The HP 4101mfp multifunction device

I set up an HP 4101mfp printer-scanner-fax machine today. My first impressions weren’t good, but once we actually had it working, it worked as advertised.

I’m not about to buy one for home, but if I need a multifunction device in the office (or a client does), I won’t feel too bad about recommending this one.

Let me set something straight. The hairs on the back of my neck bristle whenever the words “printer-scanner-fax machine” come out of someone’s mouth. It is incredibly difficult for one device to do those three jobs well. It is even more difficult for a device to do those jobs acceptably and at a price point that will get the device shelf space at Best Bait-n-Switch. And it’s easier to land a man on the moon than it is to do those three jobs well when attached to a PC parallel port.

Ethernet solves that last problem, at least.

Now, the 4101mfp isn’t a consumer device. It costs almost $3,000. So for the money, it had better do a decent job.

But let’s start with the bad. The bad part is that this thing is still a kludge. When we opened it up, we found the Ethernet port immediately. We found the power cord receptacle after a little bit of digging. But we couldn’t figure out where to plug in the phone line.

As it turns out, the 4101mfp does not have a built-in modem. Included in the box is what appears to be a PCMCIA card reader that attaches to, of all things, the printer’s parallel port. And–are you ready for this?–inside the card reader is a Xircom PCMCIA modem, just like the one you probably installed in numerous laptops before they started coming built into the motherboard.

The external box containing the PCMCIA reader attaches to the side of the printer via a piece of double-sided tape, and it’s powered by its own power brick. It’s about as elegant as a moose on roller skates.

So, forget about direct-attaching the 4101mfp to a PC. It’s not happening. The parallel port is spoken for, and there’s no USB connection.

The good news is that in defiance of all logic, it works.

More good news: The 4101mfp is basically a 4100 laser printer with a built-in scanner. The 4100 is a very good printer. It’s fast, it’s reliable, it’s economical, and toner cartridges are available anywhere.

As a fax machine, it works. There’s nothing glamorous there. The fax standards haven’t really changed much in the past 15 years. We ought to know how to make those by now.

As a scanner, it’s acceptable. You don’t have the kind of control that you have over a dedicated scanner. But for the person who just wants to load the documents and push a button and doesn’t want all of the fine control, it works. I can’t imagine relying on it as my primary scanner, but I know some people can’t imagine living with my Honda’s automatic transmission either.

The really cool thing about this device is what it can do with that Ethernet connection. Besides faxing, it can also scan and e-mail a document. Punch in an e-mail address, load the document (with the top of the document facing in, unless you want to send the document upside down) and hit a button and the recipient will get a lovely PDF file. All the parts are there to do this–the printer already had an Ethernet connection and a Postscript interpreter, and PDF is just another form of Postscript–but now someone has done it.

The client was disappointed–even a little bit mad–that the device doesn’t OCR the text and send a Word document. Of course when we pointed to the standalone scanner in the office, she complained that scanner doesn’t do a good job and she has to do a lot of correcting. Let me reiterate the law of multifunction devices: You get the basics. You won’t get the fastest printer, you’ll get a very pedestrian scanner, and while a fax machine is basically a fax machine, the device will take up a lot more room than a regular fax machine.

As far as OCR goes, it works a little bit better than it did 10 years ago, or at least faster, but it still has a difficult time distinguishing between lowercase-ls and number-1s, zeroes and ohs, and marks on the paper can mess things up too. Let’s face it: When the English decided to steal an alphabet, they stole the world’s worst, and now we’re still paying the price. The rest of Western Europe did the same thing.

Maybe it will be better in 20 years, but I have to wonder. How can we expect machines to do a good job of deciphering our alphabet when so many humans have difficulty doing the same thing?

I think whoever can make a multifunction standalone appliance that e-mails documents in some common word processor form–without a lot of mistakes, that is–will make a billion dollars within a year of the thing coming to market. I also think landing a man on the moon again is an easier engineering feat.

With reasonable expectations, the 4101mfp is an admirable device. It does a reasonably good job of scanning and makes the job very convenient, it’s a good fax machine, and it’s a good medium-duty printer. And like all fax machines, it can also serve as a light-duty copier. Those of you who have used fax machines as photocopiers know what I mean by light duty.

The downside is it needs two power outlets in addition to Ethernet and phone connections, so in an era when scanners plug into a USB port and use it for both data and power, it resembles Medusa.

But if you don’t have room for a scanner, printer, fax machine, and personal copier, the 4101mfp is a good choice as long as you can live with paying twice as much as you would for the individual components as you would to get everything in one box.

2 thoughts on “The HP 4101mfp multifunction device

  • November 19, 2004 at 8:25 am
    Permalink

    Dave,

    Since these beasts contain rather "pedestrian scanners," can you suggest a good brand of stand-alone scanner ? Something not too expensive. I thought I remembered you liking the less expensive Canons, but couldn’t recall for sure…

  • November 21, 2004 at 3:13 pm
    Permalink

    I’m tossing this in here as it fits better than at my place: we had an interesting experience with an HP 9110 ink-jet multi the other day when the end user changed out the yellow ink cartridge and promptly received a message that the yellow print cartridge needed to be changed. Since the print carts are rated for 18 months of normal use, and since this was a month-old machine, IT hadn’t ordered in any replacement print cartridges.

    Short version (after much hue and cry and running about): the machine had to be powered down (rebooted) to initiate the ‘print head alignment routine’ needed after an ink cartridge replacement; somehow that was missed in the training process…

    And somehow you’d think the machine would be programmed to catch that…

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