Personal Laser Printers Roundup: Monochrome Printing

We are going to introduce to you 9 laser printers for home and office use from such well-known companies as Brother, Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Konica-Minolta, Lexmark, OKI, Samsung and Xerox. We will look at sub-$200 models, to find out which one is going to be the best buy for your buck. All the details including in-depth performance and quality analysis in our extensive roundup!

by Vasily Melnik
01/19/2006 | 06:23 PM

Despite the growing popularity of network electrographic printers, people are still highly interested in personal printing devices which are affordable (the most popular models are priced within $100-200 range) and require inexpensive supplies.

 

Other factors contributing to their popularity are compact dimensions and ease of use. Today’s personal laser printers have a small enough footprint to settle on the desk and don’t require a special stand. Many models have folding input and output paper trays to save more space, the most ergonomic ones even having everything inside and lacking any salient parts at all.

Before choosing your printer you should clearly realize what such devices can and – this is even more important – what they cannot do. The main purpose of a personal laser printer is to print text documents and simple black-and-white images in small volumes so if you are going to print 10-15 thousand and more sheets monthly, such a device just won’t do.

Also when the print speed is your priority, you may want to consider midrange printers since the maximum speed of today’s personal laser printers is only about 20 pages per minute.

The following table helps to compare the specifications of the printers to be tested in this roundup:

Brother HL-2040

Design and Ergonomics

This is an excellent example of a compact personal printer. The components are arranged horizontally and the input tray is wholly hidden in the case so you can place the device on a very small surface like a ledge of your PC desk. The printed sheets emerge at the top and do not require any extra space, either. So the only protruding part is the small folding tab that supports the prints. The wavy lines of the case and the neutral color scheme are going to fit equally well into the interior of a home study or an office.

The input tray opens up forward – you can take it out of the printer altogether. There are symmetrical width limiters here. Paper is to be placed on the tray face down.

You can also insert the paper sheet by sheet into the manual feed slot that is equipped with adjustable guides. You may want to use it to print the address on an envelope or fill in a form, for example.

The cover at the back panel gives you access to the transport mechanism. If the paper gets stuck, it won’t be difficult to take it out. Interface and power connectors are at the back, too.

The USB port is blocked by a sticker which text warns you against connecting the printer to the PC before installing the driver. Experienced users probably know how difficult it is to clean up the Windows Registry manually after the OS has wrongly identified an attached USB device (and this is often the case when a printer is connected to the PC prior to driver installation). So this sticker and this warning are going to save some trouble for novice users who are always eager to connect and try the newly bought device as soon as possible.

The transport shaft and the heater are located behind the rear cover of the printer, so you can remove and replace it without dismantling the whole case. The heater is cooled by an exhaust fan on the right panel – such a simple solution increases the service life of this component.

The following indicators can be seen on the right of the front panel:

There is also a button here that resumes the current print task after a failure.

The cartridge consists of two parts: the case with the photo-drum and a container with toner. This design is justifiable because the drum has a much longer service life.

There’s a plug under a protective sticker on the side of the toner container, but you may void the warranty if you refill the cartridge by yourself.

Drivers and Settings

The driver’s interface is rather ascetic, yet you can set up everything necessary and even more.

The first tab is where you choose the format and type of the print medium, the number of copies, the orientation, and the layout when printing several pages on one paper sheet.

The second tab allows you to choose the print resolution, binding style, mirroring, and to enable the toner-saving or the watermark mode. The Print Parameters Setup option gives you access to manual halftone reproduction setup.

In this dialog window you can manually set up the halftone reproduction parameters or choose a ready-made preset. The next section describes how these settings affect the reproduction of halftones by the printer.

Printing Quality

As we’ve learned above, there are three resolutions available: 300dpi, 600dpi and 1200dpi. Here is the same test image printed at different resolutions (from the lowest to the highest):


300dpi


600dpi


1200dpi

Note that the 1200dpi (HQ) mode does provide more detail but with some artifacts like the merging together of the smallest objects (but at 600dpi they are not printed at all). Slanting lines look somewhat jagged in the 300dpi printout.

The next scans illustrate the printer’s reproduction of black-and-white images and halftones:


300dpi


600dpi, improve gray printing


1200dpi, improve pattern printing

A rude and regular dot matrix is perfectly visible in the 300dpi print up to the maximum fill density. The image details are lost and the transitions between the plates of the grayscale become sharp. Black and gray symbols are fuzzy and not very legible.

The 600dpi print is much better: the dot matrix is still regular, but less conspicuous. The transitions between the halftones are not as abrupt as in the 300dpi print. The disadvantages of this mode are that there are visible dots in the light areas and that the darkest halftones all blend into one color.

When the Improve Pattern Printing setting is turned on in the driver, the printer seems to produce better-quality black-and-white photographs. In this mode halftones are reproduced in a different way: the matrix consists of equidistant variable-size dots. The image becomes denser and the transitions between the halftone plates are smoother, but some details are lost in the darkest areas of the image.

