A FEW YEARS AGO, if you wanted high-quality color printing, you could expect to pay up to $1,000. Today, for a faction of that expense, you can put some amazing color horsepower on your desktop.
Consider the new Lexmark 2030, which sells for about $200 but produces excellent color and some of the best black-and-white text I've seen from any inkjet printer. Designed for home and school use, it doesn't have the speed or duty cycle that an office environment demands. But it's great for the kids' homework, occasional business correspondence or color presentations. And a bundled CD-ROM full of graphics software will keep the youngsters happily occupied with creative projects.
With its stylishly curved front panel, the 2030 doesn't look much like a printer until you slide the paper into a 100-sheet feeder bin that projects upward from the back of the unit. It does occupy quite a bit of horizontal space -- 18 inches, to be exact. And though it's only 8 inches deep, you'll have to set it well back from the edge of your desktop because there's no tray to catch the paper as it comes out the front. In effect, the desktop is the paper tray. This is one of the more obvious compromises Lexmark made to deliver a machine for under $200 on the street.
Setup was a no-brainer. In fact, the hardest part was getting the printer out of the box. The CD-ROM includes an installation video, but I overlooked it completely and worked with the unit's brief but clearly written setup brochure. I removed a couple of pieces of shipping tape, connected a cable to my printer and plugged the power supply (one of those ungainly transformer boxes) into an outlet. There are no external controls, lights or display panels -- not even an on-off switch. Everything is handled through software -- another cost-cutting measure.
My unit came with a six-foot, bidirectional parallel printer cable, apparently a last-minute addition to the package. If you want to put your printer further away, you'll need a longer cable. Make sure you get one that's bi-directional, because the printer is constantly communicating with your computer and older cables may not work properly.
My test computer was a Hewlett Packard Pavilion with a 133 MHz Pentium processor running Windows 95. When I turned it on, Windows immediately recognized the new printer and prompted me to insert the floppy disk that contains Lexmark's printer drivers.
A few minutes later, the installation program prompted me to install the print cartridges. Unlike many low-end machines, the 2030 uses two cartridges, one for black ink and one for cyan, magenta and yellow. The dual-cartridge design means you don't have to switch cartridges for long black-and-white print jobs. Once the cartridges were installed, the program prompted me to print an alignment test that allowed me to fine-tune the printer's output.
Lexmark's well-organized printer control software gives you a wide variety of options for dealing with different types of documents, paper, print quality, ink usage, halftone adjustments and color balance. But you may not have to use it because the printer driver will analyze your document and make the proper decisions most of the time.
The proof of any printer is in the output, and the 2030, with a maximum resolution of 600 by 300 dots per inch, delivered saturated colors, sharp edges and lifelike photographs without the banding I've seen from many inkjets -- including some pricey machines. In fact, we judged the overall quality to be better than Lexmark's beefier and more expensive 2050 model.
Thanks to a new, waterproof black ink cartridge, text output was superb -- so close to laser quality that it was hard to tell the difference between a page printed by the Lexmark and the same page printed by my trusty old HP LaserJet.
Unfortunately, the 2030 will never win any speed contests, which is one of the trade-offs you'll make to get a low-cost inkjet. The printer is rated at two pages per minute for double-spaced, letter-quality text, and that was pretty much what I got when the printer was actually running. But by default it pauses for 15 to 20 seconds between pages to let the ink on the previous page dry. You can disable this thoughtful feature, but you may get some smudging unless you remove each sheet as it comes out.
For a real test, I created a printer torture page with five different fonts, large headlines in three different colors, two scanned photos and a piece of clip art. The Lexmark took 2 minutes and 50 seconds to finish the job when set to standard business-quality mode, which looked great. When I switched to presentation mode (the highest quality), the page took almost 12 minutes to print, but the output was absolutely stunning.
Like all its brethren, the Lexmark 2030 works best with coated paper designed specially for inkjets, which costs about 12 cents per page. If your kids are working on a project, it's a good idea to use cheap stuff until you're ready to print the final product.
A final word of warning. The cool party invitations, signs, banners, comic strips and other nifty projects your kids will get into can use up a lot of ink. At $35 to $40 apiece, the cartridges are expensive. Lexmark says its color cartridge is rated for 240 pages and its black cartridge for 1,300 pages, but I wouldn't count on anything close to that in real life. Watch what the kids are doing and make sure the printer is set to its ink-saving draft mode until their masterpieces are ready.
For more information, contact Lexmark at (800) 358-5835 or point your Web browser to http: //www.lexmark.com.
Pub Date: 12/29/96