Five color inkjets under $150
September 11, 1998
by Karen Silver
(IDG) -- Hello, my name is Karen, and I'm a paper addict. (Hi, Karen.) In the wired world, that admission is tantamount to saying I listen to eight-tracks and drink diet Tab. At home, I get eight magazines, seven mail-order catalogs, and one newspaper. I buy books by the half-dozen. When I surf the Web, I print out pages to read on the train. In an age when you can get directions on the Net, an encyclopedia on CD-ROM, and news via e-mail, what's a paper junkie to do? Buy a new printer.
Tragically, with all these subscriptions and book-buying binges, I don't have much leftover money -- or room. In search of the perfect fix, I checked out five compact color printers selling for less than $150. (A new Epson, the $149 Stylus Color 440, was too late for review; it should be in stores by the time you read this.)
For that price, I didn't expect quick performance or stellar print quality, so I was surprised to find that a couple of these models turn out good-looking images relatively fast. In my decidedly unscientific tests, nearly all of them printed a page of text in about half a minute -- except the NEC SuperScript 150C, which took almost a minute and a half. An Adobe Photoshop color image printed in around 2 minutes on all but the Canon BJC-250 and the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 400L, which took half that long.
The five printers share several characteristics. All are single-cartridge ink jets, which means you can only use one cartridge at a time--either an all-black one or one that prints three colors. If your printer comes with only a color cartridge (like four of the printers here), you'll spend $30 to $40 for a black cartridge -- a necessity to print true black. (Three-color cartridges produce a greenish composite black.) The HP, meanwhile, comes with only its black cartridge; a color cartridge costs an additional $35.
All the printers are the same tiny size -- around 14 by 7 by 7 inches -- weigh about 5 pounds, and are shaped like a Tootsie Roll with two flat sides. Only the Lexmark 1100 Color Jetprinter has a paper output tray; with the rest, the prints just ooze out onto your desktop. Finally, each printer comes with a one-year warranty. From there on, these printers distinguish themselves in print quality, features, and documentation -- in short, the things that make owning a printer worthwhile.
I started my paper chase with the $129 Canon BJC-250, which nearly spoiled me for the others. It was simple to set up, thanks especially to its quick-start guide and well-illustrated manual. The sophisticated software covers every type of image from photos to text -- and even has an "automatic" setting that lets the software decide everything for you. The bundled software helps you print banners, T-shirt transfers, greeting cards, and even picture frames. I could cover my walls with paper! (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
Even without the optional photo ink kit ($47 list), the BJC-250 impressed me with its print quality -- the best overall of the group. Photos came out realistic and fairly sharp on plain paper, and very crisp on glossy paper, though the resolution is just 360 by 360 dots per inch. I used the optional $32 black cartridge to print clear text. None of the printers did especially well with my photo in black and white, but the Canon was the best of the bunch. In my informal tests, the BJC-250 was also one of the fastest, but don't look for lightning speed from any $150 printer. You'll get better print quality and faster performance from a more expensive dual-cartridge printer, but to my mind, the Canon BJC-250 is a terrific value. Cheap, small, simple, and capable -- what more could you ask for?
Cheap cut from Compaq
Well, maybe you could ask for more, but you wouldn't get it from the new Compaq IJ200. It costs as much as the Canon ($129) and is a good general-purpose printer, but its output quality and features aren't quite as satisfying. The IJ200's manual, disappointingly, comes only on CD-ROM. Fortunately, the manual's helpful quick-start guide got me set up fast. The printer is easy to put together and use, though I wasn't happy with its flimsy front cover.
Compaq put some high-quality technology (based on Lexmark's printers) into the IJ200. Just a smidge below the Canon BJC-250 on print quality, the Compaq produces handsome photographs and text, even on plain paper. On glossy paper, a 600-by-600-dpi photo of my brother, my sister, and me at our last family reunion was worthy of sending to my mother. But I still preferred the Canon BJC-250's lower-resolution photo quality on glossy paper -- its color was sharper and more realistic. The IJ200 prints cards, banners, and transparencies, but no fancy stuff, and its speed is about average. I liked the Compaq, but for better print quality and features, I'd recommend the Canon.
