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The Inkjet Set

Laser printer prices got you down? Ink your next printer deal.
August 1, 2000
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/30756

When it comes to versatility in a printer, inkjets are able and affordable. Anything from brochures to photos to memos is in reach. There is a bewildering variety of inkjets: thermal inkjets, piezoelectric inkjets, networkable inkjets and more. Your needs will dictate which kind of printer you should get.

Although personal monochrome laser printers have dropped in price, it hasn't been enough to overpower the allure of even cheaper color inkjets. Not just for home use anymore, inkjets are proliferating as convenient personal printers in offices everywhere. If you can tame the materials costs, inkjets can be a wise purchase.

Before you buy, look at print samples from your prospective printer. Local stores are a good place to try this. Look at both text and graphics performance. Printers that put out wonderful graphics may not be so sharp on text and vice versa. If you don't have access to a store that sells the printer you want, contact the manufacturer for print samples and seek out impartial reviews online. Deja.com is a good starting point for practical reviews and helpful user opinions.

Pick Your Printer

There's an inkjet for every occasion. If budget is your main consideration, older models available in every major line sell for less than $100. These bargain buys include the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 610CL ($99 street), the Epson Stylus Color 440 ($99 street) and the Canon BJC-2100 ($49 street, after rebate). What you'll sacrifice for price in most cases is higher print speeds and resolutions.

If you travel, whether on extended business trips or short visits to clients, note that both Brother and Canon make portable inkjet printers. These tiny printers accommodate letter- and legal-sized paper and fit in laptop cases. The BJC-85 is Canon's latest mobile offering. It weighs in at 3.1 pounds and offers wireless infrared printing, a feature most laptops have built-in. A battery pack is optional, but it's a necessity for true "anywhere" printing.

The Brother MP-21Cdx weighs only 2.2 pounds and is built specifically for use with notebook computers. Connections are made directly through laptops' PCMCIA ports. That's convenient if weight is your concern or if your laptop isn't infrared equipped. If your PCMCIA slots are full, you'll have to either hook up to a built-in parallel connection or pull a card to use this printer.

One area where inkjets excel is in digital photography. Hewlett-Packard and Epson are leaders in this area, offering printers designed to turn out high-quality digital photos. The Epson Stylus Photo 1270 sports extremely fine ink-droplet sizes and six-color technology to achieve photo output. Remember, however, that photo printers tend to work best with their prescribed photo papers. Be sure to figure the extra cost of premium paper into the equation.

For text-heavy usage, inkjets make good individual-workstation printers. They are generally slower than their laser counterparts, but they are more affordable. Most will handle envelopes and odd-sized paper easily. Check a printer's paper-handling ca-pability if you have specific needs.

Fun With Features

Making sense of printers' spec sheets should help guide your purchase in the right direction. Do you need thermal or piezoelectric? Does it matter? Thermal involves heating the ink and piezoelectric involves crystals. Neither method is unequivocally superior. As with any hardware, performance and quality can vary greatly within any given product line.

One basic consideration is the connection type. All the printers in our chart have at least a parallel port for connecting to PCs. If you have a Mac, a USB printer, like the Hewlett-Packard HP DeskJet 970Cxi, is your best bet. The Xerox DocuPrint C20 has an optional serial-port adaptor available for older Mac systems. For newer PCs equipped with USB ports, a USB connection is often preferable to parallel for ease of use and faster speeds.

A wide-format printer, such as the Epson Stylus Photo 1270, can accom-modate prints of up to 13 by 19 inches as well as banners on special banner paper. This is handy for making large brochures, 11-by-14-inch prints and small posters. If you don't think you'll need that much space, you can save by buying a letter- and legal-sized printer like the Epson Stylus Photo 870.

