pages for $196 apiece — cartridges. According to Xerox’s and our own calculations, that equals a toner total of 2.4 cents per black and 12.2 cents per color page.

Now, About Those Benchmarks

By default, the software CD installs a PostScript 3 driver for extra color capabilities, though you can choose a PCL 6 emulation driver if you’re in a business setting with Brand H printers scattered about.

That’s fine, but our tests yielded a subtle hint that PostScript users might want to enlarge the Phaser’s standard 128MB of memory — and might in turn want to knock back a few drinks first, since Xerox sells extra memory at the heart-attack prices of $599 for a 256MB and $719 for a 512MB module. We couldn’t find a listing on Xerox’s Web site for the 1GB module that would boost the printer to its maximum 1,152MB of memory, but we estimate it’s roughly 1.3 arms and 0.9 leg.

Here’s the story: Once print jobs surpassed 10 or 15 pages or so, the PCL driver started to show a speed advantage over the PostScript driver. It was only a couple of seconds for the 20-page Word file, but a 55-page Adobe Acrobat PDF document printed in two minutes flat using PCL versus 2 minutes and 53 seconds using PostScript.

More important, part of our testing ritual is printing two sets of six PowerPoint slides, one with a white or blank background and one with a dark, almost-a-full-page-of-purple background. The half-dozen light slides were no biggie: 27 seconds under PCL and 33 seconds, with a short pause between pages four and five, under PostScript.

The six dark slides were something else: They arrived in a timely and trouble-free 41 seconds after picking “Phaser 6180 PCL” in PowerPoint’s printer menu, but with “Phaser 6180 PS” only a couple of sheets finished before Win XP threw up a “This document failed to print” message — but if we ignored the message, the Xerox went on to complete the job, albeit in a painful 147 seconds.

The same thing — smooth with ordinary 10- or 20-percent-color documents, stressed with color-saturated pages — happened when we printed 8 by 10-inch photos on letter paper: The PCL driver gave us our images in an average of 16 seconds, but PostScript popped up the Windows warning yet continued anyway to finish in about a minute.

Some of the fault likely lay in our Pentium 4 desktop’s modest 512MB instead of 1GB or more of RAM. But we’d still suggest adding more memory to the Phaser, both for performance’s sake and because with 256MB or more onboard the printer is capable of big-company functions such as secure printing (holding a job till you arrive and enter a code on the control panel) and proof printing (letting you check one copy of a job before printing the other copies).

For one last grumble, when we saw the unit’s dual input trays we naturally looked forward to printing documents with cover sheets, or letters with a first page on company letterhead and subsequent pages on plain stock. It turns out that function is available with the PCL but not the PostScript driver.

Hey, Good Lookin’

We don’t mean to overemphasize the glitch we experienced with full-color pages under PostScript. For the correspondence, newsletters, flyers, and charts that make up a vast majority of office print jobs, the 6180 is truly impressive in both speed and output quality.

Photos, especially skin tones, looked a little grainy, but that’s par for the course with laser printers as opposed to inkjets. (For graphics pros and other serious palette pushers, there’s an ICC [International Color Consortium] profile on the software CD.)

But solid color areas in PDF and other documents were as crisp and vivid as you could ask for. Text quality, too, proved first-class, with output sufficiently dark and sharp to make reading all but the smallest fonts an eyestrain-free experience.

And most of all, we’re pleased to see 20-ppm color printing within reach of those who could afford 5 ppm last year. The Phaser 6180 is a prime example of color laser printers’ rapid climb up the price/performance ladder.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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