A Laser Printer for Solo, Not Charter, Flights

Ever sat at a poker table and said, “I’ll see your $100 and raise you $200?” Printer manufacturers play a similar game with each other, but they bet less money instead of more —”I can sell that color laser for $299!”

It’s no longer rare to find a color laser printer priced under $1,000, so somebody introduces one for $700. Then another vendor whittles specifications and profit margins to hit $500. Then a cluster of companies trims the price tags to $400.

Now HP has launched a new entry-level printer, the Color LaserJet 1600, priced at $300. If we were Howie Mandel, host of the show, Deal or No Deal, we’d wince and tell HP, “Ooh, you should have stopped at the last deal.”

By “last deal” we mean the Color LaserJet 2600N, introduced (and favorably reviewed) a year ago and originally priced at $400.

Splitting Hairs
The old and new HPs are outwardly identical, with the same single-pass printing engine rated at the same eight pages per minute for both black-and-white and color documents — so monochrome print jobs tend to be slower than, but color output often faster than, color lasers based on four-pass printing technology.

They have the same 16MB of memory and 264MHz Motorola processor, with the same 600 by 600 dpi resolution plus HP’s PhotoREt 2400 technology that makes images look sharper than native resolution allows. They have the same 250-sheet letter- or legal-sized paper drawer at bottom and a125-sheet, face down output bin on top.

But a nip here and a tuck there add up to a different printer. Compared to the 2600N, the Color LaserJet 1600 lacks an Ethernet connector, defining it as a USB 2.0 desktop device for a single user instead of small-office sharing. It supports Windows 98 SE, Me, 2000, XP and Server 2003 but not the Mac OS as its sibling does.

And the 1600, like too many of its competitors, pulls one of our least favorite cost-cutting stunts: It ships with what HP calls “introductory” or starter black, cyan, magenta, and yellow toner cartridges, so you’ll need to buy replacements after your first 1,000 pages. Inside the 2600N’s box, by contrast, you’ll find full 2,500-page black and 2,000-page color cartridges, worth $75 for black and $83 each for color. The premature replacement purchase will more than cancel out the new model’s $100 price advantage.

Speaking of toner, the Color LaserJet 1600’s specifications page touts its use of the extra-fine, extra-consistent ColorSphere toner that HP’s developed since the 2600N’s introduction and that HP holds up as an example of why you should avoid cheaper third-party cartridges.

We’ve seen side-by-side comparisons at an HP briefing and can testify that, rather than being just hype, ColorSphere consumables do indeed make a positive difference — though we’re not sure it’s one you’ll care about for everyday Word or PowerPoint printouts on plain rather than heavy or glossy paper. But it’s not like the 1600 has a monopoly on the technology; the 2600N uses the same cartridges.

At 40 pounds, the HP is lighter than many color lasers; it’s a bit awkward to wrestle the printer out of its packaging, but it’s manageable for one person and easy for two. Flip down its front panel, and you’ll see the black, yellow, cyan and magenta cartridges stacked or pre-installed in position, though you must remove, yank some sealing tape from, and then reinsert each cartridge before you can print.

During our installation we accidentally placed the black cartridge into the magenta slot and vice versa, so the initialization process was interrupted by the two-line control-panel LCD’s warning, “Incorrect magenta.” Fixing our blunder and completing setup took only a moment. The software CD installs helpful, browser-based documentation and printer-status screens as well as a driver with a decent array of zoom, booklet and watermark printing options.

HP Color LaserJet 1600
HP’s Color LaserJet 1600 lacks the network capability of its older cousin, the Color LaserJet 2600n.

The Color LaserJet 1600 has a roughly 16-by 18-inch footprint and stands 15 inches high. It’s not silent, but not obnoxiously loud — suitable for placement on your desk, though not right next to a phone. Just above the pullout paper tray, there’s a feed slot for a single sheet or envelope.

HP’s software driver guides you through the job of flipping and reloading paper for printing on both sides. No automatic duplexer is available, but if you don’t like having to refill the input tray every 250 sheets, a second 250-sheet tray is a $150 option. HP says the printer’s maximum duty cycle is 20,000 pages per month; we don’t know why the spec sheet of its mechanical twin the 2600N says 35,000 pages, but we doubt the typical small office’s workload will come anywhere near either figure.

This’ll Only Take a Minute
The Color LaserJet 1600 comes close to its advertised first-page-out time of 20 seconds, printing our one-page business letter with spot-color company logo in 23 seconds. Other stopwatch tests matched HP’s promise of eight ppm speed almost perfectly: Twenty pages of black-and-white word processing took 2 minutes and 38 seconds, while our 55-page Adobe Acrobat PDF file — which mixes black text with color illustrations and photo images — printed in a little more than seven minutes.

Those results are nearly identical to the times we recorded with the model 2600N a year ago, although the newer printer took noticeably longer to print our six PowerPoint slides with dark, solid backgrounds (it matched its predecessor’s speed for slides with white backgrounds). Digital-camera photos printed in roughly 68 seconds for 8- by 10-inch images, but — as with almost every other color laser we’ve tried — were more suitable for casual newsletters or handouts than for framing in the front hall, too grainy to challenge the output of a high-quality inkjet printer on glossy photo paper.

Bottom Line
We like the 1600 just fine for a single user or solo business operator seeking a solid desktop color printer, but its Ebenezer Scrooge starter cartridges and lack of a network connection compel us to recommend the Color LaserJet 2600N instead — especially since HP and its retailers have been known to discount the latter from $400 to $350, halving its $100 price premium. (In fact, just before the 1600 shipped, HP’s Web site offered the 2600N for — you guessed it — $300.)

Naturally, we’ll like the 1600 better once it gets the same treatment — if it ever shows up in your local superstore for $250 or $225, it’ll be a genuine threat to color inkjet printers. But for now, HP’s newest deal is no deal.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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