From fine print to saving a mint

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Today's printers let you choose from a huge range of media to give every job you start a near perfect finish - not just on plain paper and envelopes but also on a whole variety of surfaces from glossy photo and display material to transparencies and T-shirt transfers. The quality just keeps getting better as the purchase prices fall, offering schools better value for money than ever. Similarly, today you can expect your printer to print directly from digital cameras, notebook PCs and personal organisers. They can attach to either the PC's older parallel port or through the emerging standard, Universal Serial Bus (USB), for faster print-outs. It is not uncommon for network printers (eg the HP DeskJet 2250nt) to come with the network card already inside. One aspect hasn't changed though: black-and-white laser printers continue to offer the most cost effective means of printing while "low-cost" colour inkjets are much more costly to run.

Three names continue to dominate: Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard, with companies like Brother finding their own niche markets with budget printers.

Looking for a good all-rounder? Epson has updated its range to include some of the latest Micro Piezo printhead and driver software improvements - as well as introducing some radical new designs. The Stylus Colour 880 (pound;118) is able to print at a staggering 2880dpi (dots per inch), effectively twice the resolution of any previous Epson printers and the highest available in the market - all done without sacrificing speed.

Similarly, the Stylus Colour 880 has a new rounded shape and is available in a "transparent blue" version for the discerning Apple iMac and G3 users. The printer driver is excellent - when printing, a status window appears providing visual information about every aspect of the print job, and colour output matches the best of any inkjet I have seen.

Being fully aware of printer running costs (my college typically spends pound;5,000 per year on inktoner consumables), an inkjet that offers separate ink tanks must be more economical to run. As different colour inks run out the individual tank can be replaced, cutting down on wastage and helping to lower the overall costs. The Canon BJC-6200 USB Colour Bubblejet Printer (pound;109) does just that. It is fast and is capable of producing black copy up to 10 pages per minute (ppm) and 7ppm in colour. The BJC-6200 also has a network option, making it a choice for schools seeking an affordable, networked colour printer. It can also be converted to a desktop scanner with the optional 720dpi x 720dpi, 24-bit colour-scanning cartridge, while for stunning photo quality results there is also a six-ink tank photo cartridge available. It can also handle up to 550 gsm (card) stationery (manual feed). It did not print two standard colour documents as fast as the Epson, nor did it match its tones in "normal colour" mode on plain paper, but it's a well-built printer that should last well.

When installing a network, as many primaries are doing just now, the tendency s to purchase a colour inkjet and a laser printer. However, a good compromise is available in the form of just one printer: the Hewlett-Packard Business Inkjet 2250TN (pound;671). With its built-in Jet Direct network card and second 250-page tray, it offers a real alternative to low-end colour laser printers. HP claims it prints at 15ppm (black printing) and 14ppm (colour), and it was the fastest inkjet by far in my tests. Not only that, in terms of quality, it achieved as good, if not better, quality colour prints in its "normal" print setting as the others did on "best". There is no need for special photo-ink cartridges to get stunning colour prints either - the HP just does it. It is designed to produce up to 10,000 pages per month, and its LCD display is a boon, providing you with information where you need it: at the printer. It utilises large (28ml each colour, 56ml for black) ink cartridges that cost pound;100 for a set of four, but should prove cost effective in the long run. The same printer in its non-network guise is the HP Business Jet 2200 (pound;288). It only lacks the extra paper bin, network card and PostScript printing.

Laser printers have dropped considerably in price and one popular budget laser is Brother's HL-1250 which, at pound;209, has to be a steal. Available in four variations with optional network interface, there's got to be one to suit your printing needs. It delivers up to 1200dpi x 600 dpi print quality at up to 12 ppm and comes with 4Mb standard memory (upgradeable). I liked the printer driver's on-screen interactive Help, Quick Print Set-up, Watermark, Status Monitor function which means you need never turn to the handbook. Although it is quick, the print outs lacked definition and contrast when compared with the HP 2100 (below). Similarly, it is tricky to get labels etc straight in the manual feed aperture, leading to wasted stationery.

The high quality build and impressive 1200dpi x 1200 dpi laser output makes the HP LaserJet 2100 (pound;429.89) series printers an ideal solution for school networks. Not as nippy as the Brother, its 4Mb of memory means it can deliver 10 ppm with no compromise in quality. Two paper trays hold a ream between them and boost productivity.

The HP LaserJet 2100TN version (pound;626) is network-ready right out of the box, with a pre-installed network card and cables. I particularly liked the "semi-automatic" two-sided printing feature which prompts you to flip the printed copy over and place it on the manual feeder for the printer to reprint on the back. This takes much longer, but saves on stationery costs. This printer will be an excellent workhorse on a school network. The HP LaserJet 2100 must rank among the best in its class.

Epson (UK) 0800 220546 Canon: stand Tel: 0500 246 246Hewlett-Packardhttp:welcome.hp.comcountryukengwelcome.htmTel: 01344 0845 60 60 626 Online star rating

Suitability for purpose ***** Ease of use **** Design ***** Value for money ****

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