So you should use the Improve Gray Printing option to print diagrams and charts (for more contrast between solid fills), while black-and-white photographs are going to look better when printed in the Improve Pattern Printing mode (halftone transitions are smoother).

Canon LBP-2900

Design and Ergonomics

Designed as a solid and practical machine, this printer is very compact in its inactive state and has no protruding parts. The color scheme matches the smooth and restrained lines of the case: white sides and a gray translucent top. The LBP-2900 is going to look well in a today’s office as well as at home. The brand “Canon” stands out on the front panel, reminding us that the device belongs to the famous series of consumer and professional printing machines.

The printer is made ready for work by opening the input and output trays – and it then occupies considerably more space. The snapshot shows that the paper path is crooked, so this machine can’t print on thick media types. When the covers are open, you can see rubber rollers at the center of the finishing shafts as well as two paper intake ports.

Both the ports have adjustable guides and the bottom one (that works as an automatic paper feeder) is also equipped with an adjustable limiter. Paper is loaded into this printer face up.

The control panel offers two buttons only: Power On/Off and Resume Operation (after adding more paper). The second button has an integrated LED indicator that signals that there is no paper in the tray. The lack of print media is also reported in the driver window, so you can resume the print task from the PC, but it’s just easier to do that from the printer right after you’ve supplied it with paper.

The connector of the USB interface is sunken in the case and is covered with a special door. You can make the excess length of the cable into a coil and hide it under the door for the cable not to clatter your workplace.

On the back panel you will only find a power connector and a switch for the built-in power adapter. There is no removable panel that would give you access to the transport mechanism, so you may have some troubles if the paper is stuck inside.

One more design peculiarity of this model is that it lacks a cooling fan. The heater is located near the back panel and is cooled passively. Well, the manufacturer should know better, yet I have no doubts there is a bigger risk of heater-related troubles with this cooling solution.

The cartridge compartment can be accessed through the top cover which is located right under the output tray. The cartridge is held in place with a latch. It takes no big effort to take it out or put it back again.

The cartridge combines a toner container and a photo-conductor in a single casing. This is not the most economical solution, but it is justifiable for a personal printer intended for small printing volumes. You don’t have to check out if it is the toner or the drum that needs replacement – you just have to install a new cartridge when the printer stops to print.

Drivers and Settings

The driver interface should be familiar to users of Canon printers. The settings are all grouped in logical order, so even an inexperienced user shouldn’t find it too difficult to set this printer up.

The first tab contains the following settings: paper size and orientation, layout and number of pages per sheet, number of copies. The settings can be saved for later use with media of the same type. You can also print posters (it is when the page is scaled up to several sheets of paper – and you select how they are to be sewn together).

Another important tab is Quality. It offers three presets: Standard (for text and graphics), Text, and Web Page (optimized for images). But if you want to have everything under your own control, click the Details button.

In the Detailed Settings dialog box you can choose to print in black and white only (without grays) and turn on Image Correction so that the image looked better in black and white. The slider below selects the level of fill density, and the checkbox at the bottom enables the Toner Save mode.

Printing Quality

I printed the test page in two modes: Standard and Toner Save.


Standard mode


Toner Save mode

The scans show that this printer doesn’t print too well. It prints small details badly, in particular. Random dots and strokes are visible around the main objects. The resolution degrades even more in the Toner Save mode: the dot matrix is quite visible and the lines and borders of solid areas become jagged.

On the other hand, the printer did better at printing the black-and-white image:


Standard


Web-Page preset

Halftones are reproduced almost in the same way in the Standard and Web Page modes – using the same method (variable-size dots at the same distance from each other) and the same fill density. It means the driver correctly identifies the type of the printed image. Halftone transitions remain smooth through the entire gray-scale up to the maximum fill density. The lightest areas are printed well – it is hard to see the raster pattern.


Toner Save

The fill density is greatly reduced in the Toner Save mode. Some detail is lost in the lightest areas and the gray symbols are almost illegible. The raster pattern is noticeable even in the black plate. The borders between the grayscale plates are hardly discernable. It means that this mode is unsuitable for printing black-and-white images.

Epson EPL-6200L

Design and Ergonomics

Simple and good-looking, the Epson EPL-6200L doesn’t aspire to be anything but yet another “gray box” in the today’s office. The neutral color scheme and the straight lines of the case won’t be distracting even if the device stands right on your desk.

You can see the guides of the input tray after you open the covers up. They can be adjusted for the required paper format. What you can’t see here – even if you open up all the covers and panels – is a slot for per-sheet manual paper feed. The manufacturer must have thought this a superfluous feature for an entry-level printer, but will the potential customer agree?

On a closer inspection of the input tray…I couldn’t find anything particularly interesting. This is an ordinary paper reception mechanism which sometimes draws in two sheets at a time.

