6 Fast, Reliable Network Printers

Ask any PC user or network administrator what he's looking for in a network printer, and he'll tell you the same thing: It needs to work, and it needs to be fast. When it doesn't work, it needs to be easy to trouble-shoot. And if all else fails, the vendor who makes it needs to be responsive.

All six of the workgroup printers we reviewed are well-built, with many options and a great deal of expandability. And all of them are backed by good or better technical support. Priced between $2,100 and $3,900, these printers offer a range of speeds, averaging from 8.7 to 18.3 pages per minute. Which one you should buy depends on the features you need and how much you can afford to spend.

We asked each vendor to pick the product from its line that best suits a medium-size workgroup. We asked the vendors to beef up the memory to the neighborhood of 30M and to include an Ethernet interface. Hewlett-Packard Co. sent us its huge LaserJet 5Si MX. Xerox Corp. shipped us a DocuPrint 4517mp, and Lexmark International Inc. sent a brand-new model: the Optra S 1650. QMS Inc. provided a 2060 GX, which is positioned as a graphic arts device but offers some excellent features for more mundane jobs too. Kyocera Electronics Inc. couldn't decide between the 1700 and 3700 models, so we looked at both.

All six printers we reviewed offer large paper volume and advanced paper options, such as output sorters and duplexers, so your workgroup can enjoy more than just the sheer speed of these workhorses.

All these printers offer two variations on network printing. First, you can use a server-based queue architecture. In this case, all your clients direct output to a print queue on your Novell NetWare or Microsoft Windows NT file server. In turn, the server sends the jobs to the printer. This configuration doesn't require extra network software on each client.

Alternatively, these printers allow you to configure each client to print directly to the printer, bypassing your file and print servers. Each workstation will need a TCP/ IP stack and the associated print redirector or the alternative protocols supplied by each vendor. If you have the TCP services already on each workstation or don't mind adding more software to each client, this approach relieves the burden placed on your network servers and allows clients to see the status of the printer itself rather than just the network print queue status.

The more traditional arrangement, however, may keep administration woes to a minimum because you only need to maintain one network connection between the server and the printer. This approach also allows you to take advantage of your NetWare or Windows NT printer services, such as printer pooling.We tested the printers using both configurations and found administering them to be pretty similar on a small network. Larger agencies, however, are likely to opt for the server-based queue approach if they don't already have TCP/IP print services on their clients.

How They Stack Up

The HP LaserJet 5Si MX is the powerhouse of the group. It offers the fastest engine, a standard paper supply of 1,100 sheets and support for ledger-size media. It also offers superb documentation and network administration tools. This printer, however, is enormous; it weighs more than 100 pounds, which makes it difficult to set up. (HP recommends that four people move the unit.) Though it is the most expensive printer in the group at $3,876, it receives our stamp of approval as the best overall value.

A less expensive and smaller option is Lexmark's new Optra S 1650, which is priced at $3,027. This compact printer ekes the most performance out of its engine and offers some very nice features, including 1,200-by-1,200-pixel resolution standard. But what really impressed us about this unit was the exceptional documentation and network tools.

The QMS 2060 GX was a mixed bag. This large-format printer (up to 13-by-19 inches) offers a variety of features and ranked second in performance. But we had some trouble with the network configuration and didn't care for the documentation. The $3,106 price, however, is a bargain for a speedy, large-format printer.

For a little more money, you can buy the Xerox DocuPrint 4517mp, which sells for $3,335. For this price, you get competitive speed and a good feature set. The network services for Windows NT are a bit primitive, but the printer is still very easy to use. NetWare users, however, can try Xerox's Document Services for Printing, which offer all the administration tools you would expect.

The Kyocera 3700 performed well in our tests, but we had difficulty getting the administration tool to find the printer. At $2,683, this printer isn't as good a deal as the Lexmark unit. The Kyocera 1700 has the right price-$2,133-but lacks the speed we'd expect from a workgroup printer.

Gregory S. Smith is a free-lance writer and network consultant based in San Francisco.


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