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You've got to love the concept of a multifunctional peripheral (MFP): These do-everything machines combine the functions of a printer, fax machine, scanner, and copier in one unit. The advertised advantages are cutting costs and saving desktop space by eliminating duplicate purchases.
In theory, this sounds great. In practice, however, multifunctional machines have limitations that may narrow their usefulness. Knowing these limitations beforehand can save you hours of frustration later.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to consider an MFP, particularly if you're in the market for a plain-paper fax machine. For as little as $100 more than a standard fax machine, you can get scanning, printing and copying functions as well. Some models include color printing to boot, not a bad combination of capabilities for as little as $300.
Eric J. Adams is a freelance writer in Petaluma, California, who has contributed to a wide range of computer, business and general interest publications, including PCWorld, Macworld, Wired and The New York Times.
Not So Fast
Most value-priced MFPs are built around a fax machine, so you can expect excellent faxing capabilities. Before purchasing an MFP, however, you must consider the drawbacks. Where multifunctional devices falter most is in copying, primarily because most multifunctional devices don't include a flatbed platen. (The Hewlett-Packard 1170C is the exception; see "Triple Play,") That means you need to feed loose sheets of paper through the machine to get a copy--no plunking down a book or magazine on a piece of glass and getting a copy here. At copy speeds as slow as just two copies per minute, you can understand why manufacturers often call it "convenience copying."
And what if the machine breaks down? Can you live without faxing, printing and copying capabilities for more than a day while waiting for it to be repaired? Remember that saying about not putting all your eggs in one peripheral device?
Plus, sometimes it's just more complicated to do multiple things on one machine than to do one thing on each of several machines. If you have to spend a lot of time waiting for the MFP to finish one task so you can start another, the machine is obviously not helping you as it should. That's a waste of time and money--the very resources you're trying to save.
So when does an MFP make sense?
- In an office where usage may be light, but faxing, printing, copying and scanning are still necessary.
- When desktop real estate is extremely limited, and there's no way you can cram in a separate copier, printer, fax machine and scanner.
- As a convenience if you want or need an MFP's capabilities close at hand.
- For start-ups, when you're not flush with money. An MFP gives you a lot of capability without a big investment. Hit the jackpot, and you can buy a printer and copier and consign your MFP to fax duty only.
- As a backup, so you can continue to print, copy and scan should your front-line devices go down.
If, after all these caveats, a multifunctional device still looks attractive, you're in luck. The price of MFPs is dropping steadily even as their feature list grows consistently. Unless you have very light printing and copying needs (or if you already have a printer), stay away from film-based MFPs that sell for approximately $200. They're slow and ultimately very expensive due to the high cost of the replacement film.
Instead, start your search by making the most important decision of all: choosing inkjet or laser printing technology.
If you plan to make this machine your primary printer, your best bet is a laser machine. Laser printing is faster, crisper and less likely to smudge. If you're interested in color, however, you have no choice but to go with an inkjet.
Fortunately, inkjet MFPs are less expensive. But get ready for slower print speeds, particularly if you've grown accustomed to fast laser printers. Most low-end inkjet-based MFPs spit out printed pages at a leisurely pace of three to five pages per minute (ppm). Laser-based MFPs go almost twice as fast, up to 9 ppm. Thankfully, print quality in either case is adequate for most business correspondence.
If you're leaning toward an inkjet MFP, it may be wise to pay the extra money and get a fully color-capable model--one that copies and scans in color, too--even if you expect to use these capabilities only occasionally.
A Multifunctional Checklist
Side-by-side comparisons got you in a tizzy? Remember to compare these critical features when shopping for an MFP:
- Print speed. Printing, faxing and scanning are rated by the number of ppm they produce. Beware: The actual rate may be slower than the advertised rate. Unfortunately, you have little choice but to use vendor numbers for comparison.
- Print resolution. The most basic MFP can print at 300-by-300 dpi, though today you'll find some MFPs offering 720-by-720-dpi printing. Higher resolution is important for drawings and very large text. Normal business correspondence looks fine at 300 dpi.
- Scan resolution. You'll find quite a disparity in scanning resolution from unit to unit, from 300-by-300 to 1,200-by-1,200 dpi. If scanning photos, schematics or line drawings is important to you, your choice is obvious: Go with the higher resolution. In any case, make sure your MFP is TWAIN-compliant. This specification ensures that the scanned documents can be read by popular optical character recognition (OCR) software programs.
- Copy functions. Some MFPs offer a surprising range of copying capabilities, such as the ability to make up to 99 copies of a single sheet, the ability to reduce and enlarge copies and, in some cases, even make color copies.
Most MFPs come standard with 512KB to 2MB RAM. Memory is primarily used to print pages faster and to store incoming faxes. Some vendors allow you to increase the RAM in your MFP with hardware upgrades.
- Paper handling. Many people make the mistake of overlooking paper handling when evaluating machines or comparing costs. This feature is usually the first one to cause daily problems. Check the size of the document feeder to see how many pages you can fax, copy or scan without reloading.
And don't overlook paper-tray capacity. Having a 75-sheet paper tray may not seem like an inconvenience, but put that MFP to work and the tray will be empty far too often. More capable MFPs come with 200-sheet paper trays. Also make sure your MFP can handle legal-sized paper and envelopes if you're using it as your primary printer.
- Software. Because an MFP works in conjunction with your computer, it's the software that often determines how you can actually use the MFP and how well it will work. Does the MFP come with software for managing documents, scanning, sending or receiving faxes from your PC and, perhaps, for OCR as well? Make sure the software that comes with your MFP meets your needs.
- Cost. There are two costs associated with every MFP: its initial cost and its ongoing consumables cost. The cost of consumables includes items that must be replaced periodically, such as toner or ink cartridges.
Every MFP manages its consumable items differently, though color is far more expensive than monochrome, and even color comparisons are difficult to make. The best you can do is ask about a "per page cost" or, at the very least, check the price of the consumables. The difference in annual consumable costs between the most and least efficient models easily exceeds the initial price of the machine.
Multifunctional peripherals can't do it all, but they can do a lot. And if you forgive them their minor shortcomings, you'll get plenty of satisfaction from your MFP.
While other MFPs are built with the smorgasbord approach, the Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet Pro 1170C does only three things, but it does them well. Figuring that most people already have a fax machine, this machine doesn't fax, but it copies, scans and prints in color.
And the inkjet-based 1170C includes something no other color MFP does in this price range--a flatbed platen. That means you can copy bound materials instead of just single sheets, as is the case with other MFPs.
This MFP targets small-business users who need a professional-quality color product at an affordable price. A few years ago, you couldn't buy a color copier for les than $5,000. The 1170C lists for $799, a pretty fair price for complete color capabilities.