This printer actually lacks any controls. The front panel of the case is free from any buttons and has only two indicators: Ready and Error. The device can only be controlled through the software.

The cartridge is located behind the back panel and moves into its place along plastic guides and is held with a rather stiff latch. The free space in the compartment and the juts on the latch indicate that a larger toner cartridge can be used here.

It’s even rather strange to see two interface connectors – LPT and USB – in a device that was designed to be as cheap as possible (without control buttons and a per-sheet feed slot, among other things). On the other hand, an entry-level printer is quite likely to be connected to an old computer with very few, if any, USB ports available.

It’s good to see the manufacturer did not save on really important things like the fan for cooling the heater. The fan is quiet and not irritating at all.

The cartridge can be taken apart by detaching the container with toner from the photo-drum holder. This solution is justifiable considering the difference between the service life of the toner container and the photo-conductor, which is 3000 and 20000 prints, respectively.

There’s a plug on the side of the toner container, so you can fill it up by yourself – but at your own risk, of course!

Taken as a whole, the design of the Epson EPL-6200L is both practical and ergonomic and all the basic parts and mechanisms are high quality even though the manufacturer economized a little on some small things. The printer didn’t fail once during my tests and never chewed up even low-quality paper, so it is quite reliable at everyday use.

Drivers and Settings

The settings are not very variegated. The main window is where you select the paper size and orientation and the number of copies. The single resolution available is 600dpi – the printing mechanism can’t yield anything better, while lower resolutions are useless because you wouldn’t have a much higher speed using a lower resolution, but the quality would surely suffer. The other tabs don’t contain any really valuable settings.

You can access some interesting parameters in the dialog window that appears after your clicking the More button. You can particularly select the fill density and the dot matrix density (two positions). If you set the radio button at No, the printer won’t print gray tones, but only black and white, and you may want to use this mode for documents with colored text. In the graphical mode colored text would be printed by means of dithering rather than of solid color fill and wouldn’t look quite good. You can also enable toner saving in this dialog window.

Printing Quality

I printed the test image in three modes – Standard, No Graphics, and Toner Save – because of a queer artifact in the prints. Take a look at the scans:


Halftoning mode


No Graphics


Toner Save mode

The black smudge in the most problematic area of the image strikes one’s eyes immediately. Could the drum have got dirty? I printed in other modes, but the defect persisted. So there is obviously an error in the driver’s processing of the print task.

The discernable details in the image correspond to a resolution of 600dpi. In the Toner Save mode only the bottom and left borders of objects are printed, while solid fills are replaced with a sparse regular dot pattern. The resolution suffers from that, of course.

The halftone image looks good enough at the standard settings. The lightest and darkest tones are printed sharply: you can distinctly see the borders between the areas of the gray-scale. By the way, halftones are printed using a mixed method: the dot size as well as the distance between the dots of the pattern is varied.

The graphics are greatly distorted in the Toner Save mode. The fill density is lower; the darkest tones are inverted; there are no distinct borders between mid-range grays. This mode doesn’t suit for printing graphics at all and it hardly saves too much of the toner. You should use this mode only when you are not printing halftones.

HP DeskJet 1020

Design and Ergonomics

HP’s network printers for workgroups are highly popular around the world. The LaserJet 1020 model is meant for personal use, yet it is popular, too, not the least because of the renowned brand. This printer doesn’t boast exceptional characteristics or exquisite design, yet it is free from obvious flaws and bears the HP logotype. This seems enough for success.

The LaserJet 1020 is designed and colored typically for that class of devices:

It’s all functional and ergonomic: the front panel, which is also an input paper tray, conceals a duplex media input port. Each port is equipped with width-setting guides; the bottom port also has a length-setting limiter. Print media must be put into each port face up. The printed sheets are accumulated on an extensible holder with a flip-out limiter. This holder protrudes from the front panel forward exactly the same distance as the opened input tray does.

There is a depression on the side panel – it is the seat of an interface USB connector. Unlike on the Canon printer, it is not covered with a door, so you can’t roll the cable up and tuck it neatly away.

Like the above-described Epson EPL-6200L, the LaserJet 1020 has only two LED indicators and lacks any control buttons. The all-software management concept is becoming the more popular among the manufacturers of PC peripherals, but it doesn’t seem the best solution to me in some cases.

The cartridge compartment is behind the printer’s top panel. The cartridge is secured inside with spring-loaded latches; it inserts and goes out without much effort on your part. There’s a ribbed handle on the cartridge case for easier extraction.

The printer’s back is almost entirely made of metal. The heater and the transport shafts are located behind it. Alas, there is no quick access to the mechanism, so you will have to dismantle the case if the paper gets stuck inside.

The connector of the integrated power adapter and the Power On button, the single button on the case, are located on the right of the rear panel.

The combined cartridge consists of a container with toner and a photo-drum. The latter is protected from sunlight and your fingers with a spring-loaded shutter. HP’s official policy prohibits using third-party or refilled cartridges. You can use them at your own risk if you are not afraid of voiding the warranty.

