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Here's what you need to know to pick the perfect workgroup printer

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Unless they work in a graphics or publishing department, chances are most people in your agency only occasionally use a printer. And if you leave aside those who need personal printers for producing confidential documents, it's hard not to conclude that having employees share printers is usually the most cost-effective option for handling most printing needs. A shared printer allows you to capitalize on the costs of acquisition, maintenance and consumables, such as toner and ink.

Buying the right workgroup printer or fleet of printers involves considering a host of issues, such as image resolution and number of pages the printer can produce per minute. But the most important issue is the print technology. The three most common options in the general office market are monochrome printers, color printers and multifunctional or all-in-one printers. The main features of each type, along with tips from experts on deciding how to pick the right product for your needs, are discussed on the following pages.

Monochrome printers: Others for show, this one's for go

Traditionally, monochrome laser printers have been the mainstay of government networks for one reason: affordability. That benefit has become more pronounced, as some workhorse laser printers cost less than $1,500. For example, Hewlett-Packard's $1,250 LaserJet 4250n with built-in Fast Ethernet print server connects directly to a network and can produce 45 pages per minute. Administrators can manage the 4250n remotely via the Web.

The cost of color printers has dropped, but "in all regards, monochrome printers provide the fastest and lowest cost option" for general office needs, said Dave Steinforth, product marketing manager at Lexmark International, a printer manufacturer.

For that reason, most workgroups of any significant size should have at least one monochrome printer as part of their fleet, he said.

However, Keshun Morgan, presales systems engineer at reseller CDW Government, said that although the total cost of ownership for monochrome printers is lower than that for color, the difference is shrinking.

For example, the cost of monochrome toner cartridges is significantly less than the replacement cartridges for color printers. But more color printer manufacturers provide separate cartridges for black and color ink — and often separate cartridges for each of the three color components: yellow, cyan and magenta. That reduces the cost of printing black and white documents on a color printer to only slightly more than or equal to using a monochrome printer.

Similarly, although monochrome printers are faster than color ones, a color printer can produce a black-and-white-only document nearly as fast as a monochrome printer.

Monochrome printer technology is not in danger of sharing the fate of monochrome monitors, but their dominance in workgroups is weakening. "Many agencies want to maintain their investment in monochrome printers," Morgan said. "But as the printers wear out and are replaced, we'll see more instances in which color printers take the place of some of the black-and-white machines."

Cheryl Carruth, HP's category business manager for monochrome LaserJet printers, said the monochrome market is slowly declining. "People are still buying them for their general office applications, which by and large don't need color," she said.

Curtis Gray, information management officer at the U.S. Army Command III Corps headquarters at Fort Hood, Texas, said that about 80 percent or more of what most people print — e-mail messages, memos, receipts and faxes, for example — is in black and white. In addition, he figures another 5 percent of print jobs have only incidental color, such as hyperlinks indicated by colored text or the letterhead on a draft document that will be circulated internally.

Using a monochrome printer for noncolor jobs will reduce "wear and tear and toner consumption on the color printer," Gray said. Also, including at least one monochrome printer on the network "will encourage more users to print in black and white even if there's some unimportant, incidental color, which really isn't necessary for the project," he said.

If a small office with a dozen or so users can afford only one printer, it should opt for a color one, said Calvin Riley, systems engineer at the HP Technology Practice at the reseller GTSI. However, he recommends that larger offices have at least one monochrome printer. "That will leave the color printer free for those jobs which really need color," Riley said.

Color printers: A richer perspective

Color print jobs may still represent only a small portion of general printing requirements, but the use of color is growing, said Jack Fanning, director of printer product marketing at Xerox.

"Color has become an integral part of everyday business requirements," he said. "It's no longer just for specialty printing projects."

He said that users now print a variety of document types, including Web pages, which often have diagrams, illustrations and photos in color. In addition, many office applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel depend on color. For example, without color, Word's collaborative tools, such as the one that tracks editing changes by indicating markups in different colors, would be difficult to use. Also, highlighted sections of documents may be virtually unreadable when printed on a monochrome printer.

Low-end color workgroup printers start at about $700. High-speed machines, which can produce 25 pages per minute or more, start at about $2,500. The price can be considerably higher for printers with advanced paper-handling functions, such as collating and stapling, printers that can handle large paper such as tabloid-size, and multifunction (MF) printers. Generally, the more you spend, the faster the output, the better the print quality, the more jobs that can be held in the print queue and the lower the cost of toner on a per page basis.

One way to determine print quality — and the only way to do so when reading product spec sheets — is pixel density. All things being equal, the more dots per inch (dpi), the sharper the image and the more costly the printer. For example, the Lexmark C762, which costs $1,800, features 1,200 x 1,200 dpi resolution, while the company's Lexmark C912 is almost twice the price and twice the pixel density.

Although dpi can be a good quality indicator, Riley points out that many other issues can affect how people perceive color images' quality. For example, some printers, especially lower-speed ones, use multipass technology in which toner is put on the paper in four passes. In these machines, registration may be an issue.

