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Intelligent Machines

A Tale of Two Printers

Marketing hype aside, the best new inkjets still fall short of laser quality and speed.

When I first saw Hewlett-Packard’s DeskJet 1100dtn at Staples earlier this year, I thought that it would make the perfect replacement for my aging HP LaserJet 5MP. Indeed, it was the first inkjet printer I had ever seen that made me seriously think I could do without a laser.

Inkjet printers are of course the fool’s gold of quality office printing machines. After all, inkjet printers never live up to their specificationsright? But the 1100dtns specs were so amazing that even if they were off by 50 percent, the printer would still be a great bargain. According to HP, this $299 printer could print 23 pages per minute black-and-white, or 20 ppm in color. The printer that I wanted to replace, my six-year-old laser, churns out only 8 ppm. The 1100dtn also has a built-in duplexer, allowing it to automatically print both sides of each page. Even better, the 1100dtn had a built-in HP print server, allowing me to hook it into my network and print to it from my Macs, my PCs, and even my Unix-based computers. (If you dont need the Ethernet you can save $100 by ordering the 1100d for just $199.)

These prices made me sit up and take notice. I had long wanted a networked printer with a built-in duplexer. I had been eyeing HPs LaserJet 2300dn, which goes for $1,100. I admit it: even though Brother sells a networked duplexing printer for $400 less, I wanted the HP because Ive had such good luck with the HP brand: in my 15 years of owning HP printers, I have never had one fail on me.

When I told my father about my plans, he cautioned me that the high cost of replacement ink cartridges makes inkjets much more expensive to operate than laser printers. There’s some truth to that, but it turns out that the price differential really only becomes significant if you are printing a lot of photographs.

To prove my point to Dad, I ran the numbers. The standard black cartridge for the 1100dtn costs $33.99 and yields 1,430 printed black-and-white pages, according to HP, for a printing cost of 2.4 cents per page. On the other hand, cartridges for HPs new 2300-series laser printers cost $119.99 and deliver 6,000 pages, for an effective price of just 2.0 cents per page. Print 5,000 pages on the inkjet and youll pay an extra $20 for the privilege. Of course, since the 2300dtn costs $700 more than the 1100dtn, you wont see the laser’s operating cost savings until youve printed 175,000 pages.

When I got the 1100dtn home to review, I wasnt disappointed. It’s much faster than other inkjets that Ive used. And the print quality was astoundingly good. But over the next month, as I printed several thousand pages and did a variety of comparison tests between the inkjet and my laser, I became increasingly dissatisfied.

The first disappointment, surprisingly enough, was speed. Even though the 1100dtn seemed fast, it was actually quite slow. Specifications can be deceiving. I wasnt really expecting see 23 pages per minute, but I was shocked when my wifes 337-page double-spaced novel took 70 minutes on the 1100dtnan average speed of just 4.8 ppm. (For comparison, it took 54 minutes to print on the LaserJet 5P, for a respectable 6.2 ppm.)

A phone call to HP revealed that the printer actually has four print modesbest, fast/good, normal, and draftand the 23-ppm figure is for draft mode. Sure enough, the printer does print noticeably faster in draft mode. But go to those faster modes and the print quality turnshow shall I put ithorrible. Here are enlargements of actual printed text in the different modes:

Clearly, the “draft” mode gets its speed by putting less ink on the pages. The result is barely presentable.

For comparison, I printed the same text on the Laserjet 2300dn. It was simply smashing:

The blacks are solid, and the lines are straight. The better quality comes from the fact that the laser printer is building up an image with micro deposits of black carbon toner that are fused into place, while the inkjet image depends on ink being sprayed onto and absorbed into the paper. Inkjet simply cannot deliver the same quality.

Another big disappointment with the 1100dtn was its paper handling: my old laser printer delivers the pages neatly stacked, but the inkjet didnt. As a result, I can take a 50-page document off the laser printer, fasten the pages with a paper clip, and drop it into a FedEx envelope or put it in my backpack. Paper off the inkjet printer, in contrast, had to be shuffled and straightened. And after I printed a few thousand pages, my 1100dtn started jamming every 20 to 50 pages. Perhaps my machine was dirty or perhaps there was a tiny piece of paper stuck inside the machine, but the net result was that the printer needed to be babysat when big jobs were printed. This is, in fact, a common complaint about inkjets: they just arent suited for large-volume print jobs.

I finally sent the 1100dtn back and bought the 2300dn. (Well, actually my father bought it for me as a birthday presentthanks, Dad). The 2300dn is a marvelous printer. It really does deliver the rated 25 pages-per-minuteprovided, of course, that your computer can deliver the data fast enough. (A fast computer can if you connect to the printer over a network.) The printer has a built-in management system that tells you, among other things, how many pages you have printed on the current cartridge and how many are left. The printer can also send out alertsfor example, it can send e-mail to a pager when the paper path has jammed or when it is time to order a new printer cartridge.

There are little features on the 2300dn that make it a real pleasure to use. The paper tray, for example, has an indicator that tells you how much paper is leftwithout having to open it up. But my favorite thing about the printer is that I can type control-P in Microsoft Word, hit return, and the letter that Im working on is printed in less than 10 seconds.

Ultimately, the DeskJet 1100dtn inkjet served HPs interests wellthe device convinced me that I needed a new printer that could do two-sided printing and that would print really, really fast. Its a pity, though, that the 1100dtn wasnt the printer of my dreams. On the other hand, those low-cost color lasers are looking better all the time.

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