Test Drive: Canon N1000 Office Color Printer

Tuesday Sep 10th 2002 by SmallBusinessComputing Staff
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This is not your kids' school-project printer: Canon defies today's disposable-inkjet trend with a $900 office or workgroup workhorse that boasts 3,000-page cartridge life and lower operating costs than some lasers. Could it be today's best business printing solution?

This is not your kids' school-project printer: Canon defies today's disposable-inkjet trend with a $900 office or workgroup workhorse that boasts 3,000-page cartridge life and lower operating costs than some lasers. Could it be today's best business printing solution?

There are a lot of good under-$200 or even under-$100 color inkjet printers these days, but then, there are a lot of disposable Bic ballpoints that don't compete with Montblanc or Waterman fountain pens.

For family or home-office use, printing maybe a hundred pages a week at most, a bargain inkjet - one whose paper tray needs refilling every 100 or 150 sheets, or whose ink cartridges run dry after 400 or 500 pages - is a good choice. For a small office or workgroup that needs to produce a few hundred high-quality pages every day, it's like digging a ditch with a teaspoon. Such high-volume work cries out for a color laser printer - but a color laser can easily cost $2,000 or more. Isn't there anything in between?

Cue your Canon USA dealer, and enter the N1000 Office Color Printer - a business inkjet priced at $759 with parallel and USB ports, or $909 with a 10/100Mbps Ethernet adapter for network sharing.

That's awfully close to the cheapest color lasers, such as Minolta-QMS' Magicolor 2200 (currently rebate-priced at $799). But Canon retorts that the N1000 is faster, especially for jobs with mostly black text but just a touch of color such as a letterhead logo - the Magicolor's rated speed falls from 20 pages per minute for black to just 5 ppm for color, while the Canon advertises 20 ppm for black and as many as 18 ppm for color.

It's also less than one-third the bulk of the 104-pound Magicolor, but you can still tell at a glance the N1000 is a blocky breadbox that makes consumer printers look like Pez dispensers - an 18-inch-square, 8-inch-high ottoman with a front-and-center, pull-out paper drawer that holds 250 letter- or A4-sized sheets. The copier-style cassette is a pleasure to use, with sure, straight feeding unmatched by vertical-slot desktop inkjets'.

Really busy offices can stack one or two additional 250-sheet cassettes ($148 each) beneath the printer, though the face-up catch tray-- clipped to the top of the paper cassette, yielding a tight U-shaped paper path - doesn't hold a ton of output. Legal paper can be fed manually in small doses, though the N1000 is all but unusable for printing envelopes; if you really need up to 13 by 19-inch media, Canon offers the larger N2000 for $899.

The top of the printer offers a control panel with LCD menu at left and a latched door covering the four ink cartridges (black, cyan, magenta, and yellow) at the right. The seven-button panel and LCD let you specify media size and type, which interface is active, and other printer options, but navigation was a bit confusing even after we applied the English one of the 13 supplied decals to label the buttons; after initial setup we relied on the onscreen printer driver software and only had to push the power and online buttons occasionally, though we enjoyed reading the current print job's filename on the LCD.

Setup (we used the USB interface with our Windows 2000 desktop) is straightforward; a supplied CD-ROM installs both Canon's GARO (Graphics Arts Language with Raster Operations) printer driver and, if you like, NetSpot network printer management software.

A supplied brochure walks you through the hardware setup steps; we smiled to see that, once we'd snapped in the N1000's jumbo printhead, the ink cartridge door popped open as if eager for the next step. The printer balked at our first test-page try, but pressing the offline and reset buttons put things in sync, including the two-way communication for the software driver to report on ink levels.

The driver (for Windows 95, 98, Me, NT, 2000, and XP) is content to hide behind applications' Printer Properties dialog box instead of installing its own menu or system-tray icon; it offers pull-down menus for choosing draft, normal, or high-quality printing on plain, coated ("high resolution"), glossy, or transparency stock, as well as a few options for two-per-page or reverse-order printing, optimizing photo prints, or adding watermarks ("Confidential," "Preliminary," or whatever) behind text.