Drivers and Settings

The driver interface is easy to work with. The main window allows you to choose the media format and type as well as to select the print media source. The settings can be saved in a profile and used later as necessary.

Printing quality settings can be found on the Final Processing tab. Two resolutions are available: 600dpi and 1200dpi. You can turn on the Toner Save mode or print colored text as a solid black color rather than as shades of gray.

On this tab you can also indicate the number of pages to be printed on a single sheet of paper or turn the pages upside down and print on both sides of a sheet. Printing a booklet is yet another interesting option that outputs pages in “centrally symmetric” order. For example, if your booklet consists of four pages, the first and fourth pages will be printed on the first sheet of paper, and the second and third pages on the second sheet.

Printing Quality

The print resolution test was performed for the two available resolutions: 600 and 1200dpi. Let’s take a look at the scans.


600dpi


1200dpi

And we see the familiar artifact, this time even more conspicuous. The smudge now has the shape of the number “6”. The artifact is present on both the printouts, indicating an error in the driver’s processing of the print task.

Quite expectedly, the real resolution remains the same at any settings, while the 1200dpi mode means nothing else but software processing to make the contours of the image objects sharper.


600dpi

The halftone image doesn’t look quite well in the standard print mode. The lightest tones are not printed out at all. You can barely see the borders between the areas of the Gamma 1.0 gray-scale.


600dpi + Toner Save

The fill density is overall greatly reduced in the toner-saving mode, so the above-mentioned problems persist.


1200dpi

Choosing the 1200dpi resolution makes the image visually more saturated, but I can’t see any big differences from the 600dpi printout on a closer inspection.

The printer uses variable-size dots placed at the same distance to produce halftones in each print mode. I couldn’t solve the problem of poor reproduction of the lightest tones by adjusting the driver settings.

Konica-Minolta PagePro 1350W

Design and Ergonomics

The PagePro 1350W is rather large but doesn’t look bulky. The slanted angles and the contrasting colors make the printer smaller visually. The company logotype is in the center of the front panel – Konica-Minolta is a worldwide developer of printing mechanisms for electrographic printers. The Epson ELP-6200L, another printer reviewed here, uses this mechanism, too.

The flip-down front panel works as the support of the input tray. You can see adjustable paper guides when it is open. There is no per-sheet input slot in this machine.

I found a plastic lever inside the tray which indicates whether there is any paper loaded. Curiously, the Epson EPL-6200L has an opening for such a lever, but lacks the lever itself.

The printer is equipped with the traditional interfaces: USB and LPT.

The PagePro 1350W’s control panel is similar to the other printers’, but the purpose of each element (a button and two indicators) is explained not only with an icon, but also with text.

You can access the transport mechanism to extract a stuck sheet of paper by opening the top cover. The heater can also been seen then. There are some warnings on the heater, but it is protected with the high ribbing against accidental touch. The two pressure rollers on the inside of the opened top cover indicate that the developer didn’t try to save on small things.

The cartridge compartment is located behind the opaque front cover. It is fitted into its place along the plastic guides and is secured with a rather stiff latch.

The cartridge from Konica Minolta is exactly the same as Epson’s. Konica was actually the developer of this separable design.

There is a large plug on the side of the toner container, so you can refill it when necessary because the service life of the photo-drum is many times that of the toner container.

Drivers and Settings

The driver interface is very original. You can find every necessary setting here, but they are not very conveniently placed.

Among useful options on the first tab you can choose to print several pages on a sheet. You can also print on both sides of a page or create a booklet.

The most interesting settings are collected on the Quality tab: resolution, toner-saving mode, fill density and fill contrast. Like in some other printers’ drivers, the toner fill density is referred to as brightness here, although the term brightness can only be applied to light sources (for example, the brightness of a monitor), while paper is a reflecting medium whose brightness depends entirely on external light sources. Changing the brightness of a monitor adjusts the color curve vertically, and a similar effect occurs when the average fill density is adjusted.

Printing Quality

The printing resolution test is the more interesting in this particular case because the manufacturer claims a true resolution of 1200dpi. Let’s see…


600dpi


1200dpi

Well, if there is a difference, it is very small. At least, there’s no talk about a twofold print resolution increase.

This scan illustrates the implementation of toner saving in this machine. There’s rude slanted hatching instead of solid filling which leads to a considerable loss of detail.

The black-and-white image pleases the eye. The diffusion fill softens the transitions between the tones of grays. The light areas are printed very well. The main disadvantage is the excessive saturation of the darkest halftones. The small raster pattern makes the border between contrasting objects look very sharp. It’s easy to read the text.

The toner-saving mode brings about quite a different picture. The diffusion is replaced with simple dithering and small details vanish almost completely. Small contrasting objects, e.g. letters, are just lost against the gray background. This mode is absolutely prohibited for printing halftone images.