Few of today's printers would lay down a double image such as you sometimes see in a newspaper's misprinted color comics section. But if a color printer's registration is even slightly off, the image may not be sharp, Riley said.

Some printers use new and sometimes proprietary technologies to boost quality. For example, Xerox uses solid ink technology on some of its printers, such as the Phaser 8500 and the multifunction WorkCentre C2424. Fanning said the technology allows the machines to lay down more precisely positioned and sharper dots.

Given the various print methods, "the only sure way to check quality is to test the printer with a few of your typical documents and eyeball the output," Riley said.

If you plan to use your color printer often, the cost of consumables can affect the cost of ownership. In general, the price of toner per page decreases as the printer's price increases. For example, compare the cost of color toner cartridges for two IBM printers.

The toner cartridge for the company's $3,624 Infoprint Color 1357 printer costs $341 and can produce 14,000 pages, for a toner cost of about 2.5 cents per page. Color cartridges for the $922 Infoprint Color 1334 sell for $113 each and can produce 3,000 pages, or about 3.75 cents per page. Those figures are based on 5 percent coverage of the page, meaning that the printer lays ink on 5 percent of the page and the rest is white.

Output speed may also be a more important consideration with color than with monochrome because color printers are slower. But Gray said warm-up time and the time it takes to print the first page, which is a function of a given printer's performance capabilities, not whether it's monochrome or color, may be even more critical at some agencies.

"If an executive hits the print button and nothing happens for more than seven seconds, he's going to hit it again and again and the printer will end up printing five copies of the same document," Gray said.

MF printers: Roll up the sleeves

MF printers by definition have at least one other function such as copying, faxing or scanning.

From an engineering standpoint, MF printers are effective because they handle different tasks using common components and consumables. "By combining them into a single machine, you can achieve enormous efficiencies of scale," said Dean Picciotti, senior vice president for product management at GovConnection.

MF printers can be monochrome or color and vary greatly in price. For example, Canon offers the imageRUNNER 2230, a monochrome device, for about $3,800, and the high-output, color imageRUNNER C5800 at $21,000.

MF printers cost substantially less than you'd pay if you bought each device separately.

In addition to lower acquisition costs, "you can consolidate the expenses related to supplies," said Paul Albano, manager of product marketing at Canon. "You can put the printer under one service contract and manage most of the functions from one machine. That's a big advantage for busy administrators."

Where space is an issue, an MF printer takes up less room than multiple stand-alone devices would. Such printers may also make it easier to justify including advanced paper-handling features because they will be used for both printing and copying.

MF printers' primary downside is the difficulty of balancing the need for cost-effective placement on the network with requirements for optimal user convenience.

"From a strictly price perspective, your best strategy is to buy one high-volume MF printer," said Tom Codd, HP's MF printer marketing director. "But from a user perspective, that can be disastrous. People who are used to walking to the end of their cubicle to make a copy now have to travel down the hall to the MF printer."

Accordingly, he said agencies that want to depend on MF printers should consider purchasing two or more less expensive machines or at least supplement an MF printer with a few stand-alone copiers and fax machines positioned around the facility.

For most agencies, the selection of workgroup printers is not strictly a means of comparing prices, functionality and quality. It's also a matter of finding the right mix of products.

"You want to consider your entire fleet," HP's Carruth said. "As a whole, how [do the printers you choose] meet your printing objectives?"

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

Smart Shopper Tip

For the occasional color user

If your office needs color documents only some of the time, consider purchasing a few low-end color inkjet printers. Inkjet printers are inexpensive, ranging from free with the purchase of a new computer to a few hundred dollars. Cost per page is high and output speeds are low, but print quality is usually good.

Smart Shopper Tip

Accessibility options

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, consider purchasing a machine that people with vision impairments can access. For example, some printers are available with concave keys and the option of Braille labels. Another new feature on some machines is a voice synthesizer that speaks the commands.

Tightening security

Device security has become an important issue in the network printer market, said Ken Woodruff, Lexmark's industry director for federal government and health care. "When you move from a single printer connected to a single PC to a networked device, you open up a number of risks which have to be addressed," Woodruff said.

Unauthorized people could view sensitive documents that are sitting in the output tray, or they could access content from the printer's hard drive.

To protect the device, many manufacturers offer hard drive encryption. Woodruff said that because of requests by government agencies, Lexmark is about to add a feature that automatically wipes the printer hard drive clean if it is removed and connected to another device.

Many manufacturers' printers allow administrators to set the machines to lock down during specific hours and determine which users are authorized to send jobs to the printer.

To protect documents, some devices allow users to indicate access numbers when sending a job to the printer. The printer doesn't begin the job until the user physically goes to the printer and enters the number. This prevents sensitive documents from sitting unattended in the output tray.

Lexmark will soon increase the number of digits in the access code its printers use from six to 10 to make it less vulnerable to trial-and-error attacks. Security administrators will also be able to set the number of failed attempts a user can make before the print job is deleted.

— Larry Stevens

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