Xerox Phaser 8400: It's Crayon-tastic

Wednesday Apr 21st 2004 by Eric Grevstad
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Now that sub-$1,000 color lasers are part of the small-office mainstream, Xerox gives the market a solid punch with the first solid-ink printer in the price range, offering sharp text and glorious, glossy graphics with more speed than most rivals.

Like to stay ahead of the curve and on top of trends? By the time your buddy joined the fad and bought a Hummer, you'd traded yours in on a Prius? Now that LCD monitors have entered the mainstream, you're looking at plasma panels? Good. Xerox would like to show you what comes after the under-$1,000 color laser printer.

Affordable color lasers have multiplied from Minolta-QMS' (now Konica Minolta's) discounted old stock in 2001 through new, slightly more compact, models a year later to today — when every small office and workgroup can enjoy a workhorse, high-volume alternative to inkjet printing, and every vendor offers a color laser priced low enough to tempt even solo, let alone network, users.

Xerox is no exception, having just introduced its own version of Samsung's $699 CLP-500. But Xerox, which acquired the Tektronix printing business in 2000, is a player in the professional-print-shop as well as business-desktop space, and that's the source of its new $999 Phaser 8400 — which uses not laser but solid-ink technology to deliver gorgeous, smooth color at superior speed, plus PostScript compatibility and color-tweaking you can't get from an entry-level color laser. It's something of a compromise — no match for a laser for cranking out lots of black-and-white pages, and not quite up to an inkjet for photo-quality images — but it's a very, very cool one.

Wax On, Wax Off
As a solid-ink (also known as wax-jet or phase-change) printer, the Phaser 8400 works something like an offset printing press, or a cross between an ink-jet and a laser. Its yellow, cyan, magenta, and black ink come not in liquid or powdered (toner) form, but in waxy chunks or small cubes — actually, not cubes but four slightly different, drop-in shapes, carved toddler-toy-fashion to fit into the proper slots underneath the hood of the printer.

Accustomed to conventional ink and toner cartridges, we were slightly unnerved that the Phaser's front-panel LCD and software driver don't offer an ink-remaining gauge (though the former does display a low-ink warning); instead, you simply lift the hood and look. You can top off or add ink anytime — such as before starting a big print job, with no more wondering whether an installed cartridge will go the distance. And compared to the usual rigmarole of throwing away or recycling consumable cartridges and waste tanks, the 8400 is a friend to the environment, with one small, plug-in "maintenance kit" or imaging-drum lubricator to replace every 10,000 pages (the $100 standard kit) or 30,000 pages (an optional $150 kit), plus a waste tray to empty and replace periodically.

According to Xerox, printing some 6,800 pages takes six sticks apiece of the four colors, with a total ink cost of $700 — by our rough calculation, something like 10.8 cents per page, somewhat more costly than most color lasers but thriftier than desktop inkjets.

Inside the printer, the stubby crayons are melted — drawing, speaking of environmental impact, up to 1,500 watts, though Xerox says the printer averages less than a fifth of that — into an ink reservoir. A 1,236-nozzle, 600 by 600 dpi printhead sprays the ink onto a heated, rotating drum, which transfers the image to paper in one pass (versus the four passes of most low-priced color lasers). The ink almost instantly solidifies again on the page, with no inkjet-style seeping or blotting on plain paper, and won't smear if swiped by a damp finger — though it can scratch off if rubbed with a fingernail.

Xerox Phaser 8400 Solid Ink, Color Laser PrinterThe result is output that almost looks damp when it's dry — solid-color areas appear practically painted on, with rich, glossy hues and absolutely none of the banding that plagues inkjets and, to a lesser extent, laser printers. Text is sharp as a tack for anything from 6-point size up.

Photographic images are vivid and colorful, though just a step behind the finest inkjet prints on glossy photo paper — again, smooth colors and skin tones are easy to admire, but Phaser photos aren't quite razor-fine in detail despite what Xerox calls a 2,400 FinePoint or high-res mode. Photos printed in black and white are downright disappointing.

But though you might not want to hang the 8400's images on your wall, you'll get no complaints from anyone who sees them in your advertising flyers or newsletters, and both business correspondence and — especially — reports with charts or graphs will make readers sit up and take notice. If your business depends on presentation handouts, you should do the same: Though not the king of Word or Photoshop, this is by far the finest PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat printer we've ever tested.

4-Speed Transmission, 6-Second Delivery
The $999 base model we tested is officially named the Phaser 8400B; it comes with 128MB of memory, a 500MHz PowerPC processor, Adobe PostScript 3, and parallel and USB 2.0 ports (define). If you're willing to share, the 10/100Mbps Ethernet- and embedded-Web-server-equipped Phaser 8400N is $1,299; a $1,699 model 8400DP offers not only networking but built-in duplex (double-sided) printing and 256MB of memory.

Not only does the printer's 128MB buffer — expandable to 512MB — beat the fixed ceilings of many under-$1,000 color lasers, but it's worth repeating the PowerPC and PostScript part: Even plugged into the poky Pentium III desktop we've used as a printer-test mule for donkey's years, the Phaser sucked up print commands and freed us to work on other applications much more quickly than the entry-level, host- or Windows GDI-based laser printers we've sampled.

