Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 1:04 PM EST
The paperless office is a pipe dream. Most of us still need to print, copy, scan, and fax, which is why I'm a big fan of all-in-one (a.k.a. multifunction, or MFP) devices that can tackle all four jobs. Why clutter up the office with extra hardware?
In my experience, most MFPs aspire to be jacks of all trades, but end up masters of only some (and occasionally none). Not so the Epson WorkForce 840: it's good at everything, and then some. Plus, it's ridiculously affordable.
The first thing you'll notice about the WorkForce is its mammoth 7.8-inch touchscreen control panel, which embeds a 3.5-inch color LCD in the center for navigating menus, previewing photos, and the like. It's really cool, and intuitive enough that even novice users should be able to skip the manual.
You can connect the printer to one PC via USB, or your entire network via Ethernet or 802.11n Wi-Fi. Either way, you'll need to install Epson's driver and utility software on each computer that uses the WorkForce, and while setup is a bit time-consuming (plan on about 10 minutes per PC), it's mostly painless.
The 840 comes with some impressive hardware, including dual 250-sheet paper trays, a 30-page automatic document feeder, and an automatic duplexer for easy double-sided printing. (Amazingly, even the ADF can scan double-sided pages.) You can theoretically cut your paper costs in half by printing double-sided pages.
You can find the rest of the printer's specs on Epson's product page. In the meantime, I'll answer the big question: how well does it print? At the risk of gushing, I was blown away by its ability to produce dark, sharp text on plain paper. Graphics and photos exhibited a touch of graininess, but not to the overall detriment of printed materials. (Swap in better-quality paper if you want smoother, more vibrant color.)
My sole complaint is that I had to use Epson's software to scan documents; I couldn't just walk up to the printer and push a button. I had to walk up, feed my pages into the ADF, then go back to the PC and run the software. Update: This is not the case. You can indeed scan to a PC without first activating the scanning software.
Ultimately, I think the Epson WorkForce 840 is probably the best small-office MFP on the market today. It's certainly one of the most inexpensive: Epson lists it for $299.99, but it's currently selling for just $179.99 on Epson's Web site (and elsewhere). For my money, that's too good a deal to pass up.
Update: Epson's price is now $199.99, but if you shop around online, you might still be able to find it for less.
Pros: Low price. Fast, quiet operation. Big, responsive touchscreen interface. Built-in duplexers for printing and scanning. 500-sheet paper capacity. Works with wired and wireless networks. Compatible with Windows and Mac.
Cons: Big footprint. Graphics and photos look a bit grainy on plain paper.
Should You Buy It? Absolutely. The double-sided printing alone is a huge selling point. If there's another MFP that offers more bang for the buck, I haven't found it.
Price: $299.99 (but much less online)
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