Lexmark E230

Design and Ergonomics

This is the largest and heaviest printer among all included in this review and its massive black case won’t adorn your work desk. It looks as if hewn out of a lump of black granite, raising some involuntary associations with a coffin, so I guess it should be put on a separate stand and shoved somewhere away from sight. Yet this giant is the only personal laser printer to support PCL (in emulation mode, of course). The rest of the printers only have GDI drivers. So if you need PCL support but don’t have enough money to buy a midrange device, you have to put up with the gloomy appearance of this machine.

The user will only interact with the front panel. It has control buttons, a manual feed slot, and output and input paper trays.

If you are about to print out a big number of pages, you may want to flip down the support so that the printouts wouldn’t slide off.

The control panel consists of a block of LED indicators and two buttons (Power On/Off and Cancel). Here’s what the indicators mean:

The per-sheet manual feed slot has independent guides that can be set for a particular paper size. The guides are rather stiff but can be adjusted in a wide range. The input tray is wholly hidden in the case and is located at the very bottom.

There is a mechanical load indicator here. When the red marker is up, the tray is full. When it is down, the tray is empty.

In the top left corner there is a button that holds the latch of the front panel behind which the cartridge is located.

The power and interface connectors are to be found on the printer’s back panel.

We’ve got a parallel and a USB port here, but you’ll find only a USB cable enclosed with the printer.

The easily removable cover on the back panel will allow you to extract a stuck sheet without dismantling the whole case. The heater is located in this compartment, too, but you can’t take it out without a screwdriver.

Drivers and Settings

The driver interface and the way the settings are grouped on the tabs in differ from the other printers’ control panels, but it is easy enough to find what you need. The left and larger part of the window contains the various settings available while the right part shows a summary of the basic settings, each setting being a hyperlink. You can simply click the appropriate hyperlink to change the particular setting rather than search for it in the tabs and dialog windows.

On the first tab you can choose the number and order of copies, paper orientation, two-sided printing with the binding on the short or long edge, and the number and layout of pages per sheet of paper.

The Print Quality tab offers three presets: Best, Normal and Draft. The meaning of each preset is illustrated by the appropriate icon: Best is meant for printing black-and-white photographs; Normal is best for documents with text and business graphics (diagrams, charts, etc); and Draft is for printing simple black text. You can also select the print quality settings manually using the Custom button. You will be able to adjust the toner fill density and print resolution then. On the same tab you can enable the PictureGrade feature which means automatic correction of half-toning parameters depending on the contents of the printed page.

The additional print quality options include contrast and the size of the dithering matrix.

Printing Quality

This test was performed in the Best and Normal modes. Here are the scans:


Normal mode


Best mode

The effective resolution doesn’t differ. The main problem with both the scans is the fuzzy margins (this is more conspicuous on the sides rather than on the top and bottom). There is a negligible difference between the modes. Let’s see if it shows up more on a halftone image.


Normal mode

The main drawback is obvious – the toner fill density is excessive. The darkest tones merge into a single color in the right part of the gray-scale. You can discern small details in the picture, but it has some oversaturated areas, too.


Draft mode

A funny thing, the Draft mode produces a better-quality print than the Normal mode. You can see each and every color plate here, only the lightest plates are not printed out. One more flaw is that the borders between the plates of the Gamma 1.0 gray-scale are barely visible and are not discernable at all in the middle of the scale. So, the photograph looks overall better, but some detail is lost in the lightest areas.


Best mode

It’s like in the first case with the same excessive toner fill density and over-saturation among the darkest tones. So the results of my tests suggest that it is going to take some serious tweaking of the manual quality settings to print black-and-white images with an acceptable quality on this printer.

OKI B4100

Design and Ergonomics

The printer from Oki Electric Industry measures about the same as the Brother HL-2040, but has a few prominent parts both at the front and back. In other words, it takes quite a lot of space on your desk.

The printer’s case is made of white plastic with a blue insert. The wavy top panel reduces the depth of the device visually. The output slit is closer to the middle rather than to the back as with the other models. The input tray is in the bottom of the case. Like the Lexmark printer, the Oki B4100 has a mechanical load indicator: the red marker goes up when the tray is full and down when the tray is empty.

An extensible support with a folding ledge is meant to accumulate the printouts, but this gadget is only useful when you are printing a big number of sheets at a time.

A per-sheet feed slot is located behind the front cover. It has adjustable guides and a width scale with the most popular formats marked up. The medium is to be inserted face up.

On the back panel of the case there is also a pullout support with a folding limiter. This support is meant for dense types of media like thick cardboard or plastic with special coating when the printer is using the straight paper path. By the way, the Oki B4100 is the single printer in this review with a correctly designed straight printing path.

A horizontally oriented parallel port and a USB connector are on the printer’s rear panel.

The control panel includes one button (Stop/Resume Task) and four LED indicators:

The printing section resides under the top cover. You can take the cartridge out using a special lever. The cartridge is held quite firmly in its place.

