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Give me two of everything

Comparing a pair of all-in-one flatbed photocopier-printer-scanners

Give me a small, fast monochrome laser printer, and I’m happy. For less than $200, I can buy either a Samsung ML-1210 or Lexmark E210 printer for my desk, and it’ll belt out crisp text quickly and economically till the cows come home.

The trouble is, monochrome doesn’t cut it anymore. Crisp, quickly delivered black text isn’t nearly as effective as I’d always believed (and to a writer, that’s a horrible realization). A study on the use of color in business, conducted by Loyola College, convinced me of the fact. The methodology was sound, and the results convincing: The study showed that using color in documents increased learning and retention of facts by 78 percent. Comprehension of facts improved up to 73 percent when presented in color. And here’s the real kicker: Invoices printed in color in the study got paid 30 percent faster than black-and-white ones.

I’m not losing my laser printer anytime soon, but the nagging suspicion that I could get money faster by printing invoices in color really piqued my interest. A color printer seemed inevitable. Better yet, a color printer with color photocopying built in, to cut down on trips to Kinko’s. And that’s what led me to compare two all-in-one multifunction devices designed for small or home offices-the Canon MultiPASS F30 and the Lexmark X83.

Similar but different

Both these devices combine standalone flatbed photocopying with computer-based color printing and scanning. They print at 600 dots per inch (dpi) as standard, but will go up to 2,400-by-1,200 dpi for color printouts on the right kind of paper. And they’ll both scan images at 600-by-1,200 dpi.

But from there on out, the differences emerge. The most obvious is feature-related: Lexmark X83 is a USB-only device; Canon’s has both USB and parallel connections. But neither ships with a cable, so be sure to tack that onto your budget. And Canon’s scanning/ photocopying platen is slightly larger–it will handle legal-size documents, whereas Lexmark’s tops out at letter-size.

And, of course, there’s price to consider. Lexmark managed to get the x83 under $200–I’ve seen prices as low as $179 at discount shopping clubs. At press time, Canon’s MultiPASS F30 is still around the $300 mark. But there are several mitigating details that account for Lexmark’s lower price. For starters, the Canon is a newer device, and it hasn’t yet begun to enter the typical discounting cycle for established products. It also sports a sturdier plastic casing. And as the following reviews show, it has a few more aces up its sleeve.

Canon MultiPASS F30

It’s a big piece of hardware, weighing 7 pounds more than the contender in the Lexmark corner, with most of the additional bulk housed in 10 extra inches of depth. But Canon MultiPASS F30’s extra size also houses a faster print engine than Lexmark’s, and one that spits out pretty decent-looking text and graphics (for an inkjet printer, that is). It comes with a typically fiddly monitor program that pops up when printing, and throws in a full-on optical character recognition (OCR) program, OmniPage Pro 9, which is a cut above most bundled programs for faxing.

Setting up the device wasn’t too tricky (with the usual caveats applying to USB connectivity) except under Windows XP, where a published workaround to the usual directions is in place. Despite the proliferation of paper tray guides and so forth, all lashed down with tape, it was physically easy to set up.

The real core to the MultiPASS F30, though, is its speed and cost of operation. It’s based on an an inkjet print engine, so it won’t match up to my laser printer. But in my tests, it could crank out nearly seven text pages per minute, and full-color graphic pages at a still-impressive rate of one page a minute. And based on the relatively low cost of its ink cartridges, it’s pretty economical too–somewhere between 2.5 and 3 cents per page for black text, and around 20 cents for color graphical pages.

The quality of text and graphics alike was pretty good–though it’s not up to the high standards many people hold for color printers. I’ve heard through the grapevine (at user feedback sites such as epinions.com and CNET’s reader feedback forums) that on cheaper paper, text and graphics bleed unacceptably, and that color photocopying, especially of photographic images, isn’t up to snuff. But for more mundane color work, it’s a fast and economical printer–once you get over the initial cost of purchase.

Lexmark X83

Lexmark has a major presence in retail outlets, so it’s possible to find the X83 at Staples, electronics stores, wholesale clubs, and the like for 10 to 20 bucks below list price. And you’re not getting a bad deal for your bucks, either. Sure, it’s a USB-only device, so Windows 95 users aren’t going to like it much. And there are no network drivers, so you can’t set up a print server and have many people print to it. That said, for occasional color printing and copying, it’s a pretty decent model.

It drops into sleep mode if unused for a while, and waking up from it can be slow–30 seconds isn’t unusual. But apart from that, it’s pretty speedy. It prints and photocopies text pages at the rate of about four pages per minute, and copies more graphical color pages at two a minute. Its mixed color graphics and text pages print rather more slowly, with some taking more than a minute to print, which is slow even for a low-cost inkjet printer.

The text and graphics aren’t too bad. Copies aren’t brilliant, but they’re fair enough. The print jobs are pretty free and clear on plain paper, as long as you’re not doing anything too fancy, such as printing color photography for display purposes. On specially coated graphics paper, both text and graphics look much sharper.

But there’s a fatal flaw with this printer, and it’s one that most Lexmark printers share. Their ink cartridges are pricey, and their printers guzzle the stuff. If you buy ink cartridges at the regular retail prices ($30.99 for black cartridges; $37.99 for color, and we’re hard pressed to find any sources that discount them by much), you’ll be paying more than twice the cost of the MultiPASS F30’s output. On a run of sample pages, I’m figuring around 10 cents a page for text pages, and well over 50 cents for very graphical color images. This is a real sticking point for someone like me who’s lured by the low cost of entry. If you print a lot of pages, the bills will soon mount up, forcing you to consider those messy drill-and-fill refill kits you see advertised at tightwad outlets.

Which one to buy?

All told, the MultiPASS F30 seems like a better deal in the long run. Despite its initially much higher price, the lower cost of ink and the four-cartridge system the printer uses (one cartridge each for black, cyan, magenta, and yellow) means I’m not throwing away unused ink when one color runs out. The individual cartridges are pretty inexpensive too, compared to the cost of a three-color Lexmark cartridge.

True, the MultiPASS costs a hefty $130 more, but with payments from those color invoices rolling in faster, It’ll earn the initial capital investment back more quickly. And from then on, the lower operating costs of the MultiPASS will be like printing money. And who wouldn’t want to do that?

(Note to the Secret Service: I won’t actually be using the MultiPASS F30 for printing money, and I don’t recommend that anyone else do so.)

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