Laser Printer Musings

Posted by mitch on February 25, 2012

The first laser printer I bought was a Lexmark Optra E312. This was in 2001 or so; the Lexmark was $400, had USB, and worked with Macs, though I mostly used it with a parallel port connection to a Linux machine with lpd. It had real PostScript. The print quality was amazing, but the paper handling was terrible. It held paper “upright” in the rear of the printer, which I suppose was a decision of economics, but it also meant that it printed crooked most of the time. It would also jam when making the turn into the “upright” output tray, so the solution was to open the front and let papers fly around on the desk. Despite these issues, I was content with it (for the price) and used it very heavily. I gave it to a friend in 2005 and I believe he still uses it.

In 2005, I bought a new Lexmark network laser printer. It was very cheap, around $250, and it was amazing. I used it very heavily. When I switched coasts for my permanent residence in 2007, I gave it to another friend who is also still using it.

My Canon MF4690 in its natural habitat.

So after this, I needed a new printer. I ended up buying a Canon multi-function laser for around $400. Copying and faxing were important to me and I didn’t have room for 2 or 3 devices (I previously had a separate fax machine). By now, LCD monitors had gotten very cheap and I had a lot of them. I was actually printing far less than I ever had before because I could see so much more on the screen at the same time. I often printed to see more content concurrently, whether the content was code, documentation, or presentations. In fact, I’ve only printed about 4800 pages on this printer in the last 4.5 years.

The multi-function has been amazing. I can scan documents to PDF that the printer emails to me, with no computer involvement. With the auto-document feeder, I can scan in a stack of documents. When doing complex financial transactions, this has been a huge timesaver. No one should be running any kind of operation without one of these devices if you have to sign a lot of documents. Previously I was running to Kinko’s for big “signage” or messing around with a flatbed scanner or dealing with a crappy fax machine. All of those were a huge waste of time.

The downside of the Canon multi-function has been the print quality. It’s somewhere between “mediocre” and “fair.” Gray halftones are a disaster and the definition around the edges is sloppy. While it’s fine for proofreading or marking up a document, it’s embarrassing to hand someone a document from that printer in a professional setting.

Canon MF4690 text output. Note the jaggy edges. Palatino 10 pt font.

In 2009, I needed to print some confidential color documents, so printing them at Kinko’s was out of the question. I bought a color laser printer to augment the Canon, a Lexmark C543DN. As my review on Amazon says, “I liked it. I printed 60 pages. Then it died.” Cause of death was a “service printhead” error. Unfortunately by the time I realized it was dead, it was out of warranty (I did my initial printing, then did 12 months of traveling, then tried to print again). I ended up having 1-800-Got-Junk throw it away with some other trash.

I was wary to buy another color laser printer, but once again I need to create camera-ready documents without hauling myself over to Kinko’s. So I just picked up a Brother color laser printer for cheap on Amazon (and I later added the 2nd paper tray option). Common complaints about the Brother are paper curling and expensive toner–nothing unusual here. The print quality for “business graphics” and text is amazing. I should have bought a new color laser printer when the Lexmark died.

Brother HL4570CDW text output. Much smoother. Taken with the same lighting, microscope, and focus as the previous picture.

The new color printer is quite a bit slower than the Canon when waking from sleep. I printed the above text pages for comparison at the same time from the same computer. The Canon woke up, printed, and was done before the Brother had finished waking up. The Canon has 32 MB of RAM vs the Brother’s 128 MB (upgradable to 384 MB for $10; DIMM ordered). The Brother is also quite a bit louder than the Canon, but quieter than some other printers. To me, these negatives are worth the improved text, grayscale, and addition of color output. Even printing photos on plain 22 lb paper is shockingly good with the Brother; if memory serves, much better than the old Lexmark. Of course, photos will have the halftone pattern and lose a lot of crispness; if you are shopping for a photo printer, laser is probably not the technology you seek. I would love to have a 8-cartridge wide-format printer for such projects.

Toner is pretty well priced for both of these printers; the 1,500-2,500 page toner cartridges for the Brother are $200 for a set of four and the higher yield 3,500-6,000 are $340. The Canon black cartridge has usually run me about $75. These prices are similar to what I’ve paid for other printers. There are a lot of complaints on Amazon about these prices, but I think they are pretty standard and I really appreciate Brother offering the lower yield cartridges as an option. Plenty of other vendors have cartridges running at $120/each. The reality of a color printer is that the printer needs 4 cartridges.

It is amazing how cheap laser printers have gotten. According to this inflation calculator, the $7,000 LaserWriter IINTX printer my dad bought in 1988 would be over $12,500 today. My dad ran 80,000 pages through that printer over the course of 15 or 16 years. I seem to recall reading an article in Macworld about personal laser printers sometime around 1992; the costs were dropping down to $1,500 or so. Today, a pretty good black-and-white laser is $200 and color isn’t much more than that.

In addition to (or because of) high prices, in the “good ole days” of laser printers, Macworld and other magazines would publish enlarged views of actual print quality. I miss that dearly when researching printer purchases.

I am not sure I will get 15 years of service out of my Canon, but I have gotten 5 years so far and can imagine 8 or 10 are quite probable. Even though prices have gone through the floor, there are still quality products out there to be found. I am hopeful the new Brother printer is one of them. The amount of printing I am doing these days is significantly less than what I used to do, but printing is a key part of certain workflows. I suspect that will continue for some number of years to come.