It's happening now with monochrome laser printers once a home-office or small-office worker realizes he or she needs more, faster, and cheaper printing of text documents than a desktop inkjet can provide, the first impulse is to shop for a $199 bargain laser like HP's LaserJet 1000 or Brother's HL-1440.
But just one or two rungs up the price ladder lurk a new class of compact printers with the speed and stamina once found only in four-figure-priced corporate printers. Last month, we tested HP's $399 LaserJet 1300, and now Lexmark's E323 offers the same 20-pages-per-minute performance for the same price.
Or less, since the E323 is the middle of three versions of Lexmark's new 20-ppm monochrome laser. Budget shoppers can check out the $299 model E321, which comes with 8MB of onboard memory and a 100MHz processor; its rated duty cycle is 10,000 pages per month (matching the LaserJet 1300's).
The $399 Lexmark E323 carries 16MB of memory (expandable to 144MB), a 200MHz processor, and a 15,000-page monthly duty cycle. And our test unit, the E323n, adds you guessed it network capability, offering one USB and one 10/100Mbps Ethernet port versus its siblings' USB and parallel interfaces.
All deliver 600 by 600 dpi printing (with what Lexmark calls "1,200 Image Quality" or resolution enhancement for graphics) in a desktop-friendly, 15.5 by 14.5-inch footprint, kept compact by an inkjet-style vertical input tray instead of a photocopier-style paper drawer. The tray holds up to 150 sheets of letter- or legal-sized paper, which performs a U-turn in the printer to a 100-sheet vertical output slot (face down or away from you, so Page 1 is on top when you remove a stack).
If you don't want to refill the E323 that often, a 250-sheet drawer that fits beneath the printer boosting paper capacity to 400 sheets is a $155 option. Envelopes or special stock can be fed singly via a separate slot located just ahead of the main input tray, exiting face up if you open the unit's fold-down front door.
Black Is Always in Fashion
The Lexmark is simple to use. Aside from the power switch at the left rear, the only controls are job-cancel and continue buttons below a handful of helpful LEDs (including Toner Low, Load Paper, and Paper Jam) at the top right. The toner cartridge snaps into place easily actually, it's in place when you open the box, though you need to remove it to dispose of some packing material and then insert it again.
While the stripped-down E321 ships with a 1,500-page starter cartridge, the E323 or E323n comes with a regular 3,000-page toner cartridge. Replacements are $109 each, or $89 if you agree to Lexmark's return-your-empties-and-swear-you'll-never-touch-cheaper-third-party-cartridges program; double-capacity, 6,000-page cartridges cost $156 or $136 on the same terms.
Those four choices yield costs per page ranging from 3.6 to 2.3 cents, the former higher than and the latter about equal to the lowest obtainable from the LaserJet 1300 we tested a month ago. Both lasers, of course, work just fine with cheap copier paper instead the pricey coated stock that inkjets prefer.
You can save on paper by taking advantage of Lexmark's PCL 6/PostScript 3 emulation driver's ample choice of N-up or handout printing options; squander it with 4-, 9-, or 16-sheet poster printing; or personalize your pages with overlay graphics as well as the usual watermark text (such as "Confidential" or "Draft").
Benchmark collectors have read patiently this far, waiting to learn how the E323's performance compares to the LaserJet 1300's given their matching 20-ppm rated speeds and $399 solo/$599 network model prices. The answer is that the Lexmark is trivially faster for text jobs two or three seconds faster to print our one-page business letter with a small company logo (11 seconds), a whopping one second faster for 20 pages of straight Microsoft Word text (1 minute and 12 seconds).
The E323 is noticeably faster for jobs with more charts and graphic images, but despite the "1,200 Image Quality" setting, which delivers a small yet visible improvement with virtually no performance penalty over the driver's plain 600 dpi option Lexmark's 600 by 600 dpi engine is noticeably no match for the 1,200 by 1,200 dpi LaserJet.
Our 55-page Adobe Acrobat PDF document printed in a speedy 3 minutes and 8 seconds, while the HP took four to seven minutes depending on quality setting, but solid colors showed plenty of banding. So did our 8 by 10-inch digital-camera photo printouts, though they were impressively quick (averaging 22 seconds apiece).
But let's face it, people don't buy monochrome laser printers to put pictures on the wall. They buy them to crank out high volumes of extra-sharp, smudge-free text (perhaps with occasional newsletter illustrations or presentation handouts), and in that job, the Lexmark excels. Its 150-sheet input tray holds 50 sheets less than the HP 1300's, but its 250-sheet optional second drawer costs less; its desktop footprint is a couple of inches smaller; and its monthly duty cycle is 50 percent greater. If you need a Clydesdale-class workhorse in a Shetland-pony package, the E323 deserves your attention.
Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.