It also finished most of our test jobs faster — startlingly so, in the case of our one-page Microsoft Word business letter with a spot-color company logo. The Samsung CLP-500 and HP Color LaserJet 3500 took a couple of ticks under 30 seconds; the Xerox spit out the page in 6, though it slowed to 8 seconds when we switched from Standard to Enhanced quality mode.

The abovementioned are the middle two of four inkjet-printer-style speed and quality combinations selectable in the software driver; when Xerox advertises the Phaser 8400 as printing 24 pages per minute, it's referring to the Fast Color mode suggested for in-house drafts. For everyday printing, Standard and the still nicer Enhanced mode are rated at 18 and 12 ppm respectively; for artistic imaging, the quasi-2,400 dpi High-Resolution/Photo mode slashes speed to 7 ppm.

Go to Page 2: Avoid the Draft >

Avoid the Draft
Of the four, Fast Color mode is certainly legible but definitely drafty, with pale colors and gray instead of black text; it shows off the Phaser engine's speed — 30 seconds for six (white-background) PowerPoint slides, under 5 minutes for our 55-page Acrobat manual — but isn't very practical. It is, however, the only mode in which the solid-ink printer kept pace with its laser rivals when printing our 20-page, just-black-text Word document (1 minute and 34 seconds).

We weren't wild about Standard mode, either, not because its printouts were poor but because it was oddly noisy, causing our test unit to emit two buzzy beeps with every page. In the other modes, the Phaser made a bit too much fan and engine noise to place right next to your desk or phone, but was quiet enough for most office locations and much less annoying than the thunking, clunking four-pass engines of HP's Color LaserJet 1500/2500 cousins.

Quality-wise, Standard-mode pages looked reasonably dark and crisp, if a little thin. To maximize the attention-grabbing glossy or painted-on effect praised above, we did most of our printing in Enhanced or second-best mode, which made everything except large photo images look spectacular — and which, except for our 20-page text file (2 minutes and 32 seconds, about a minute behind recent color laser tests), yielded impressive speed in the bargain.

Six full-page, light- and dark-background PowerPoint slides took 51 and 93 seconds respectively — 50 and 29 seconds, also respectively, less than our previous record-holder, the Samsung, without a trace of banding. The 55-page Acrobat document printed in half the time (7 minutes and 50 seconds) of most four-pass color lasers we've tried, though HP's one-pass Color LaserJet 3500 was just a couple of minutes behind.

Slowing all the way down to Photo mode brings unnoticeable refinement for everyday text and graphics jobs, while still printing our 8 by 10-inch digital-camera shots in a laser-competitive 40 seconds or so — but, as mentioned, without matching the detail of (usually far slower) inkjet images. Switching from cheap copier stock to high-quality plain paper helps a lot, however.

Leave It On and Let It Learn
Like its color-laser competitors, the Phaser 8400 is too big to share your desk with your keyboard and monitor — about 14.5 inches tall, with a footprint of 16.5 by 21 inches — and too heavy for one person to move with ease. We're too buff to let that stop us, though we'll admit that at 60 pounds the Xerox is a bit easier on the biceps than its 70-plus-pound rivals.

A photocopier-style, 525-sheet drawer at the bottom holds letter- through legal-sized paper; you can feed special stock or envelopes (taking advantage of the driver's options for cover sheets or between-job separators, perhaps) via a 100-sheet fold-down front tray. Pages exit face down atop the printer. One or two more 525-sheet drawers ($399 apiece) can be installed beneath the main unit; a top-of-the-line, Ethernet- and duplex-enabled Phaser 8400DX ($2,499) comes with both a second drawer and a 20GB onboard hard disk, able to store print jobs for the driver's proof (just one copy) and password-secure options.

You don't want to move or tilt the 8400 once it's set up, since the melted ink reservoir can spill, and you might notice its snuffed-candle smell when warming up each morning. The printer's power switch is awkwardly recessed behind a plastic panel by the parallel and USB interfaces, but that's intentional — Xerox urges you to leave the Phaser turned on, so its onboard clock can learn over a few weeks' use when it's safe to enter sleep mode and when to anticipate the 9:00 a.m. (or whenever) call to duty.

A front-panel LCD and up, down, back, cancel, OK, and help buttons make it fairly simple to navigate a variety of setup menus and help screens, though the oversized buttons sometimes annoyingly took two pushes to register. As usual, we relied on the software driver for routine quality-mode, N-up printing, and watermark options. Pre-press pros will admire the driver's choice of vivid- or monitor-matching sRGB or four-color commercial, Euroscale, or Specification for Web Offset Printing (SWOP) color palettes; the LCD menu includes both RGB and CMYK palette printouts, though Xerox notes the 8400 doesn't support every Pantone color. The company's printer-detecting software setup and downloadable PCL and notebook-walk-up drivers are a cut above the competition's.

We're great fans of the new, priced-for-small-offices crop of color laser printers, but we're even more impressed with the Phaser 8400. It's not quite the ultimate printer; it performs credibly but not spectacularly in the monochrome-laser and inkjet arenas of jumbo text jobs and color photos, respectively. But its terrific text, glorious color graphics, and environmentally friendly ease of use make it the best office color printer we've seen yet.

< Back to Page 1: Wax On, Wax Off

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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