Choosing a small office MFP: Ink jet vs laser

This week I've been shopping for a new printer to replace an old LaserJet 1200 in my home office. Although 99% of what I do is print black and white text, I want a multifunction printer (MFP) so that I can run an occasional scan, make photocopies and print something in color once in a while.

This is a workhorse printer that I will keep for many years, so my most important criteria are operating cost and reliability. It's going to be hard to beat the old LaserJet. The thing ran for a decade with no maintenance at all, and my cost per page was about 2 cents. Aftermarket cartridges brought that down to about $.005 per page. That doesn't include paper, of course.

If you have a budget of about $250, as I do, you can choose from either a high-end MFP ink jet or an entry-level monochrome laser MFP. I didn't consider color lasers because they cost hundreds of dollars more, they are relatively slow, and the cost per page to run them is higher.

So what's the better option for small office MFP on a budget: Laser or ink jet?

Right now I'm comparing two MFP models: The HP LaserJet M1212nf and the OfficeJet 8600 Pro e-All-in-One Printer. Both units fall into the same price range, with the OfficeJet 8600 starting at $199.99 and the LaserJet at $209.99. Both support print, copy, scan and fax functions.

And both are currently stocked at my local Staples. Unfortunately, while you can see the units there and get an idea about how sturdy they are on the outside, the stores aren't always set up to let you print test pages - and that's important.

Cost per page: A surprise winner

Given all of the negative press about high operating costs for ink jets, my initial inclination was to go straight to the tried-and-true laser technology. But that's not necessarily the case when you get into machines designed for small offices.

Computerworld' sister publication, PCWorld, gave the OfficeJet Pro 8600 high ratings for speed and "cheap ink."

How cheap? If you use the "950XL" black cartridge and run the unit in black and white draft mode, the cost per page can be as low as 1.6 cents. The OfficeJet 8600 is too new to find remanufactured cartridges, but aftermarket 940XL cartridges for its predecessor, the 8500, run about $.005 per page. (Bear in mind that all of these numbers are based on the price divided by the manufacturer's estimate of the total number of text pages you might get per cartridge, in draft mode.)

Even more surprising was the fact that the LaserJet Pro M1212nf came in at more than double the cost per page -- 4.1 cents when using an HP cartridge (a remanufactured cartridge brings the cost down to about 2 cents per page).

One caveat here: The cost per page numbers compare "fast draft" mode on the OfficeJet with the high-quality text output you get on a LaserJet. HP does not offer a cost per page estimate for black and white text pages at its best printer setting. Getting the savings assumes you can live with the image quality offered by fast draft mode. But more on that in a minute.

The M1212nf also falls behind the OfficeJet on key features. It does not support wireless printing. While it prints slightly faster (up to 19 ppm black and white vs 18 ppm for the 8600), it has half the memory, a paper tray that holds just 150 sheets to the OfficeJet's 250, and it does not support duplexing -- an important feature if you want to save on paper costs. The LaserJet prints at 1,200 x 1,200 dpi resolution -- exactly the same as my circa 2002 LaserJet 1200. The OfficeJet comes in at 4,800 by 1,200 dpi.

The laser is also less green: It's rated at 375 Watts when printing (4.7 Watts in standby; 2 Watts in low power mode). My ten-year-old LaserJet 1200 did better, consuming 285 Watts (although it sucked up 7 Watts in sleep mode). The 8600 is the clear winner here: It consumes just 28 Watts when operating; 5.81 Watts in standby and 1.95 Watts in sleep mode.

Duty cycles vary

I was also taken aback by the duty cycle for the OfficeJet 8600, which 25,000 pages per month is three times higher than the LaserJet M1212nf, at 8,000 pages per month. However, HP's  "recommended page volume" specs give the advantage to the LaserJet: 250 to 2,000 copies per month versus 250 to 1,250 for the OfficeJet). By comparison, my LaserJet 1200 was rated at 10,000 pages per month.

Frankly, I wasn't sure what to make of this. I print 500 to 1,000 pages per month, so I would assume that either printer would work fine.

I did ask an HP spokesperson about the durability of the two options."Some people prefer the LaserJet in terms of reliability (not duty cycle) because the possibility of page misfeeds or any similar type of error is less on the LaserJet than on the OfficeJet, and the LaserJet [output] holds up better to highlighting, water spills, etc.," she said.

Laser quality?

There is, however, another drawback to the OfficeJet that I didn't see reflected in the reviews: If you're used to strong blacks, the OfficeJet's ink jet technology isn't quite up to par when using standard office copy paper, even on its best quality setting. When I compared output, the blacks just weren't as black as what I got at home on the old LaserJet 1200.

The "fast draft" mode is noticeably lighter, as you would expect, but on the plus side the text is still crisp and easy to read. To get the best quality, however, you need to print using the "plain paper, best" setting, which prints black and white and color, if it's present on the page. Unfortunately, there is no "best quality black and white only" setting.

While I've narrowed my search down to these two HP models, there are many other brands out there, such as the top-rated Epson Workforce 845. See the links below for additional help making your decision.

And the winner is...

As for me, I'm off this weekend to take one last look at these models and find the best deal. By Monday I'll be ready to talk about my decision, but I'll be checking my blog all weekend for your thoughts, advice and comments.

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