The same but not identical

Once, photocopiers just copied documents. But today, they can also sort, bind, staple and collate. No doubt someone is developing a machine that also does your marking.

The basic process of photocopying has remained unchanged for the past 40 years. But today's schools face a confusing array of features and technologies. Colour or black and white? Analogue or digital? A stand-alone or integrated machine? A basic model or one that offers all kinds of bells and whistles?

The answer to these questions should depend on two criteria - the type and the amount of copying your school does. If your copier isn't up to the job, it will break down regularly, while buying one capable of an unnecessarily high volume is a waste of money. This is especially true if your school shares the copier with say, a public library or community group.

Some features seem designed for the benefit of the salesman. And it's worth bearing in mind that more than 80 per cent of all copying is simple A4, black and white.

One function worth checking is the speed - often quoted as copies per minute or CPM. But a more useful guide is the time taken to produce the first copy (before the machine runs up to cruising speed).

The sheet capacity of the trays or drawers varies enormously, with some basic copiers offering 100-sheet capacity, compared with more than 5,000 sheets on some high-volume machines.

Many copiers have optional trays or paper bins. If you often copy to various sizes of paper (or use different coloured sheets), a machine with multiple trays is useful because you don't have to keep swapping them. Some copiers automatical ly switch trays when one runs out of paper - handy when you're doing a lot of copying.

Basic photocopiers offer A4 printing, and most machines also offer multiple copying (the amount may be as low as 20 copies or run into thousands) and the ability to reduce or enlarge images as well as manual exposure control. If you plan to use overhead projector transparencies or card, check the machine can cope with them.

Today's photocopiers offer a wide range of sophisticated features, including duplex (copying from, or on to, both sides of paper), edge copying (this ensures that for example, the total on the bottom of a sheet doesn't get left off) and image shift, which moves the copy image across the page, leaving room for a margin or binder.

Other facilities include edge deletion, for removing punch holes or notes scribbled in the margin, and chapterisation, which inserts divider sheets between sections. Some copiers even offer editing facilities that allow you to make alterations to the original sheet (such as deleting various sections or shifting text around). Most editors use an electronic stylus to set out the alterations, although digital copiers use marker pens.

There are features that help you sort or collate documents. An automatic document feed is useful if you need to copy a pile of documents. It feeds the various papers into the copier automatically. Some can hold 50 or more sheets.

A reversing automatic document feeder can copy both sides of an original. It can be used with a sorter to produce multiple sets of documents, such as an annual report.

A recirculating document handler uses an alternative system. Here, the first sheet is copied, then returned to the top or bottom of the pile. It then copies the second sheet and so on, until a complete set of documents has been produced. It then repeats the process to make up the next set.

Sorting and collating features can be useful. But don't forget those that can make life easier, such as automatic paper size selection and auto-exposure. Automatic magnification is handy if you're copying different-sized originals on to a same-sized sheet. Just set the paper size and the copier automatically selects the reduction or expansion ratio.

Photo mode is designed to improve the reproduction quality of photographs. Panasonic's Prima range (prices start from around #163;1,995) includes fuzzy logic software that the manufacturer claims gives better copies. The copiers also include a skyshot mode, which enables copies to be made with the copy cover open - handy when copying difficult or bulky objects.

Double-page separation is useful when copying both pages from a book or magazine, as the pages are copied to separate sheets, saving you the hassle of moving the book.

Another point to bear in mind is security. Some copiers use a key for access, others have security codes or copy authorisation cards. Emos has launched copy control value cards, which allow schools to sell copy units upfront. This makes it easier to allocate departmental budgets. And cards can also be sold to students or members of the public.

More and more copiers are offering colour. But do you really need it? Colour can greatly improve the appearance of a document, but it is also more expensive than black and white. Depending on the technology, the cost of a colour A4 sheet is 10p to #163;1, compared to an average 1p a copy for ordinary machines. And colour can turn out to be an expensive luxury if most of your copies end up in the bin. Danka's Infotec 7212Z colour copier is around #163;9,995. Agfa's XC510C (#163;14,710) is a top-end copier that also offers spot colour.

Integration is the buzzword used to describe machines that combine two or more technologies. The idea isn't new - telephonefaxanswering machines have been around for years - but today's machines use computer or digital technology. For instance, laser printers and photocopiers use similar technologies, so it's fairly easy to design a machine with both functions.

Digital copiers convert the image into a code that can be fed into a computer, edited, manipulated and then sent back to the copier for printing. Danka's Infotec 4201 (#163;4, 500) can be upgraded for faxing, printing and scanning. Canon's GP215 (#163;4, 500) can also be used for faxing and printing. There is also the Ricoh Aficio 200 (#163;4,500) which includes optional printer and fax upgrades.

One of the biggest problems is deciding what type of machine your school needs. If your monthly copy volume is fewer than 8,000 copies, you should consider a desk-top copier. These are fine for low-volume printing and are compact. Sharp's low-volume SF-2120 (#163;3,595) even offers a duplex facility.

Konica's 1212 (#163;2,200) has a paper tray that holds up to 250 sheets. The mid-volume group covers a wide volume range, from 10,000 to 50,000 copies a month. These machines offer more features, particularly on the sorting and image manipulation side, and usually offer lots of optional extras, such as colour, sorters or extra-large sheet feeders.

Ricoh's PA2202 (around #163;3,672), copies A5 to A3-sized documents, has features that can be immobilised, and includes a sloping edge design so books don't have to be pressed flat during copying. Konica's 2125 (#163;3,995) has two 500-sheet paper trays with automatic tray switching. Xerox's 5824 and 5826 (from #163;4,700) can operate up to a maximum monthly average of 50,000 copies. The Toshiba 1550 (#163;2,299) has an automagnification feature.

If you print around 50,000 to 100,000 copies a month, you will need a high volume printer. These workhorses offer high-speed printing (around 80 copies a minute) and sophisticated sorting facilities and will often bind or staple documents. Sharp's SD-2260 (#163;19,995) uses a vacuum paper feeder system that is claimed to be less prone to jamming than a traditional roller system. Canon's NP6085 (#163;29,950) has a 6,100-sheet capacity and offers a host of features. The Toshiba 4450 (#163;8,920) includes duplex, and reversing automatic document feeder.

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