7 printers worth getting to know

GCN Labs reviews the latest generation of multi-function printers for the government market. Did they like what they found?

Editor’s Note: This is version of a GCN Lab review that appeared in the July 19 issue of Government Computer News.

Multi-function printers have really grown up. Unlike reviews in past years, almost every entry this year has gotten its act together, combining faxing, copying, scanning and, of course, color printing into a solid, inexpensive unit. Some even come with high-security functions to protect their hard drives — a must at almost any government office.

This review looks at seven multi-function printers, known as MFPs, from a variety of manufacturers. All are priced at less than $3,000. Printers were tested for quality, speed, ease of use and value.

Hewlett-Packard was invited to be in this review but declined because it doesn't have a new MFP model. Xerox also declined because the Lab had already tested its latest MFP.

Brother MFC-9320CW
Value: A+
The Brother MFC-9320CW packs a lot of nice features into an extremely small frame. And at just $499, you get a lot of printer for the money.

With a 17-inch footprint, the Brother almost seemed tiny. Yet the MFC-9320CW has a lot of nice features, such as 802.11 b and g wireless access printing and the ability to print directly from a USB flash drive. It also has a standard letter-size flatbed scanner, a 33.6 kilobits/sec fax modem, and a slot where documents that you need to fax or copy can be loaded at the top of the unit.

But it was a little slow. It printed our 30-page all-text document in 1 minute, 55 seconds. It stumbled a little with our heavily graphics-laden 30-page color test document, pushing that through in 2 minutes, 22 seconds., slower than most of the rest of the printers in this review.

The MFC-9320CW is a good MFP, suitable as a personal printer or one that a small workgroup shares.

Dell 2145cn
Value: C
The Dell 2145cn was somewhat of a letdown given the quality of previous MFPs we have reviewed from Dell. It’s rather expensive at $749 but is underwhelming in almost every area we tested.

In terms of speed, the 2145cn got through our 30-page text document in 1 minute, 51 seconds, a respectable time. But it took 3 minutes, 34 seconds to finally complete our 30-page graphical test, one of the slowest in the review using laser technology.

After printing the test file, the output also was sub-par. Graphics came out far too dark, especially for photographs, which killed many fine details. Black-and-white line art was even worse. It comes out with a noticeable red glow that isn’t in the original image and didn’t get produced with any other MFP we reviewed this year.

Epson WorkForce
Value: A
The WorkForce 520 was the only MFP in this review to use inkjet technology, but using the older technology has advantages. The unit's price is extremely cheap at $130, and the MFP is accurate when printing graphics, especially line art or two-tone images.

But it also has disadvantages. The WorkForce 520 was by far the slowest printer in the review, and its tiny ink wells drained fast despite having double slots allotted for black. That means your initial savings might disappear after you pay for the cost of ink cartridges, depending on how much you tax the 520.

The WorkForce 520 has a nice interface with a control panel that you can lift up so that it sits at a good angle regardless of where the printer is located. It also was the only printer in the review to have a great on-screen interface for any computer connected to it.

The WorkForce 520 is a good all-around MFP if you don’t need to print too much with it. If you mostly need a fax machine or scanner, it might be a perfect way to add one to your office for about $100.

Lexmark X738de
Value: A-
Reviewer’s Choice
The Lexmark X738de seems to be an MFP built with the government in mind. Besides having the best color accuracy and fastest speed in the roundup, it also has a lot of features that would be helpful anywhere but really demanded by the government.

Its most impressive extra feature is security. Government agencies have learned that printers with hard drives can be a potential security hole in an organization. The X738de has an 80G hard drive. But it is an asset without being a risk. The MFP writes everything to the hard drive using Advanced Encryption Standard-256 standards.

Beyond that, administrators can set the printer to perform fast wipes of the drive or full Defense Department-level overwrites at certain intervals, such as at the end of the day or every hour.

You would pay more for the X738de, but with a government price of $2,688, it’s worth every penny.

OkiData MC560
Value: A-
The Oki Data MC560 Plus has some features that might make it a perfect fit for a government office with specific needs. The most helpful feature is that it is one of the few MFPs to offer a straight paper path. When used this way, paper makes no twists or turns within the machine. So the MC560 Plus can print on heavy card stock that couldn’t make the turns inside other printers. And it can accommodate banners as large as 48 inches, too.

One of the reasons the MC560 Plus has the straight paper path is that, despite a put-together look, the MFP is made up of separate units that are mashed together. When you first turn it on, the LED display on the scanner indicates that it is locating the printer, which is a little odd because you just turned the printer on.

Scan speeds are as fast as 20 pages per minute in color, and the fax has a 33.6 kilobits/sec Super G3 modem, which is speedy. And everything the MC560 writes to the hard drive is encrypted to AES-256 standards, so data should stay secure.

In terms of printing output, the MC560 Plus is fast with text and moderately speedy with graphics. It crunched our 30-page text file in 1 minute, 33 seconds but was slower with the 30-page graphically laden test document, finishing in 2 minutes, 16 seconds.

Our biggest problem with the MC560 Plus was the confusing installation process.

Panasonic KX-MC6040
Value: A-
The Panasonic KX-MC6040 is an easy-to-use MFP with a good price. The toner cartridges have 10,000-page capacities and offer reliable color matching. Its one noticeable flaw is that it’s a bit slow, especially with graphics.

The KX-MC6040 was one of the easiest MFPs in the entire roundup to install. It takes users through the process step by step.

Once set up, a large, colorful LCD screen guides you through the faxing, scanning or printing processes. The buttons are also easy to use. The black-and-white printing button is black, and the one to make a color copy is in color.

The KX-MC6040 is fairly fast with printing text. It finished our 30-page test document in 1 minute, 41 seconds. However, it was much slower with graphics, finishing our 30-page graphical document in 3 minutes, 14 seconds.

At $419, this is a great MFP that combines advanced features and ease-of-use with adequate quality.
Samsung CLX-6250FX
Value: A-
Reviewer’s Choice

The Samsung CLX-6250FX is one heck of a workhorse. With a duty cycle of 80,000 pages per month, you can drop this MFP down into even a medium or slightly large workgroup and not worry about it breaking.

The CLX-6250FX is adequately speedy when printing text, finishing our 30-page text document in 1 minute, 26 seconds. It’s a bit slower with graphics, taking 1 minute, 56 seconds to finish 30 pages of intense graphics.

With a government price of $899, this heavy-duty workhorse could find a good home in any busy office where there are too many workers and too few MFPs. Adding a solid printer, fax, scanner and copier for not much money can seriously help to relieve crunch times. If only the CLX-6250FX were a little faster, it might be perfect. As it stands, it’s still good enough to easily earn our Reviewer’s Choice designation.

Go to www.gcn.com to read more detailed reviews of these printers.