Epson WorkForce 600 Review

by Eric Grevstad

Epson's printer/copier/scanner/fax costs a stunning $150 and features an automatic document feeder, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, auto-enhanced photo printing, and it's fast. Seriously. We mean it's fast.

Glossy black or piano black has become a chic color for everything from cell phones to car dashboards -- and now for all-in-one inkjet printers, judging by the handsome Epson WorkForce 600.

The tony black top panel, flatbed scanner lid, and front-mounted memory-card reader offset the unit's matte black case and show off a lavish tilt control panel with plus-sized instead of tiny buttons and a ditto (2.5-inch) color LCD for menu options and photo previews.

The top model in a new Epson small-business and home-office line dubbed WorkForce, the 600 also attracts attention with a $200 price -- currently instant-rebated and retail-discounted to $150. That relatively humble sum lets you check off almost everything on a multifunction printer shopper's shopping list: fax as well as print/copy/scan capability; the above-mentioned flash-card slots and LCD for photo printing; an automatic document feeder to handle multipage copying or faxing jobs.

You'll also find both Ethernet and WiFi as well as USB 2.0 connectivity, so a small office can share or a solo user can switch between desktop and laptop. The only missing item is automatic duplex (double-sided) printing.

And you may not mind that much once you see the Epson in action: While the page-per-minute numbers on the box are exaggerated, the claim about about laser-quality text at twice the speed of competitive models is for the most part accurate. The 600 is one of the fastest inkjets we've tested, with some of the sharpest default-quality or everyday-mode output we've seen.

We were also impressed that Epson sells a black ink cartridge for the WorkForce that's rated for a spectacular 830-odd pages, promising less frequent cartridge-swapping. With the company pricing that cartridge at $28.50 and 300-page cyan, magenta, and yellow cartridges at $12.35 apiece, our calculator forecasts 3.4 cents per black and white and 15.4 cents per color page -- the latter is pretty average, but the former is thriftier than many other inkjets.

(Unfortunately, the starter cartridges supplied in the box don't last as long as advertised; Epson insists they're full instead of half-empty as many evil printer manufacturers' in-box ink and toner cartridges are, but explains that they lose some of their ink during initial setup and priming.)

If it sounds like the WorkForce 600 made a favorable impression on us, it did indeed -- except for one quirk that sharp-eyed owners or their clients might catch. More on that in a minute.

Epson WorkForce 600
Among inkjet all-in-ones, the Epson WorkForce 600 offers the best mix of bargain price and high performance that we've seen.

Basic Black

At 18 pounds, the Epson feels sturdier than many of the bargain-priced all-in-ones that have seen duty on the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk. With its rear-mounted vertical input and front output catch trays extended, it takes about 18 by 22 inches of desk space and stands about a foot high.

Setup involves lifting the scanner unit and reaching into slightly cramped confines to push four business-card-sized cartridges into their slots -- black (twice as thick as the others), magenta, yellow, and cyan -- and closing the latch that holds them in place.

A separate instruction manual speeds network setup; making an 802.11b/g connection requires linking the printer and your PC via Ethernet temporarily before going wireless. We used the USB 2.0 interface for our testing (no, Virginia, there is no USB cable in the box).

Epson provides ABBYY FineReader OCR software for scanning paper documents into editable text (the 2,400-dpi flatbed scanner has its own scan-to-PDF capability), plus ArcSoft Print Creations for making cards, calendars, and the like. The latter is an oddly family- or consumer-oriented choice for this office productivity hub -- we're used to seeing all-in-ones bundled with document management, photo editing, or other more potent applications.

The Epson's roaring paper intake and whipping-back-and-forth printhead were so loud they made us jump when we printed our first few pages in draft or high-speed mode. Thankfully, normal- and best-quality modes and photo printing were quieter, though the WorkForce isn't a printer you'll want to put next to your phone.

PC-Free Productivity

The 600's controls are so straightforward that we found ourselves poking the 2.5-inch LCD as if it were a touch screen once or twice. It isn't (not in this price range, anyway), but a little patience and keeping an eye on the menu prompts that appear at the bottom of the display will let you accomplish just about anything.

It's not unusual -- actually, it's closer to mandatory these days -- to see a multifunction device offer walk-up copying, letting you push a few buttons to specify number of copies (max 99), brightness or density, and zoom or fit-to-page as you would with a standalone photocopier, even if your PC's switched off or not connected to the device.

The Epson can not only do that, but provide PC-free scanning of documents or photo prints to a memory card -- the front-mounted slots handle CF, SD/SDHC, MMC, MS/MS Pro, and xD formats -- or USB flash drive for later transfer to a PC. In a particularly handy trick, the WorkForce can serve as a data backup device, copying photos from your camera's memory card to a USB flash drive or optical drive.