Besides the photo-drum and the toner container the cartridge has a rather big mechanical part (I mean the gears in the left part of the snapshot). The container can be detached from the rest of the cartridge, but you must be very careful not to spill the toner. The photo-conductor is not protected, so you should avoid exposing it to direct sunlight or touching it with your fingers.

Drivers and Settings

This driver offers the most flexible and full control over all the print parameters.

On the first tab you can select the format, source and even density of the print medium. It is also here that you choose the layout of pages on a sheet. The choices are then stored in a profile and recalled as necessary. The option of returning to the default settings may come in handy at times, too.

Normal or Best print quality is selected on the second tab. This setting actually affects the size of the dithering matrix. There is also a three-positional radio button to choose the toner-saving mode. On this tab you can also select the number of copies and scale the image up or down (from 25% to 400%).

Some fine-tuning options are available in this window, including toner fill density and printing colored text as black.

The third tab allows setting up the halftone reproduction parameters, particularly the type of the dithering matrix (grid or hatching) . The hatching matrix should be used to print images with regular shapes to avoid moir? patterns. You can also select the level of detail, i.e. the size of the dot in the dithering matrix, and by checking the appropriate checkbox you can even refrain from printing halftones altogether. The sliders at the bottom of the tab adjust the lightness and contrast parameters.

Printing Quality

I performed this test several times at different settings, but two printouts were the most characteristic: at the default settings and in the Best quality mode.


Default settings


Best quality mode

The first thing I want to say about these printouts is that the original is probably reproduced in the best way among all the participating printers. The two print modes differ somewhat. In the first case the lines are sharper and thinner, and close lines do not merge into one. The smallest details are not printed out well even in this mode, though. In the second case thin lines become thicker and minute details of the image stand out. On the other hand, some close lines, separate in the first printout, merge into one here.

So the Best quality mode should be used when the original image is full of small, but not very densely located details.


Normal (default) mode

As you can see, the printer produces a good-looking halftone image at the default settings. Light and dark grays are printed well, but the image looks somewhat coarse. Borders between contrasting objects are not well emphasized, as you can see with the alphabetic symbols.

The next printout was made in the Best Quality mode with the grid dithering:

It’s generally the same, but the borders are sharper and the raster pattern is smaller. The photograph looks very nice; the raster pattern doesn’t strike your eyes.


Best quality, mesh dither pattern

And this scan shows how hatching is employed to render halftones. The photograph looks as if drawn with a pencil. The image is lighter in this mode (there is more empty space between the dots), the borders between the plates of the gray-scale are still quite distinct, even though smoother, and some detail is lost in the lightest areas.

Summarizing my experience with this printer, I want to say that the abundance of driver settings is quite justifiable as this machine can be flexibly set up for each particular task at hand. Moreover, its straight paper path makes it a universal device for black-and-white printing on any media type and a very likely candidate for purchase, too.

Samsung ML-1615

Design and Ergonomics

The ML-1615 printer from Samsung was designed to be the bare minimum of a personal printer as the developers tried to save on almost everything. Externally this printer resembles a sculpture, but roughly hewn with an axe rather than chiseled with an artist’s hand. The smooth outline of the face panel jars with the angular shape of the output tray. When folded up, this printer is quite small and easily fits on the top or on an inside ledge of your PC desk (but you may want to shove it somewhere out of sight, because this model does not even try to please your aesthetic feeling).

So it takes somewhat more space when opened. The flip-down front panel serves as an input paper tray. Width-setting guides are behind it and the load limiter is located right on it. The tray is covered with a translucent polymer lid that protects the paper in the tray against dust and also works as a kind of per-sheet feed port (without any guides, of course). The flip-back support of the output tray makes the printer look even uglier.

The strange protrusion on the back panel contains the integrated power adapter. I wonder if they wanted to save some plastic this way or maybe it is just a designer joke.

A power connector with a switch and vertically oriented LPT and USB ports are located here.

The small top cover conceals the heater. The sticker on the heater warns you about high temperature. Like the printer from Canon, the Samsung ML-1615 doesn’t have a cooling fan, and this is going to tell negatively on the heater service life.

The control panel is very simple and consists of one button (Cancel) and two LED indicators:

Be careful with the button – it readily gets stuck in the case under too much pressure and you’ll have to lift it up again with something thin and sharp.

The cartridge compartment is combined with the input tray. An average user will find it easy to take the cartridge out, but installing one in may prove a more troublesome procedure. By the way, you will also have to use this “front entrance” to extract a stuck sheet of paper because there is no removable panel at the printer’s back (I had to do so two times during my tests, by the way).

The cartridge case is not separable, so you can’t detach the container with toner from the printing unit. The handle will help you install the cartridge into the printer. The photo-drum is partially open, so you should avoid exposing it to direct sunlight or touching it with your fingers.

