HP’s Latest Inkjet Cuts Into Color Laser Turf

Conventional wisdom dictates that a laser printer is the right choice for fast, affordable office printing, while an inkjet is best relegated to low-volume personal use. Given the slower speed and higher cost per page typically inherent with ink jets, that reasoning makes sense.

Or does it? The new HP Officejet Pro K5400 is hoping to win back laser lookers with faster speeds and lower print costs than previous-generation ink jets, while still delivering the photo-print quality that only an ink jet can muster. And for $149, it just might succeed against entry-level color lasers that typically cost at least an additional $100.

It’s All About the Engine
The K5400 is the entry-level model in the series, and as such, it doesn’t have many bells and whistles. There’s a 250-sheet input tray, a two-button control panel and a single USB port for connectivity. The $199 K5400tn includes an additional 350-sheet input tray and built-in wired Ethernet connectivity to share the printer among as many as five PCs; the $249 K5400dtn adds a built-in duplexer to the K5400tn configuration.

All three models share a redesigned ink jet engine that HP rates at 12 pages per minute (ppm) for black output and 10 ppm for color. In draft mode, the engine can crank out around 36 ppm. And the K5400’s high-capacity ink cartridges (the black tank is rated for 2,500 pages before it needs changing), drastically reduces operating costs. HP estimates a typical text page (with five percent black coverage) will cost you 1.5 cents in consumables, while a color page (with 15 percent coverage) will run six cents. That’s lower even than current entry-level color lasers, and on a par with high-volume business laser printers.

Easy Setup, Excellent Printer Applet
Setting up the K5400 is easy, thanks to a straightforward design and a handy quick-start sheet. The four large, rectangular ink cartridges slide and click into place behind an easy-access panel on the front of the printer. The design makes swapping out a used cartridge approachable, even for the techno-phobic. In addition to the tanks, two high-volume print heads snap into place beneath the top cover. Then simply plug in the power, wait for auto-alignment initialization process to finish (a one-time procedure that takes about 10 minutes), install the software, and you’re ready to go. The whole process took us about 30 minutes.

Do note, however, that the K5400 is probably too large (19.5 inches wide, 15 inches deep and eight inches tall) to share a conventional desk. The fairly noticeable amount of whirring and clicking at warm-up and during printing will also convince you the printer needs its own space.

HP’s excellent print driver applet installs during the setup process and will help you get the best print results for a wide range of jobs. Simply click on the Properties button in the Windows print dialog box, and you’ll be presented with the settings pane for the K5400. The Printing Shortcuts tab gives quick access to eight of the most-common printing tasks. You can select General Everyday Printing, Fast Economical Printing (aka draft mode), Two-sided, Booklet, and Presentation print modes for documents; and Borderless, White Border or Poster modes photos.

The driver automatically picks the right settings for the job. Drop-down lists to the right of that pane give context-sensitive choices for print quality, paper type and so on, if you need to change the defaults. The applet’s Features and Color Tabs let you tweak settings manually if you prefer.

Performance and Print Quality
We found the K5400’s performance and print quality impressive, especially given the unit’s reasonable price. A 10-page Microsoft Word text document, printed using the General Everyday Printing defaults, finished in just 50 seconds—validating HP’s claimed 12ppm engine rating. And the document’s quality was very good, with dark and well-formed characters at typical point sizes. We did start to some imperfection at type six points in size and smaller, but text was still legible as small as four points.

In draft mode, the K5400 churned out the document in just 35 seconds. Type was noticeably lighter than in normal mode, but more than usable for in-house documents. And HP’s Vivera inks and HP Everyday Copy & Print paper held up to our Sharpie highlighter without smudging.

The HP Officejet Pro K5400
The HP Officejet Pro K5400 delivers speed and printing costs comparable to — or better than — competing entry-level color lasers.

The K5400 also excelled with our five-page PDF document, which mixes text and photos. The printer needed just 43 seconds to produce the file — less than half the time of entry-level color lasers we’ve tested. And as with the Word document, results were excellent, with sharp text and good photo reproduction (better than the lasers).

We also produced a nine-page PowerPoint document, using the print driver’s Presentation setting and HP Presentation Paper. Here’s where an inkjet still can’t keep pace with a color laser. The K5400 took nearly nine minutes to print the pages, compared to about four minutes for a color laser. As for quality, the K5400 delivered vibrant colors and excellent detail in the water/sky background we choose. Straight lines, even thin white ones, were razor sharp. But unlike a laser (and like other inkjets we’ve tested), the K5400 had trouble reproducing curved thin lines, which upon close inspection showed wiggles.

In the inkjet’s favor, our sample 8×10 photo, printed using the Photo setting on HP Premium Plus Photo Paper, turned out better than a color laser can yet produce. Granted, we had to wait three minutes for it, but results were stunning. The print showed excellent color accuracy and detail reproduction, even in dark background areas of the photo. The output would easily pass for a photographic print, unless you looked at it through a magnifying loupe.

Given its strengths, we’re happy to overlook a few imperfect lines in a PowerPoint graphic. With the HP Officejet Pro K5400 you get generally solid printing at very good speeds, at a price color laser printers can’t touch. And if HP’s claimed cost-per-page figures hold up in real-world use, the K5400 definitely is an ideal business partner.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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