HP: Hardly Perfect
I wanted to like the HP DeskJet 400L, since Hewlett-Packard often produces admirable printers, but it wasn't easy. With its weak print quality and completely useless documentation, the DeskJet 400L isn't worth the paper it prints on. It lacks a quick-start guide, and the index-free manual is a measly 16 pages long. Like the other four printers, the HP comes with only one cartridge. But unlike the others, it's the black cartridge. Why? So HP can sell the printer for just $129. I paid an extra $35 (list) for the ability to print -- badly -- in color.
The 400L is fast, but its print quality was the lowest of the bunch in nearly every category. I printed out a color photograph to hang in my cubicle at work, but the 300-by-300-dpi image looked flat and fuzzy, and improved very little with special settings (of which there are few) or glossy paper. In black and white, the HP's photo printing was the worst of the group, though my letter to the IRS came out pretty good (too bad). The 400L prints greeting cards and transparencies, but it won't do T-shirt transfers or banners. If my heart belonged to HP, I'd skip this model and wait for its as-yet-unnamed replacement, which should hit stores around early winter.
Lexmark's the spot
Lexmark's 1100 Color Jetprinter is the cubic zirconia of printers: a cheap little jewel. The $119 Lexmark is a snap to assemble, literally: All I had to do was pop the paper input guide into the back of the printer, the paper output guide into the front, and the ink cartridge inside. The quick-start guide got me set up painlessly, and the manual was adequate, though it could use a better index. I have just two small beefs: First, I wish the front cover opened a bit wider so I could put the ink cartridge in more easily. Second, I accidentally mistook the slot at the back of the printer for the place to insert the cartridge. Apparently, I'm not the only one who got confused: Lexmark added a note that reads, "Store EXTRA CARTRIDGE here." I think Lexmark should replace the slot with a separate holder, like the kind most single-cartridge printers have.
Though it was the second-slowest printer in my informal tests, the 1100 produced good-looking prints. They looked especially nice at 600 by 600 dpi. Its color was attractive, if a little fuzzier than the Canon's and Compaq's, while its grays were dark but fairly detailed. Text came out crisp and rich. Like the Canon BJC-250, the Lexmark prints banners, T-shirt transfers, greeting cards, photos, and even documents with waterproof black ink.
The subject of my final taste test, the NEC SuperScript 150C, didn't go down easy. It's dirt cheap -- $119, brought down to an unbeatable $79 with a $40 rebate -- but awkward to set up. I had to rely on the sparsely illustrated manual because there wasn't a quick-start guide. Then I had trouble inserting the ink cartridge. Finally, even though you'll find its software driver on both CD-ROM and floppy disk, I still had to install it via Add Hardware in my Start menu.
Once I got it going, the 150C didn't improve much. It was the slowest printer here, and its 600-by-300-dpi print quality didn't thrill me. The NEC printed such a fuzzy photograph -- only slightly better than the HP DeskJet 400L's -- that I wouldn't even put it up at work, and that's saying a lot. On glossy paper, the photo's color looked garish; in black and white, the image was ho-hum. If I didn't care about print quality, I could have created all kinds of amusing things like cards and T-shirts on the 150C, since it comes with fun software. But for the same price (before rebate), I could get a lot more value from the Lexmark.
Much as I'd like to keep all five models set up and spewing pages, alas, I had to choose. The race was close, but when I spread the printouts across my table (ahhhh), the Canon BJC-250 pleased me best. Then again, with my voracious habit, maybe I should spend another C-note and get the Lexmark 1100 Color Jetprinter, too. My next purchase: a really big filing cabinet.
Karen Silver is a senior associate editor at PC World.
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