Samsung demands that only original cartridges be used with its printers, so you will be denied warranty service if the people at the service center find any traces of your having refilled the cartridge. On the other hand, the cartridge for this printer is cheap.

Drivers and Settings

Before describing this driver, I’d like to note that the default settings of this printer are the most optimal among all the printers in this review. I don’t mean the Samsung ML-1615 prints better than the others, but you just can’t make it print better by changing its settings.

The paper orientation (including 180 degrees rotation) and the layout of pages on a sheet are selected on the first tab.

On the Graphics tab you select the resolution (300dpi or 600dpi), forcibly enable or disable the toner-saving mode if the auto-detect feature works wrongly (the indicator on the printer’s case signals that the auto-detect mode is on), and choose the fill density (three levels).

The options of text darkening (useful for printing colored text) and printing all text in black are available in the More Options window.

Printing Quality

I printed the test image at 300dpi and 600dpi. The first scan shows that the 300dpi mode brings about a considerable loss of detail. Moreover, slanting lines look jagged at this resolution.


300dpi


600dpi

The second scan is more detailed, but can’t match the quality of the Oki printer. You can see the familiar artifact shaped like the number “6” on both the printouts (it is more like a smudge on the first scan, though). Note also the waviness of horizontal borders at both resolutions.

The halftone image looks rude at 300dpi; small details are not discernable. Borders between contrasting objects are not sharp; light areas are filled rather too densely.

The 600dpi resolution improves the picture, yet the drawbacks are the same: the rude raster pattern leads to loss of detail, and light areas are filled just too densely. And here’s the same image printed in the toner-saving mode:

The toner fill density is lower and the image is lighter. Otherwise, there are no changes.

Xerox Phaser 3121

Design and Ergonomics

This model resembles the Samsung ML-1615 at first sight, the similarity stretching to the placement of the components, the shape of the case, the design of the control panel, but unlike in Samsung’s model the input tray is fully contained within the case; the flip-back support of the output tray is much shorter because the bigger depth of the case makes a long support unnecessary.

The input tray is improved. It has a frame of its own, width-setting guides, a mechanical load indicator, and a metal clamp for a more reliable transfer of paper into the printing section. The printer also features a slot for per-sheet loading with independent guides and a scale of formats.

The cover on the back panel offers quick access to the transport mechanism, so if the medium gets stuck inside, you can extract it without dismantling the entire case. The heater is located here, too, but it cannot be extracted that easily.

The back panel has a big prominence, like on the Samsung printer’s. It contains a power adapter and interface and power connectors. This view shows you one design peculiarity: the input tray is open at the rear and the media are transferred into the printing section from the front, but it doesn’t mean the paper is loaded from the rear. The loaded paper will just protrude from the case at the back rather than at the front as with many other printers.

This snapshot shows the placement of LPT and USB connectors and the adjustable limiter on the output tray. Now you can grasp the idea of the open tray design: the tray can take in media formats longer than A4.

There are two LED indicators (Error and Toner-Saving Mode) and a Cancel/Resume Task button on the control panel. The appearance of the control panel is the same as on the Samsung ML-1615, except that there are icons here instead of text labels (and not quite comprehensible icons, I should say).

There is a vent opening and an exhaust fan on the right panel of the case. This design ensures a longer life of the heater if compared with fan-less machines.

The cartridge compartment is right behind the front cover, not somewhere deep in the case as with the Samsung ML-1615. You lift up and pull at the handle of the cartridge case to take it out.

This cartridge is inseparable and includes a container with toner and a printing unit. The photo-drum is not protected against sunlight or accidental touch but it is not a drawback since this cartridge is not intended for refills.

Drivers and Settings

As you might have expected, the user interface of the driver is very similar to that of the Samsung ML-1615. Some options are reshuffled, though.

On the first tab you select the paper orientation and scale (from 25% to 400% stepping 1%). Like on any other tab it is possible to save the current settings and recall them later when necessary.

The Graphics tab offers 300dpi and 600dpi resolutions as well as three toner-saving modes: auto (the indicator on the printer case will shine), forced on or off.

Pressing the More Parameters button opens the appropriate dialog box in which you select the fill density (three levels), enable text darkening (for documents with colored text) or print in black-and-white (without halftones).

Printing Quality

All the tests (of resolution and halftones reproduction) were performed in three modes: 300dpi, 600dpi with disabled toner saving, and 600dpi with enabled toner saving.

The 300dpi printout betrays a considerable loss of detail and shows the familiar artifact. Slanting lines are visibly jagged.

The image is more detailed at 600dpi resolution. The jaggedness of slanting lines is barely visible.

The toner-saving mode is not much different. The image is less saturated and the lines are thinner.

The halftone image printed at 300dpi shows a rude raster pattern, poorly rendered borders between contrasting objects, and low level of detail. Grays are reproduced using a matrix of variable-size equidistant dots. It is hard to read the text at the bottom of the printout.

