Review: Four Low-Cost Laser Printers

Why pay for color you don't need? These four lasers compete with inkjets on initial price and save you money on per-page cost.

Scott Koegler, Contributor

January 27, 2006

10 Min Read

Color is great where it's needed. But does every page you print have (or need) color ink on it? Today's low-priced monochrome laser printers offer quick print times, and better overall text quality, than most inkjet printers.

And while lasers cost more in the beginning, they can save you money over the long run. Inkjet printer prices start below $50, but with an average cartridge price of $30 and a per-page cost of about 10 cents, it doesn't take long to spend a couple of hundred dollars on printing. Inexpensive laser printers start around $75, and supply costs can be as low a couple of pennies a page. Maybe it's time to move your inkjet to the side and use one of these laser printers as your default printer.

I looked at four laser printers that are available for about $100. (List prices ranged from $76 to $180, but rebates and discounts make any printer's price a function of how willing you are to hunt for a bargain.) They all have USB connectors, but no network interfaces (sharing has to be done thorough the PC that the printer is connected to). All of them were easy to set up, though the quality and helpfulness of their installation instructions varied.

All these printers produce excellent text output. Graphic output varies greatly from one printer to another as noted within each review, but as monochrome print devices, graphic output is not their primary purpose. Brother International's HL-2040 is a low-profile printer with the largest paper capacity (250 sheets) of the printers in this roundup. Its paper drawer fits completely inside the unit, which gives it a tidier look than the other three. It prints 20 pages per minute, and produces the first page in about 10 seconds from a cold start.

The HL-2040's setup CD includes an animated setup guide that makes setting up and configuring the printer dead obvious. I installed this printer on a Windows XP system, though it is compatible with Macintosh computers through its USB connection. The printer also includes a parallel port, and an Ethernet port is available on the HL-2040N model at additional cost.

The Brother HL-2040's paper drawer fits completely inside the unit. Click to Enlarge

Loading the toner cartridge/drum unit combination on the HL-2040 is simple and clean. The toner cartridge is rated at 2,500 pages and sells for about $50, while the drum unit should last for about 12,000 pages and sells for $90. Do the math and that works out to 2.8 cents a page.

None of the printers in this group provide automatic duplexing, but each one offers help with manual duplexing by displaying instructions through the print driver on your PC monitor. In the case of the HL-2040, the driver prints the full set of one side, then shows you how to reinsert the stack of pages in the printer for the second pass.

The HL-2040 includes a manual bypass paper feed, which is convenient, since the main paper supply is in a drawer. This manual bypass was not as robust as I would have liked, and skewed the single sheet if I wasn't careful to feed it properly.

The HL-2040 can print up to 1200 DPI resolution, but also supports lower resolutions of 600 and 300 DPI for draft and less critical print jobs. Text output from the HL-2040 is clean and crisp at all resolution settings; at the 300 DPI/draft level the text is, as expected, a bit lighter than at the standard resolutions. The highest resolution setting produced very good monochrome photographic results with good contrast gradations, though there was some horizontal banding apparent in dark regions.

The Dell 1100 laser printer was also easy to set up and install. It has only one connection option, the USB port, and it uses a single cartridge that includes both the toner and drum, which is rated at 2,000 copies and sells for around $50. This puts the price per page at 2.5 cents.

The Dell 1100's simple front flap paper tray accepts a stack of up to 150 sheets. Click to Enlarge

The 1100's paper tray is a simple front flap that accepts a paper stack of up to 150 sheets. While the printer doesn't have a separate manual feed slot, an option in the print driver lets you use the main paper tray as a manual feed — it causes the printer to pause between sheets so that one sheet can be loaded on top of the existing stack.

The first page prints in 10 seconds, which is comparable to the Brother printer. Output speed is slower at 15 pages per minute. (If you tend to print shorter documents, the first page print speed is more important than the per-minute speed, since it has a greater effect on performance.)

The 1100's print resolution is the lowest of the printers in this review at 600 x 600 dpi. Text output was crisp and dense, but monochrome renditions of color output were noticeably grainy, with solid areas showing uneven horizontal banding. HP's LaserJet 1020 was simple to set up, partly because of its animated setup guide, and partly because there is very little set-up to do. Connectivity is through a USB 2 port. The printer uses a combined toner/drum cartridge that, as with the other printers reviewed here, was simple and not messy to install. Cartridges sell for under $70 and are rated at 2,000 pages, which yields the highest per-page cost among these printers at 3.5 cents.

Print speed is 15 pages per minute, which is relatively slow, but its first page printed in 5 seconds, making it the fastest in this roundup.

The LaserJet has both a main paper tray and a bypass feed. Click to Enlarge

The LaserJet 1020 has both a main paper tray and a bypass feed. HP's print driver provides directions for properly feeding the paper, making it simple to use alternate papers, or to make two-sided prints manually.

HP describes the print resolution as 1200dpi "effective resolution," with the physical output at 600x600 dpi. Even so, the quality of the output was equal to the other three printers for text output, and the best by far for graphics. Tonal gradation and contrast were more even, and while there was still some horizontal banding in dark areas, it was less noticeable than in the others. The Konica Minolta PagePro 1350W sports both USB 1.1 and parallel ports. Setup and software installation were simple and quick. The PagePro uses a separate toner and drum assembly, similar to that of the Brother HL-2040. The high-capacity toner cartridge is rated at 6,000 pages and sells for $130. The companion drum unit is rated at 20,000 copies and sells for about $100, putting the per-page cost of consumables at about 2.7 cents.

The Konica Minolta PagePro 1350W makes complicated print jobs simple by printing a sheet of instructions along with the print job. Click to Enlarge

The paper tray can handle up to 150 sheets, and like the Dell 1100, there is no dedicated bypass feed. The printer's driver (available only for Windows) offers the same variety of print formats as the other printers, including multiple pages reduced to fit on a single sheet of paper, poster-size prints created by automatically enlarging the print job to multiple sheets, and manual duplex printing.

The 1350W makes complicated print jobs simple by printing a sheet of instructions along with the print job. Once you are accustomed to making these kinds of jobs you can turn off the instructions page, but that extra sheet of paper can save you from several wasted pages.

The PagePro supports print resolutions up to 1200 DPI. As with the other printers, text output in 600 and 1200 resolution modes was clear and sharp. However, the PagePro showed even more pronounced horizontal banding on dark areas of graphic sections than the other printers. Laser printers have emerged as great choices for second printers in small offices because of their low purchase cost and low per-page cost. If the majority of your printing is black text on white paper, it's time to look at one of these printers as a supplement to your more expensive (per page) color printer.

Any of the printers reviewed here will make a great addition to your desktop, but the HP 1020 leads the pack because of its quick first page print time and superior monochrome graphics output.

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