By Eric Grevstad
The pace of the printer market makes Intel’s and AMD’s processor progress seem slow. A couple of years ago, no one thought twice about paying $300 or $400 for a color inkjet, and no one expected its speed and print quality to be anywhere near as good as a laser printer’s for text documents or a photo developer’s for glossy prints.
Today, mass-market inkjets are incredibly fast and sharp, and even more incredibly cheap – not only under $100 for many models, but often bundled free with PC purchases or half-jokingly described as disposable (when your printer’s ink cartridges run dry, why pay $70 or $80 to replace them when you can buy a whole new printer for the same price?). Never have so many consumers been so spoiled so quickly.
With that background, we were doubly eager to sample Lexmark International’s new Z65 – not only is it Hewlett-Packard’s top rival’s top of the line, but it dares to cost $199, which is not exorbitant but nondisposable. Why should home or small-office users pick a printer that’s double or quadruple the cost of many inkjets?
Double or quadruple the speed and sharpness, replies Lexmark – the Z65 is rated at up to 21 pages per minute (ppm) for black text and 15 ppm for color, and offers the record-setting resolution of 4,800 by 1,200 dpi on coated or glossy paper (4,800 by 600 dpi on plain paper), automatically spraying both tiny 10- and even tinier 3-picoliter droplets for fine photographic detail.
What’s more, it has not one but two input trays – a 100-sheet front and 150-sheet rear tray, so there’s less fuss if your daily printing involves both letterhead and plain or both letter- and legal-sized paper. And the front tray flaunts an automatic media sensor, so you don’t have to click a box in the software driver to tell the printer whether you’ve loaded plain, coated inkjet, transparency, or glossy photo paper.
The Z65 even aligns its own print cartridges, without the print-a-test-sheet-then-click-to-say-which-pairs-of-lines-are-parallel chores of most inkjet maintenance. In a world of throwaway printers, is this one a keeper?
Except for the novelty of lifting the first input-tray lid to reveal and lift another, the Z65 is as quick and painless to set up as any printer we’ve tested – you plug in the AC adapter, drop in the black and color ink cartridges (they don’t need to be shoved or snapped in as forcefully as most), and plug the Lexmark into your computer’s USB port. There’s no USB cable in the box and no parallel or other interface available, though for only $30 more the model Z65n has an Ethernet port for offices wishing to share the printer’s 5,000-pages-a-month duty cycle.
As with most inkjets, those thousands of pages will cost you more than they would with a monochrome laser, or a Canon inkjet with separate cartridges for each ink color; Lexmark rates the Z65’s black cartridge ($30) for 600 pages (double-spaced text, judging by the skimpy 5-percent coverage cited), and its tricolor cartridge ($35) for 450 pages (with 15-percent coverage).
Though a bit on the bulky side (13 inches high, with a 17.5 by 21-inch footprint with all trays open), the Lexmark is happily quiet, with only occasional clicks and clunks in addition to the back-and-forth whir of the printheads. A setup pamphlet prompts you to skip Windows’ own Add New Hardware Wizard in favor of inserting the supplied driver CD, which walks you through software setup and printing initial self-alignment and test pages.
Though the printed user’s guide is skimpy, the driver software is some of the most helpful and sensible we’ve ever seen. It combines the usual printer-settings module accessible via applications’ Printer Properties dialog with a separate “solution center” utility with tabbed pages for printer status, project suggestions or explanations of various features, and troubleshooting and maintenance instructions, with links to help screens always on hand.
During print jobs, a corner-of-screen status gauge with optional voice effects (“Printing started! Printing complete! Please add paper!”) shows progress. WinAmp or Windows Media Player buffs will note that you can change the gauge from its standard to a swoopy or even bizarre “skin” or interface.
Both trays offer a nearly straight-through paper path, with the media-sensing front tray accepting sizes from 3 by 5 through 8.5 by 17 inches. Aside from the on/off button, the only front-panel controls are a pair of illuminated buttons for selecting one or the other paper source (or giving a page feed to clear a paper jam).
A slide-out catch tray is supposed to hold 50 sheets, but pages tend to slide off the stack well before then. We found the paper-feed system worked well, though you have to place paper carefully into the tray (all the way down, but not too far down) to minimize crooked feeding, especially with lighter stock, and press a lever if you want to pull it back out.