While that's nowhere near as flashy as the talking pop-ups of some consumer inkjet drivers, setting up and using the Canon gives you a feeling of respect for serious equipment. The printhead - rated, like the printer overall, for a duty cycle of 7,500 pages per month - is a big, beefy component.

And compared to the thimble-sized ink cartridges of many desktop inkjets', the N1000 uses 55-gallon drums - well, OK, that's an exaggeration, but the HP DeskJet 5550 we tested last week has a single tricolor cartridge that holds 17ml of ink, while the Canon's tanks hold 80ml apiece of cyan, magenta, and yellow ($41 each) and 130ml of black ink ($38).

Instead of a few hundred pages, Canon rates the black cartridge for a whopping 2,820 pages of normal text output and the color cartridges for 3,470 pages (at, we must note, a skimpy 5-percent coverage figure). That translates, the company says, to a cost per page of 1.3 cents for monochrome and 4.9 cents for color - a fraction that of light-duty inkjets', competitive with or even lower than color lasers'. And though it's a four-color general-purpose instead of six-color photo printer, the N1000's maximum color resolution of 2,400 by 1,200 dpi (black resolution is 1,200 by 600) and 4-picoliter droplet size is a match for mainstream inkjets and sharper than many lasers.

Who Needs a Laser?
In stopwatch tests, the Canon is the fastest inkjet printer we've timed: Its big printhead starts a job with the same back-and-forth whir you've heard from dozens of inkjets (though the Canon's a bit louder than most and also has an audible cooling fan), but stops and ejects a page after fewer whirs or passes than you'd think would do the job. The combination of draft mode and plain (copier) paper, however, yields definitely drafty, slightly faint and fuzzy output - 38 seconds for five pages using various word processing fonts, 51 seconds for a six-page Adobe Acrobat PDF mixing text and graphics.

We expect an office printer to do most of its work on plain paper, so we kept the cheap stuff in the cassette and switched the N1000 to standard-quality mode. Our five-page Word document printed in a swift 44 seconds and looked surprisingly nice, not quite as dark or crisp as laser pages but sharp even for 6-point text; 20 pages took two and a quarter minutes. Best mode on plain paper slowed the five and 20 pages to 1 minute 50 seconds and 7 minutes 5 seconds respectively, but looked terrific.

To test Canon's laser-beating boast for spot color, we created a one-page letter with a small color graphic and company name at the top. A standard-mode printout took 21 seconds, but 20 copies took barely longer than the same number of text-only pages - 2 minutes and 17 seconds - and looked perfectly mailable.

If you do opt for coated inkjet paper, you'll be rewarded with first-class quality at lower speeds - in normal mode, our business letter printed in 47 seconds, five pages of text in three and a half minutes, and the six-page PDF in just under five minutes. (Oddly, the N1000 flunked our PDF test using normal mode and plain paper, truncating or skipping part of the last line of the next-to-last page; that hasn't happened when we've used the same file with other printers, and didn't happen with other combinations of mode and media here.)

Opting for best-quality mode on coated paper slowed our one-page letter to 1 minute 20 seconds and the six-page Acrobat document to 9 minutes 3 seconds, but that's still much faster than high-end consumer inkjets like the DeskJet 5550 or Lexmark Z65, and the PDF file looked razor-sharp and free of banding or color artifacts. Similarly, though we've already noted that the N1000 is at best an occasional photo printer - in fact, using photo paper obliges you to use manual feed instead of the cassette - a 7.5 by 10-inch digital-camera image looked fair on plain paper (33 seconds) and pretty much as good as any four-color inkjet's in best mode on glossy paper (1 minute 40 seconds).

All in all, the Canon N1000 may be a niche product - for very-high-volume or heavy-duty home-office workers, or for company workgroups whose budget doesn't permit a color laser - but it's a highly impressive one, an inkjet whose speed and quality both catch the coattails of more costly laser printers. Small businesses shouldn't overlook it.

Pros: Fast, networkable, pretty near laser quality on plain paper; solid construction, with big, long-lasting ink cartridges.

Cons: With $99 printers in every superstore, spending $900 for an inkjet is a psychological hurdle nowadays.

Reprinted from www.hardwarecentral.com.

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