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Color Laser Printer Technology Comes Home

Until the mid-'90s, if you wanted to print something in color, you had to use an ink jet printer. Laser was for black and white only. Then in 1994, QMS came out with a color laser printer but it was priced at $10,000.

What a difference a bit more than a decade makes. Today you can get personal color laser printers for less than $400. And based on my recent experience with a couple of inexpensive Brother printers, the quality can be remarkably good.

I started out by borrowing a $399 Brother HL-4040CN but liked it so much that I would up buying an upgraded version, the HL-4070CDW which Brother says costs $499, but I found it online for $388, including shipping.

As far as speed, print quality and supplies are concerned, both printers are identical but the higher-end version comes with wireless Ethernet (as well as wired and USB) and can automatically print in duplex mode - on both sides of the page. Duplex mode saves both paper and money. Printing is a little bit slower than if you print on one side, but not much.

When you use duplex with an ink jet printer there is a considerable delay for the ink to dry before it goes back to print the other side. Laser is a dry process so there is no need for drying time.

Both the black text and colors were crisp and vivid, especially when I used the printer driver's advanced settings to take advantage of its highest quality mode.

I also appreciated some of the features, including a 300-page input tray, the ability to print PDFs and photos directly from a USB thumb drive and a reprint option that lets you reprint as many as 999 copies of the last job without having to re-initiate the job from the computer. It also has an Ethernet port for network printing along with the usual USB connector.

Color lasers aren't a complete replacement for ink jet. For example, if you want glossy photos, you're better off using an ink jet. If you mostly do very small runs, an ink jet might be more cost effective. Likewise, if you only print black, you can save a bit of money on the printer and toner with a monochrome printer, though black only prints from a color printer aren't that much more expensive that using a monochrome printer.

Although color lasers are mostly marketed to small businesses, they can also be handy in personal settings, especially for families who create school, club or team projects such as newsletters and fliers.


Listen to Larry Magid's interview with Brother spokesman Jeffrey Sandler
The Brother has a "duty cycle" of 35,000 pages a month, but a company spokesman said that most people are likely to use it for only a few thousand pages. I successfully put it through a stress test that company spokesman Jeffrey Sandler said is above and beyond what it's designed for.

I printed 2,000 double-sided color brochures in one evening.

I work with a non-profit Internet safety organization, ConnectSafely.org, that was invited to distribute brochures at the Sandbox Summit event at the Consumer Electronics Show. The local copy shops and instant printing services I called charge about $1 a piece to laser-print a two-sided letter-size color brochure. So, instead of spending about $2,000 to have it done, I did it myself for about $1,000, which covered not only the cost of consumables, but the printer itself.

When using high-capacity toner cartridges, Brother estimates that it costs about 13 cents a color page plus the cost of paper (in my case 2 cents a sheet) to print in color, for toner and other consumables. Monochrome printing is 3.24 cents a page. These prices assume 5 percent coverage, which is an industry standard.

My two-sided job was the equivalent of 4,000 pages. Kinkos charges 49 cents a page for color copying, which is typical of local copy shops and instant printers. To make sure I was getting a first-rate job, I had a local print shop run off a copy of the same brochure on its industrial strength color laser printer and the output was similar.

Even at 21 pages a minute (I timed it), printing that many copies of a two-sided brochure was time consuming. And in addition to using up a lot of toner, I used up nearly a quarter of the drum unit's expected 17,000 page life expectancy (the drum costs $199 to replace).

I don't think most employees or small-business owners would want to bother using a personal laser printer for jobs this large, even if it did save them some money. Brother's Jeff Sandler said personal printers like this are not designed or marketed for jobs this big. Still, everything worked out Okay.

The printer automatically paused to cool off a few times and there were no paper jams or other problems. After passing my stress test, I'm confident it will do well on typical jobs of, say, 300 to 500 pages. And based on my experience with the printer, I decided to buy the duplex version which I plan to use to print smaller (say under 500 copies) runs of the brochure.

I might also let my wife borrow it for her classroom newsletters.

The Brother HL-4040CN retails for $399.99 but I've seen it online for as low as $285. The duplexing and wireless HL-4070CDW retails for $499 but I found it starting at $359.99.

Both come with a black cartridge good for about 2,500 pages and cyan, magenta and yellow cartridges rated for 1,500 pages each. Replacement cartridges at those capacities are about $50 each, though for the lowest cost per page, it's best to buy higher-capacity toner cartridges rated for 5,000 black pages and 4,000 for color pages.