FORTUNE Small Business

Canon vs. Lexmark printer showdown

Budget multifunction printers can also fax, scan, and copy. But how well?

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The Canon Pixma: This compact inkjet is ideal for a small office.
lexmark_x500n.jpg
Lexmark X500n: Lexmark's sturdy laser printer is cheaper to operate than its inkjet rival.
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CLEVELAND (Fortune Small Business) -- At work I have little need for budget desktop printers. We use high-end, high-resolution machines to proof photography and illustrations at Nesnadny & Schwartz, my graphic design studio in Cleveland. But I also keep an office at home, where my two middle-school daughters use my printer for assignments as liberally as Jackson Pollock used paint.

When it comes to the home office, I need a color printer that delivers maximum-quality output for a minimal price. It doesn't hurt if the machine can also scan, copy, and fax. But should you choose an all-in-one inkjet printer and shell out for the pricey ink cartridges? Or plump for an all-in-one laser printer, which has lower operating costs but less vibrant colors? I tested one bestselling sub-$500 printer in each category.

The Canon (CAJ) Pixma MX7600 ($399) is an all-in-one inkjet printer. I liked its sleek design and relatively small footprint. The assembly and operating instructions were relatively clear.

Unlike most modern printers, the Pixma's print head must be connected as an extra step. That's a minor hassle, but it's nice that the print head can be replaced easily if a problem arises. There are six ink cartridges, which cost $15 apiece to replace. I didn't run out of them in my test, but if you're printing lots of photos, beware.

This unit's plastic chassis seemed less than solid, and the hinge for changing ink cartridges was downright flimsy. But I found the menus easy to understand and operate.

Print quality was excellent on coated inkjet paper, with sharp type and colorful images. The quality deteriorated sharply when I switched to plain paper stock. Canon claims that the Pixma erases the difference between inkjet and plain stock by first coating plain sheets with a layer of clear ink (from an $18 cartridge). But I still noticed a difference.

The Canon printed fairly quickly for a budget machine. A black-and-white page ambled to the finish line in 18 seconds, while a color page took 30 seconds using the high-quality setting. Photocopy quality was good, with excellent color matching. The scanner, with 600-by-600 dots per inch, worked pretty well for this price point. You can scan directly on the glass - or through the document feeder, if you want to scan both sides. I also liked the slot that allowed me to print photos directly from the memory card in my digital camera.

The Lexmark (LXK, Fortune 500) X500n ($499) is an all-in-one laser printer. The unit is large but sturdy. Lexmark's image-only instructions were easier to follow than Canon's, but I still had to download a manual on Lexmark's website. The machine uses four toner cartridges, each of which costs $100 to replace, but they should last years - far longer than ink cartridges. Print quality was good, with the exception of solid colors, which came out a bit grainy and inconsistent.

Laser printers are supposed to have the advantage of speed, but I found that the Lexmark was slower to print a single page than its inkjet rival. A black-and-white page clocked in at 20 seconds, and a color page took 40 seconds in photo-quality mode. At least I was able to print on regular copier paper. Photocopy quality was fair, with a less-than-perfect color match to the original. Unfortunately, the scanning function didn't work with my Mac, whereas the Canon scanner did. (Lexmark says this can be fixed via a clunky workaround that involves having a PC and sharing the scanner with your Mac over a network.)

Bottom line? Bring on the Canon. Cartridge prices notwithstanding, this inkjet workhorse is a great option for small businesses that don't need to produce fancy graphics. It should also suit anyone with a home office - and print-happy children.  To top of page

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