Walt Mossberg

The $99 Laser Printer: Home Options Get Closer to Office Quality

While heavy-duty laser printers still handle large workloads in the corporate world, inkjet printers have become the standard solution for home and small-business users. They are less expensive, and the technology behind inkjet printing has improved so much that they can produce acceptable business documents as well as high-quality photos. Just this week, Hewlett-Packard announced it was unveiling new technology to improve the speed and lower the cost of inkjets.

But earlier this month when one of H-P’s competitors, Dell Computer, introduced a laser printer for just $99 — the least expensive on the market — my assistant Katie Boehret and I started to recall the pluses of laser printing, and we wanted to test it. Instead of watching yet another document inching bit by bit out of an inkjet printer, we were eager to see a laser-printed page with crisp, well-defined text, spill out into the output tray in one sudden moment.

Dell's 1100

Alright, maybe it isn’t all that exciting. Still, there is something satisfying about using a laser printer for out-of-office, personal printing of items like letters, reports and the like that don’t require color but do benefit from laser quality. After some testing, Katie and I found the Dell 1100 to be just as the company said it was: a straightforward, monochrome laser printer. It was easy to set up, compact enough to take up minimal space on a desk and worked well, producing good-looking documents instantly recognizable as coming from a laser.

This new laser printer is inexpensive enough to be paired in a home office with a color inkjet, which you could use for printing Web pages or digital photos. It also might work as the sole printer for some users who don’t mind not printing in color.

We tested the Dell 1100 laser printer alongside a comparably priced, middle-of-the-road inkjet printer: the $90 H-P Deskjet 5740. We didn’t directly compare these two printers so much as we allowed each to remind us what the other did or didn’t have.

Physically, the Dell laser looked like a mini version of any average laser printer that you might find in an office; its footprint measures roughly 14 inches wide and 12 deep. The H-P looked like most inkjets — wider (about 18 inches) than it is deep (eight inches) so that its cartridges can slide from side to side as it prints. Both have just a few buttons, including those for power and print canceling.

We followed simple instructions to set up the Dell 1100 in just a few minutes, including attaching it to a computer using a USB cable, plugging in the power cord and inserting its included toner cartridge. The 1100 comes with a starter cartridge that is supposed to last for 1,000 pages. Additional cartridges sell for $65 and Dell says they yield 2,000 pages each, for a cost of 3.25 cents a page. That is a lower per-page cost than many inkjets boast.

We printed multiple-page documents, a cartoon and a single-page document in Microsoft Word using the Dell 1100. It was nice not to hear the ink cartridges moving side to side, like on most inkjet printers. Instead, the documents just slid out of the printer’s top when completed. The printer took about 10 seconds to churn out our single-page document.

The printed type produced on the laser looked more delicate and finely chiseled than that on the inkjet, and appeared slightly lighter in color. We opened up printer settings on our computer and adjusted the darkness of the print to “dark” from “normal,” but the print still looked the same.

The cartoon image that we printed on the 1100 showed various shades of gray, which looked fine. If you weren’t too concerned about color, these grayscale photos and images might suffice.

The Dell’s paper tray holds 150 pieces of paper, and the printer isn’t capable of automatically printing on both sides of one sheet. You can manually feed sheets in for duplex printing, but that takes extra time and effort. The 1100′s “duty cycle” — the maximum recommended usage before a product’s life expectancy would be affected — is 5,000 pages a month.

Dell's 1100

The H-P 5740 also was easy to set up, but instead of installing one large cartridge, as with the Dell, we snapped two included cartridges into place — one color and one black. The company estimates that these starter cartridges will last for a combined total of 710 pages.

Extra cartridges can be purchased after your starters run out. The two highest-yielding cartridges cost about $65 combined, and H-P says they produce 1,250 pages, for a per-page cost of 5.2 cents, about 60% higher than the Dell.

We printed the same documents on our H-P as we did on the Dell and found that the lettering in each Word document looked thicker and less well-defined on the inkjet than on the Dell laser. The inkjet text was darker and bolder than was the Dell’s laser text.

According to the specs, the H-P will print faster — 18 pages a minute in color and 23 in black and white compared with the Dell’s 15 pages a minute in black and white. In our single-page test, we found that the Dell 1100 worked faster than the H-P 5740.

The inkjet took about 17 seconds compared with 10 seconds on the laser. We printed a three-page document on each device with similar results: The Dell printed three pages in roughly 15 seconds while the H-P took 30. The inkjet also took longer to start each print-out, and it was a little louder than the Dell was.

The H-P holds 50 fewer sheets than the Dell in its tray and has a slightly less-impressive duty cycle — it can only produce 3,000 pages a month, or 2,000 less than the Dell.

If a majority of your print-outs are text documents with a few icons or images here and there, you probably will like the monochrome Dell 1100. For the price, it is worth a try.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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