Since paper exits face up, the Printer Properties dialog includes a “print last page first” checkbox, as well as hand-holding options for banner, booklet, tape-together poster, N-up thumbnail, and duplex (two-sided; you reinsert the paper manually) printing. If clicking options yourself is too intimidating, an “I Want To” menu offers prefab choices – “print a banner,” “print an envelope,” and so on.
You can also save your favorite combinations of printer settings and print quality modes for jobs you repeat often. The Z65’s four speed-versus-quality choices are Quick (300 by 600 dpi), Normal (600 by 600 dpi), Better (1,200 by 1,200 dpi), and Best (4,800 by 1,200 dpi).
Following inkjet tradition, you can divide the advertised speed numbers by two for an idea of real-world performance, but we admit the Z65 is fast, at least for in-house draft work. Using Quick (draft) mode and plain copier paper, it printed a slightly sketchy but perfectly legible five-page, all-text Microsoft Word document in 41 seconds, and a 20-page document in two minutes and 42 seconds – that’s within hailing distance, though in that mode it didn’t match the quality, of 10- and 12-ppm personal laser printers we’ve tried.
Normal mode was only slightly slower – one minute for our five-page document, 4 minutes and 11 seconds for the 20-pager – and looked handsome even on the cheap copier paper; a few characters had some jaggies, but even 6-point text was readable. The next (Better) mode doubled the Normal print time but didn’t look much different; text in Best mode was surprisingly close to laser quality on plain paper, but too slow to be practical (about a minute per page).
As with all inkjets, text straightened up and flew right when we switched to seep-resistant coated paper. Again, Normal mode (2 minutes 19 seconds for five pages) was a virtual match for Better (2 minutes 43 seconds), but both big and small fonts looked simply great and laser-like. We didn’t expect to see a visible difference for plain text in Best mode, but did – output was truly gorgeous, but too slow for anything except royal correspondence or job applications (the five-page document took nine and a half minutes).
The combination of Normal mode and coated paper also performed well with PowerPoint charts and Adobe Acrobat PDF files. Using copier paper, a six-page PDF was swift – 1 minute 18 seconds in Quick mode, a respectable 5 minutes 30 seconds in Normal – but colors showed plenty of banding; with coated paper, the same job took less than a minute longer in Normal mode, but was fully presentation-handout-worthy, although pastel solids still showed traces of banding which darker colors escaped. Even Better mode (14 minutes 47 seconds) wasn’t quite band-free; Best mode on coated paper produced a perfect PDF, but the six pages took a glacial 43 minutes.
Finally, we put the Z65 to the test as a photo printer. Though it lacks the borderless (edge-to-edge) printing capability of dedicated units, it proved a pleasant surprise in one respect – the best images we’ve ever seen on plain paper. A 7.5 by 10-inch print (a 72-ppi image from a 2-megapixel digital camera) took only 1 minute 48 seconds in Normal mode on copier paper, and was, well, not frame-worthy but certainly cubicle-wall-worthy (even a 28-second Quick print, though pale, looked pretty good).
Other photo printouts, however, were somewhat disappointing – the five-minute Better and 13-minute Best print on coated paper didn’t look very different from one another, except for the latter’s slightly richer colors, and both were relatively grainy. We eagerly awaited the high-res results of using glossy photo paper in Better (4 minutes 50 seconds) and Best (14 minutes 35 seconds) mode, but those prints didn’t pass the “mistake them for real photos” test, either – faintly rough or haloed edges made them inferior, in our opinion, to the same images produced in less time by the HP cp1160 inkjet we recently tested, though we hasten to note that printer cost twice as much. The Lexmark did a terrific job with a higher-resolution (600-ppi) 8 by 10-inch glossy in Best mode, but it took 34 minutes.
Overall, the Lexmark Z65’s fast, excellent plain-paper text and image and coated-paper text output convinced us it’s worth more than a low-cost consumer inkjet, but its slightly disappointing photo and presentation performance left us unsure it’s worth $199. If you can live with a single media-sensing paper tray instead of one sensing and one backup tray, we’d suggest you check out Lexmark’s step-down model Z55 for $129, or HP’s new DeskJet 5550 for $149.
Pros: Fast, first-class output on plain paper; wonderfully convenient media sensor and software driver
Cons: Not the world-beater we’d anticipated for presentation and photo printing; bit bulky and pricey by today’s standards.
Reprinted from Hardwarecentral.com.