Nor do you need your PC to select JPEG images to print from a memory card, whether by browsing and picking them on the LCD or printing an index or thumbnail sheet on which you mark your chosen images, then run the sheet through the scanner. An Auto Correct feature offers to optimize brightness, contrast, and saturation, while you crop photos via a menu option previewed on the display.

Fax addicts will find everything but a handset, with a speed-dial list of up to 60 numbers, a group-dial list of up to 30 individuals or speed-dial lists, and enough onboard memory to hold 180 faxes.

Lest we forget amongst all these other features, the WorkForce 600 is a printer. Epson's software driver provides a full range of options ranging from N-up and poster printing to watermarks and on-the-fly photo tweaking and red-eye fixing while printing. You'll also find one or two more speed-versus-quality modes than usual: not only Text mode for plain word processing but Text and Image for documents with illustrations or PDFs or PowerPoints, and both Photo and Best Photo modes (select either and a pop-up urges you to use photo paper instead of the plain stuff).

Welcome to the Fast Lane

Epson says the 600 can crank out 38 pages per minute in draft mode, slowing by a relatively small percentage to 27 and 19 ppm for "laser quality" black and color output, respectively. Our real-world tests fell short of those advertised speeds, which didn't surprise us -- it's the immutable law of inkjet printers.

What did surprise us is that we've never seen such a negligible difference in speed or throughput between draft and normal printouts -- nor such a gigantic difference in quality between them.

The Epson's draft-mode output is awful. Sure, it's quick -- it printed our one-page business letter with spot-color company logo in 8 seconds and a five-page, all-text Microsoft Word document in 23 seconds. But it's faint, wobbly, pale, barely readable at 8-point size, with embarrassingly bad graphics.

So what happens when you go one step higher, to what the driver calls Text mode? Well, the 600's output is positively transformed -- not quite laser-like on plain paper, but with dark, well-defined text, perfectly legible at 6 points and readable at 4 points. Graphics were clear, with smooth gradients and only a little trace of banding in most solid-color areas.

But what's really laser-like is its speed. The one-page letter took only one second longer in Text than it did in Draft, while the five-page text file arrived in the exact same 23 seconds and a 20-page version took 1 minute and 32 seconds. The ISO 24712 document used to test printers' ink cartridge yield -- a five-page mix of text, charts, and test patterns -- took 59 seconds. Our colorful 55-page PDF document printed in 8 minutes and 15 seconds, although some of its solid-color graphs suffered from banding.

After those eye-opening results, the next rung on the quality-level ladder -- Text and Image -- was less dazzling. True, its output was slightly darker and crisper on plain paper, but except for the most important client presentations we don't think it's worth the drop in throughput: The business letter took 26 seconds and the ISO document and 55-page PDF more than doubled their wait times, to about two and a half and 20 minutes, respectively.

We couldn't see a lot of difference between Photo and Best Photo mode, either. The latter proved a tiny bit sharper, but both were about as good as four-color (as opposed to artistic six- or more-color) inkjet printing gets, with only slight grainy areas or plasticky flesh tones. Using Photo mode on glossy paper, 8 by 10-inch prints took about a minute and a half and borderless 4 by 6-inch pics about a minute and a quarter apiece. Best Photo mode roughly doubled those times.

Torque Steer?

So what's the one glitch we mentioned earlier? It has to do with paper feeding. While the 30-page automatic document feeder works well, we sometimes had snags with the 600's Lexmark-style vertical input tray at the rear, particularly when we inserted the rated maximum of 100 sheets: Some of the front-most pages slipped an inch or so below the skinny shelf that's supposed to hold paper.

We didn't see the result at first, but on closer inspection printouts showed a small skew -- printed pages were the tiniest bit crooked, with, say, the left margin on one page increasing by an eighth of an inch from top to bottom. It was noticeable on letter-size borderless photos, with tiny blank areas in opposite corners, and on one of the Epson's control-panel extras: printing graph or lined paper for later pen or pencil use.

This may have been a unique fault of our test unit -- we've read several other (lesser -- Ed.) sites' reviews of the 600 but none mention a skew. Careful paper loading prevented it, or at least shrank it to almost imperceptible size, but we're just mentioning it for the record. For that matter, we should mention that registered owners of the Epson enjoy a two- instead of the usual one-year warranty.

One quibble aside, the WorkForce 600 is a winner. Among inkjet all-in-ones, it's the best mix of bargain price and high performance we've seen.

Adapted from Hardwarecentral.com.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Jan 6th 2009
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