One of the highest-priced printers on our list, the Xerox DocuPrint C20 has an optional external Ethernet-networking adaptor ($220) available. Unless it's a necessity for your setup, though, networking is usually best left to laser printers. The high volume demands placed on a networked printer will overtax most inkjets and force an even larger investment in expensive consumables. If you're going to network an inkjet, however, you'll want to look for one with a high monthly volume. The Xerox, for example, lists a monthly duty cycle of 5,000 pages-pretty hefty for an inkjet.

Speed is another big consideration-just be wary of manufacturers' pages-per-minute claims. Actual speeds can vary greatly with the amount of page coverage, type of connection and type of file being printed.

Cutting Costs

Laser printers are still the major office workhorses-for good reason. They're usually cheaper to keep up and have higher print volumes and heavy-duty cycles. Inkjets, while cheaper initially, can gobble ink cartridges faster than you can type "Staples.com." But when it comes to low-volume, personal-workstation use, an inkjet is hard to beat.

It's easy to penny-pinch initially. Lexmark's popular Z11 inkjet has a street price of $59 (street, after rebate). Even the most expensive inkjet in our table, the Xerox DocuPrint C20, at $430 (street), costs less than most black-and-white laser printers (not to mention, much less than a color laser). Comparison-shopping sites such as PriceSCAN and mySimon can help you track down the best deal.

The real big budget drain is the cost of inkjet cartridges. You can end up paying much more for new ink than you originally paid for the whole printer. For larger cartridges for the Hewlett-Packard HP DeskJet 970Cxi, a black one runs about $29 while color costs $60 from the HP online store. Most local stores will sport the same full retail prices. This is when bargain hunting pays off. Large online discount stores like Buy.com will usually knock at least $10 off retail. Just be sure to order and stock up in advance.

Another option is refill kits. Not surprisingly, inkjet manufacturers frown on this practice. It may even void your warranty. At its worst, a refill kit is a messy hassle that yields unsatisfactory prints. At its best, you'll save a lot of money and not notice any difference in quality. Is refilling your old cartridges complicated? Find out at MIS Associates, a site that rates the first-time refill difficulty of the kits they sell on a scale of one to 10.

For the HP 970Cxi, a black ink refill kit with enough for four refills costs $20. Other retailers include Refillink.com and GPG Inkjet Refills. If a refill kit sounds good, be aware that the Epson Stylus Photo 1270 has an electronic chip that won't allow such refills.

Glossary

Don't buy a thing until you check out these must-know terms:

Shopping List

PRINTERS
PPM/RESOLUTION (DPI)/
INTERFACE
SPECIAL FEATURESSTREET PRICE
BROTHER
MP-21Cdx
(800) 276-7746
www.brother.com
2.5 black, 2 color
720 x 720
PCMCIA, parallel
Mobile printer, plugs
directly into laptop
PCMCIA port,
weighs 2.2 pounds
$319
CANON
BJC-85
(800) OK-CANON
www.canon.com
5 black, 2 color
720 x 360
USB/parallel
Mobile printer, infrared
equipped for cable-free
printing, Mac-compatible

$299

COMPAQ
IJ750
(800) AT-COMPAQ
www.compaq.com
7 black, 3.5 color
1,200 x 1,200
Parallel
Thermal inkjet
technology

$149

EPSON
Stylus Photo 1270
(800) GO-EPSON
www.epson.com

9.1 black, 8.6 color
1,440 x 720
USB/parallel
Photo-quality prints,
Mac-compatible

$499

HEWLETT-PACKARD
HP DeskJet 970Cxi
(800) 752-0900
www.hp.com
12 black, 10 color
2,400 x 1,200 (on photo paper)
USB/parallel
5,000 pages-per-month
duty cycle, Mac-compatible

$399

LEXMARK
Z52 Color Jetprinter
(888) LEXMARK
www.lexmark.com

15 black, 7 color
2,400 x 1,200
USB/parallel
Thermal inkjet
technology

$179

XEROX
DocuPrint C20
(800) TEAM-XRX
www.xerox.com
8 black, 4 color
600 x 600
Parallel
Large-format printing,
optional Ethernet
networking, optional
Mac serial connection

$430