Which printer's the best? You usually get what you pay for

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue # 640: January 28- February 4, 2002, The High Tech Office column

Promises of a paperless office seem to have quietly faded away along with the hype of frictionless e-commerce and other digital dreams. In fact, our digital age seems to force us to consume more and more paper, as we print out e-mailed jokes for the office bulletin board, or slowly are forced to recognize, as a colleague recently admitted to me, that he couldn't notice his mistakes unless he printed out a draft.

In many cases, the need to print forces us to make a choice between the colour of seemingly cheap but unreliable, slow, and expensive-to-operate personal inkjet printers and the crisper office laser printers.

Hovering on the sidelines are colour laser printers promising speed and robustness, but requiring a hefty initial buy-in for a hefty piece of office equipment.

I recently spent a month with Okidata's new C9200n colour printer. Costing some $10,500 and weighing in at 75 kilograms, it counts as hefty in both dimensions; it's clearly too much printer for any home or small office to even consider.

But while it took three of us to get it out of its packing crate and on to a table, it quickly proved it could be a powerful tool for an office .

Equipped with standard parallel and USB ports, it could be configured to run from a single computer, but it would be better to use the built-in network card, enabling everyone in the office to connect to it directly. 

Setup is reasonably straightforward, requiring installation of four separate fusers and toner cartridges, then calibrating their output. Software setup, including the sometimes tricky network setup, went smoothly.

Inside the printer is what could be a reasonably powerful computer: a 400 MHz PowerPC central processing unit with 128 MB of memory (expandable up to a full Gigabyte of RAM). A 5 Gb hard drive is included to store large print jobs. (Oki also sells a C9200 model, without the hard drive and network card for $9,000.) Like other Oki products, it doesn't use a traditional laser printer mechanism; instead, an LED array provides laser-quality output. This unconventional mechanism has the advantage, Oki claims, of a simpler paper path. Pages are printed in a single pass, unlike the multiple passes required by other designs. The result is a mechanism that can handle a broad range of paper weights at higher speeds than standard designs.

The 9200 promises 26-page-per-minute output in black and white, and 21 ppm for colour pages. In comparison, some other colour laser printers output 6 ppm for colour. Full-colour pages seem to spew out at photocopier-like speeds, faster than most printers do black and white.

Colour fidelity, with resolution of 600 x 1200 dots per inch, was good, though not quite near-photo quality. Large photos print with a glossy sheen that did not detract from the quality.

The printer can handle paper sizes up to 12 by 18 inches, along with card stock up to 110 pounds. Second and third paper trays are optional, along with a duplexing unit for double-sided printing, and a high speed paper feeder. The toner cartridges are rated for 15,000 pages, and Oki claims a cost of operation 15 per cent lower than its competitors. 

Other models in the series are the C9200dxn ($11,250) which includes the duplexer and more memory, and the $12,300 C9400dxn with the duplexer, more memory, and a faster CPU to offer higher (1200 x 1200 dpi) print resolution.

Big and expensive, but this workhorse of a printer could be a good way to provide quick, no-compromise colour printing for the whole office.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan