Another look at color laser printing

I’ve been watching color laser printing for about 10 years. I remember when I was impressed to see one priced at $9,999. (No, that’s not a typo; I meant to type 10 grand minus a dollar.) And I remember I was riding the Metro in Washington DC in 1997 the first time I saw one priced under $4,000.

Today, you can buy a color laser for less than I paid for my first black and white laser, a Panasonic Sidewriter model that cost me $349 in 1994. If you shop around, you can get one for considerably less.

I haven’t bitten just yet, but I’m getting closer.I loved the Sidewriter line. I’d have loved it even more if I’d been paid on commission when I was selling them. You could tell how much I’d worked in a given week by the number of Sidewriters that were on the sales floor. If I’d been allowed to work 40-hour weeks, it might have been impossible to buy one in St. Louis.

The Sidewriter was an easy sell. At the time, a monochrome inkjet printer cost about $150. The Sidewriter cost $349 with rebates. (Regular price was $399.) I told the potential purchaser to do the math. Inkjet cartridges cost about $40 at the time, and, like today, were good for about 500 pages. Sidewriter toner cost $50 and was good for about 2,000 pages. So you’d have to buy $120 worth of ink to print as many pages as the Sidewriter would do, out of the box. By the time you used a second cartridge, the Sidewriter had paid for itself–and that’s just from a monetary standpoint. From a convenience standpoint, the Sidewriter won hands down. What would you do if you ran out of ink late at night in the middle of printing something that was due the next morning? In 1994, there wasn’t anyplace you could buy an ink cartridge at midnight. That’s not always true today.

Needless to say, if someone came in looking for a printer, if they weren’t interested in color, chances were they walked out with a Sidewriter if they talked to me.

I’m still looking for a color printer that matches the Sidewriter’s economy for home use.

If you’re looking for a color laser printer, there are several avaliable under $400 today from the likes of Hewlett Packard, Minolta, Lexmark, and Samsung. If you shop carefully, it’s possible to get HP’s most stripped-down model, the 2550L, for $250-$275.

But there’s a downside to the 2550L, besides the most obvious downside of the tiny 125-sheet tray. The cartridges are set to print 2,000 pages and then stop, regardless of whether there is toner left. You can’t refill them, and you can’t use third-party cartridges. At least the 2550L ships with full cartridges, not half- or 1/3-full starter cartridges.

But what’s worse is the toner cartridges cost $80 apiece. There are four of them. Do the math. Also consider that the drum unit is only good for about 5,000 pages in color, and it costs $175.

The HP 2550L is a throwaway printer. Your best bet with this printer is to buy it along with four reams of paper, and when you open that fourth ream, order a new printer. Hang on to any cartridges that still have some capacity left, of course.

From an economy standpoint, the best color lasers on the market today look like they come from Samsung. The Samsung CLP-550 costs more than the HP 2550L, but it’s faster, it’s compatible with PCL6 and Postscript Level 3 (so it’ll work with your favorite alternative operating system, which probably isn’t the case with the 2550L), it comes with both a 250-sheet tray and a 100-sheet tray, and it comes with a duplexer. Printing on both sides of the page without any manual intervention is cool. It’s not a feature you’ll use every time, but it’s hard to live without once you’ve had it.

And more importantly, the Samsung cartridges are refillable. The drum is rated for 50,000 pages, so you won’t necessarily replace it during the printer’s lifetime. The printer also has a $28 waste container that’s supposed to be replaced when it fills up.

The Samsung cartridges cost about $125 each, so they are are more expensive than the HP, but they last for 5,000 pages. And refill kits are available. I’ve seen kits priced at $55 and I’ve seen them priced at $36. If they’re good for 5,000 pages, the cost per page drops to close to a penny per page.

The downside is the CLP-550 comes with starter cartridges that are only rated for 1,500 pages. I don’t know if those starter cartridges can be refilled to full capacity.

I’m not ready to buy one, but if I were going to buy a color laser today, I’d probably get a Samsung.

3 thoughts on “Another look at color laser printing

  • October 1, 2005 at 10:03 am
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    "Disposable" laser printers seem to be pretty common. For example, at work we have been using some Brother HL1440’s. When the drum dies after 12-15K pages, it costs more than the printer did originally. We toss these printers when we finish off a drum. When I started looking at this kind of thing it seemed like HP was the only company that didn’t hit you with a huge drum consumable after a while. I’ve got some HP-4L’s at work that are over 10 years old and still printing – slowly, of course…

    The Samsung color sounds pretty nice; at least the drum doesn’t die after just a couple of toner cartridges! From what I’ve read, most color lasers don’t do the best job of printing photographs, the color just isn’t that good on them.

    • October 1, 2005 at 4:15 pm
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      I think lasers do a reasonable job of printing photographs, but you’re right, there are inkjets that do a better job. The cost per page is pretty high though, and you usually need to use photo paper (increasing it even more). For printing photographs, it’s hard to beat taking your memory card or CD to the drugstore and using their machine. You pay your 17 cents, you get back what looks like a real photograph.

      • October 2, 2005 at 9:49 am
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        Oh, unquestionably for smaller prints having some local place do it for $0.29 or less is better and cheaper than printing on an inkjet.

        At work we’ve got an HP 4600 color laser, which we use for brochures and such. We saved enough over outside printing charges to pay for the printer – and we’re able to print on demand, so we get the current brochure instead of having 100 old ones left over. But it’s certainly not "photo quality" output. And you need to use heavy paper stock, like photo paper, if you want a picture that looks and feels like a photo…

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