The 600dpi printout looks much better: sharp contours, better details, a smaller raster pattern, and correctly reproduced light areas.

The toner-saving mode doesn’t bring anything new. The image is less saturated as the toner fill density is reduced.

Printing Speed Comparison

We use the TF4 test target to check out the printer performance. The print task is “cold-started”, i.e. without first warming the heater up, at the default driver settings, and the time it takes to output the first page (starting from the moment the print task is sent to the printer) and the entire 10-page document is measured. We begin to measure the sequential speed after the first page is printed to avoid systematic errors due to the heater warm-up and software processing of the print task immediately before printing.

The results are presented in the diagram:

The Brother HL-2040 wins this test with a result of 20 pages per minute, while the printers from Samsung and HP are the slowest at 13.8 pages per minute. The speed of the HP LaserJet 1020 is actually close to its specification, but the Samsung ML-1615 is 2ppm behind its declared speed of 16ppm. The 50% difference between the speeds of the fastest and slowest printer is going to be tangible at large print volumes, above 100 pages. The Canon LBP 2900 has turned in a curious result as it has surpassed its own specification (18ppm against the declared 12ppm). It is not often that you see a device doing so much better than its own specs.

The next table shows how much time the printers took to turn out the first page of the document:

The leaders are different. The Oki B1400 now holds the first place with a speed of 12 seconds, but the outsider is the same – the Samsung ML-1615 is far slower even than the closest competitor. Well, the first-page speed is not as important a parameter as the sequential print speed, yet in some situations like when you have to quickly print out one or two pages for a client how doesn’t want to be waiting at all, these seconds may become critical.

Conclusion

A few general facts can be derived from the results of our today’s tests. First, the real (as opposed to declared) characteristics of the tested printers that affect printing quality are very similar. Second, the result depends greatly on the software, i.e. the printer driver. It is the driver setup flexibility that limits the area of application of a printer – whether it is good for printing just text or for black-and-white images, too. The latter is especially important for home use since you usually have only one printer at home and use it to print everything from simple text documents to web pages and even photographs. If the driver allows manual setup of the dither parameters, fill density and contrast, you may achieve excellent results at outputting images, comparable to photographs in black-and-white newspapers. And third, the performance of the printing mechanisms may vary greatly and a more expensive device is not necessarily faster than a cheaper one.

I’m going to give you a brief summary on each tested printer.

The Brother HL-2040 model features superb speed characteristics in the first place. It is the leader at sequential printing. The driver gives you flexible control over the half-toning parameters. The device itself is ergonomic and user-friendly. I can’t find any serious faults with this one.

The Canon LBP-2900 is cute-looking, small and sufficiently fast. Its driver offers flexible saturation and contrast adjustment. This printer is going to be a good choice for home, and rather infrequent, use. When closed, it will fit well into any room interior. The main disadvantages are the lack of a fan to cool the heater and the combined low-capacity cartridge.

The Epson EPL-6200L boasts a very high printing speed. The moving components of the case are properly fastened. The cartridge is sectional, with a high-capacity toner container. Toner fill density adjustment is the only fine-tuning option offered by the driver. This printer lacks a per-sheet manual feed slot as well as a Cancel button on the case.

The HP LaserJet 1020 is a mediocre device. It is no record-breaker in speed, has no obvious defects or winning advantages. It has a combined, small-capacity cartridge and is meant for low monthly loads.

The Konica Minolta PagePro 1350W is a well-made machine with a reliable mechanism and simple controls. I don’t have any particular comments on the design and usability of this printer. This is the only device among the reviewed that can do diffusion fill to give that special softness to halftone images.

The Lexmark E-230 is the single printer in this list to support PCL for interaction with image and text-editing software as well as desktop publishing programs. So, the printer’s functionality and control flexibility are high. Note also the long service life of the photo-drum which is detachable from the toner container. The basic disadvantages are that the printer case is too big for a personal device and the fill density is too high at the default settings.

The OKI B4100 is the single printer in this review to feature the LED-based printing technology. It has a straight paper path so you can print on thick cardboard or special polymer materials. Moreover, the driver offers very flexible setup options. The quality of the printouts is probably the best among the tested printers. I couldn’t find any serious flaws in this machine.

I did not like the Samsung ML-1615 at all. I may be a bit subjective and wrong about its exterior design, but the low speed and the obvious design flaws (no cooling of the heater, no manual feed slot, the swallowing of two sheets at a time) and the clumsy cartridge replacement procedure are quite objective drawbacks. So I can’t say anything good about this printer and do not recommend it for purchase.

The Xerox Phaser 3121 is a close relative of the Samsung ML-1516, but is somewhat redesigned. It has a normal input tray (rather than a flip-down panel), a per-sheet feed port, a fan on the heater, and a normally placed cartridge. So this is not an exceptional machine, but it meets its purpose well enough.

If you still can’t make your choice, consider these alternatives:

I hope this review will be useful for you and help you make the right choice of your printer.