A little forethought can make your buying choice much easier, writers Drew Turney.
It’s been said the copy/scan/print multifunction market is like the razor blade business, where you buy a razor cheaply but pay an ongoing premium for the blades.
So the first thing to remember in choosing a multifunction device is that the off-the-shelf price is only the beginning. With replacement ink cartridges costing anything between $15-50 depending on the quality, it’s a good idea to calculate your ongoing costs up front.
Work out how much you’ll be printing in both colour (or black only) and quality — anything from plain text to high-resolution photos. Compare the number of copies (yield) you’ll get out of each brand’s ink cartridges for their respective prices and you’ll be better prepared to budget for your needs.
Most multifunction centres connect straight to your PC via a USB cable, and if you’ve ever tried to share a printer over a network of different operating systems you know how tricky it can be. If you have a small office or home network it’s worth looking at models that connect to your router and let you install the software to access them on each system.
A word of warning if you do have multiple PC platforms, however. Be prepared for compatibility issues. With a recent Mac OSX update and Windows Vista still finding its feet, several of our contenders suffered install and operating glitches.
We opted not to look at models with fax options. In the scan-and-email capability of the Internet age, it’s hard to justify the extra cost (anything up to $100). In fact, you might ask yourself why you need to print at all now everything’s digitised. Put simply, the digital content revolution means the desktop printer now relies as much on printing photos from your camera or external device as it does PC documents.
With that in mind, any decent multifunction centre will make photo printing easy. Most brand name models can actually bypass your PC altogether, letting you connect a camera or standard model memory card into a small port array. Doing so will load the card or camera as a removable disk on your desktop, making the multifunction device an erstwhile file server to copy your images.
From there it should be easy to use the display on the multifunction centre to navigate between images and zoom, crop or print them. If you’re planning a lot of memory card printing, make sure you’re happy with the display’s functionality, as you’ll be spending a lot of time on it.
Some models will claim astounding page per minute (ppm) counts, but take them with a large grain of salt. The rate they crow about in advertising is usually the result of printing plain text with no pictures on the lowest quality setting from Windows. Printing from a Mac, using photos or documents with lots of images or printing in colour will reduce the page per minute rate dramatically.
Consumer-level multifunction centres aren’t built to produce reams of prints so it’s unlikely speed will be a big concern to you, but all four contenders produced between 5 and 10 pages per minute of decent quality printing, less so for photos.
Most multifunction centres from brand name vendors should be easy to set up and good instruction seems to be a hallmark of the field. All our models came with detailed, consumer-friendly documentation in hard copy or during the software install. It’s worth asking to see the manuals before you buy, as anything less explanatory is likely to be a lower-quality knock off.
If you intend on getting your photos just the way you want before you print them, some multifunction centres fully cater for your needs. The software of some models contains little more than device drivers, but some will come with programs that help you do everything from CD labels to detailed image manipulation. A very handy add-on to the scan feature in some models is optical character recognition, which can read the text from a scan and import a fully editable version into your word processor.
The copy/print/scan trinity makes most multifunction centre models seem very similar, but options such as printing directly to CDs using a special tray and onboard data capacity to save prints for later output make each one a very different proposition. Before you commit, think carefully about your circumstances and needs.
Finally, take the time to do your bit for the planet and check how convenient each manufacturer makes it to recycle their ink cartridges.
Canon PIXMA MP610
The fastest unit under real-world conditions, the Canon PIXMA offers a full suite of copy controls such as four pages on one and double sided copies. It has a compact, foldaway design that makes it very unobtrusive and has the largest, most user-friendly display. A single button allows you to check ink levels but there’s no image tinkering software. It also inexplicably refused to scan when connected to a Mac.
The RX610 has the best copy and output quality of all four contenders. Hi-res photos come out looking like you just collected your prints from the developer, and the reproduction quality on copies was on top of the list thanks to six separate ink cartridges for higher contrast. CD printing was straightforward but a feature to back up the connected memory card didn’t work.
The only contender that was easily networkable. After a software install on each machine on the network it became the network printer and scanner seamlessly. Where every other model takes paper in the top, the C6280 has a front-loading cassette that holds print and photo paper at the same time. Well-placed controls make it a snap to use and a streamlined profile makes it attractive on your desk.
Wireless connectivity promised great things, but the X4550 came bottom of the list thanks to several problems. There weren’t too many problems getting the wireless connection going with a Windows PC but even after connecting successfully to a Mac via USB cable, it kept inexplicably going offline. A plain black LCD display made it fiddly to operate and every other contender beat it in the colour reproduction stakes.
On the delicate balancing act of post-sales costs, the Epson looks like the best with cheaper cartridges than the similarly priced Canon, but they have a lower yield. In the same way, don’t be fooled by the low price of the Lexmark, which has the most expensive cartridges. The HP’s superior usability and more robust approach is reflected in the higher price, but for the colour in the end result, the Epson RX610 wins out.