If you're looking for a basic, no-frills monochrome laser printer, you'll be amazed at the low price tags in the stores. The cost of a simple, speedy laser printer for your PC has tumbled considerably in the past several months, with prices ranging from about $350 to $800.
Low cost doesn't mean fewer features, however. The laBODY printers are quicker than their predecessors, printing between four and eight pages per minute on all sizes, shapes and thicknesses of paper. The dimensions of these printers have shrunk, too, freeing up more desk space. For really tight quarters, Panasonic's KX-P6100 is configured as a tower, with the input paper tray on top and printouts released into a side tray.
In addition to standard-sized letters, most low-cost laser printers can handle legal-sized paper, index cards, postcards, labels and transparencies.
Some companies package printers with freebie software. Canon, for example, includes clip art, poems and quotations. Hewlett Packard bundles The Microsoft Network, Microsoft Publisher97, or AT&T WorldNet Service with 30 days free. Brother's machine comes with Surf 'n' Print, which allows users to download and print material from the Internet or online services.
Gone are the days of waiting for your printer to warm up. The new laser printers have a standby mode that functions as an energy saver when not in use. In this mode, most printers stay on all the time and are completely silent until required to perform. Another time-saving feature is a quick-start mode that bypasses lengthy warm-up periods. One printer, Hewlett Packard's LaserJet 6L, has no on/off switch; it remains in sleep mode, using the same wattage as a doorbell light and springing into split-second action when needed. A few of the higher-end low-cost printers, such as Apple's LaserWriter and Lexmark's Optra E+, provide network printing so multiple PC users can print on a single machine.
Fonts, which are pre-defined letters and numbers in various typestyles, are in great abundance on the new low-cost lasers. For example, Canon offers 300 fonts on a free CD-ROM packaged with its LBP-465 printer, in addition to 19 resident fonts (those stored in the printer's ROM) and 22 more on a floppy disk. Many fonts are scalable; that is, their sizes can be reduced or enlarged.
A relatively new feature is called straight paper path. This means the paper you're printing on does not bend around a roller, which tends to curl or wrinkle paper, but is processed along a flat surface, cutting down on paper jams.
"Color PCs are holding their prices," says Cindy Greiner of Hewlett Packard, "but new ways of handling paper and using a computer's software and RAM instead of the printer's have helped cut costs for black-and-white laser printers, even while speed and quality are increasing. RAM can be [expensive], so to keep prices low, a few printers function only through connection to a Windows application."
How much RAM do you need in a printer? Data compression in some models reduces the amount of required megabytes to as little as 1MB. Brother's HL-720 and HL-730, for example, use data compression to reduce a file's size, allowing more information to be processed and transferred faster with lower memory requirements. The average requirement is 2MB, which can be expanded in many machines to 4MB or 8MB--recommended if you plan to frequently print dense, complex documents.
Some manufacturers are helping to cut down on replacement costs for parts: Panasonic, for instance, has a feature that decreases toner use by 50 percent, and Lexmark's printer has an economy setting that uses less toner for rough drafts that don't need perfect clarity.
Low-cost laser printers are equipped with paper trays that hold an average of 100 sheets. Optional trays are available on many models that add an additional 250 sheets. Some models also have a separate slot for manually inserting a single envelope, card or letter.
Resolution is an important factor in choosing a laser printer. It is measured in dots per inch (dpi) and determines the quality and clarity of your printed documents. The greater the number of dots, the finer the image. For example, 300 x 300 dpi will not print as clearly as 600 x 600 dpi. The difference can be seen in the black tones and shadings when printing graphics or large, bold characters. Until recently, almost all low-cost laser printers featured 300 x 300 dpi. Today, most have 600 x 600 dpi.
Whether you print only on white paper or prefer printing your fliers and sales materials on colored paper, these laser printers provide a highly professional look for just a few hundred dollars.
Doing Your Homework
Armed with your computer's configuration information, ask the salesperson about the minimum computer requirements and compatibility for the printer you're considering.
Inquire about bonus software.
Don't be talked into purchasing pricey options you won't use.
If your business performs volume mailings, choose a printer that handles batches of envelopes.
Determine how much RAM you need, particularly if you print spreadsheets and other graphics.
Ask for a demonstration.
Watch out for warranties. The average warranty is one year; Canon offers three years on its LBP-465. Extended warranties can sometimes be purchased. Also, ask about tech support hotline hours. Some companies offer 24-hour technical assistance, while others provide a replacement printer within 24 hours if you need to ship yours back for repair while it's under warranty.
Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.