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-- by James E. Powell and Cheryl Dominianni
They're out of the gate and down the track. And while it's far from over, better quality and prices under $300 make the race for the best ink jet printer as spirited as the Kentucky Derby. Two new entries are out in front: Epson's Stylus Color 600 and Hewlett-Packard's DeskJet 694C.
Epson Stylus Color 600
At $299, the new Stylus Color 600 is nothing short of outstanding. Incorporating radically new technology that uses electromechanical pressure to place ink on a page with a consistent dot shape, size and positioning, this printer's eye-popping, low-cost output is visibly better than that of its predecessor, Epson's Stylus 500. It also beats our WinList's Canon BJC-620-and virtually every other printer in its class.
Like its recommended big brother, the Stylus Color 800, the 600 can print photo-realistic color images at up to 1440x720 dots per inch in Photo Quality mode using coated paper. Even on the maximum plain-paper setting (720x720), color palettes hold together well, albeit with a slight cyan tinge, and black text output is superb. The 360x360dpi resolution is fine for everyday business use.
At 6.1 by 16.9 by 9.1 inches, this 11.5-pound charger uses a three-color cartridge and a black cartridge ($25 and $21, respectively). You don't need a special photo ink cartridge, so there's no need to swap cartridges when you want high-quality photo output. Rated cartridge yield for black is 540 pages (5 percent coverage), with color coming in at 300 pages (15 percent coverage). The ink dries instantly and resists fading. A gas-tank gauge in the on-screen display tracks the cartridges' ink level.
Print drivers allow you to control or enhance color and to adjust video/digital camera graphics files; use the Vivid setting to intensify colors and lighten midtones and highlights.
The manufacturer rates print speed at 6 pages per minute black and 4ppm color at 360 dpi. In our tests, after a 10-second wake-up, the Stylus Color 600 printed a text-only document at 2ppm, and mixed text and graphics pages at 1.6ppm, both at 360dpi. A small color graphic printed in 44 seconds at 360dpi-a full-page color print at 1440dpi could take up to 12 minutes. The results are worth it, but Epson's high-end glossy paper is pricey, at $31.99 for 15 sheets. You can also buy 20 sheets of Epson photo-quality glossy paper for $11.
The rear-feed input tray holds 100 pages or 10 envelopes (a lever adjusts for paper thickness), and output is returned at the unit's front in a telescoping tray. The Epson Stylus Color 600 can handle letter, legal, A4, B5, banner and user-definable paper sizes up to 8.5 by 44 inches. Bundled software includes Sierra Print Artist, Adobe PhotoDeluxe and Epson's own Funtastic Fonts.
HP DeskJet 694C
Second in this heat is Hewlett-Packard's DeskJet 694C ($299, including photo cartridge kit), which replaces last year's more costly DeskJet 693C; it's essentially the same printer with different packaging. Handling letter, legal and executive paper sizes (16 to 36 pounds), transparencies, envelopes and index cards, this 7.9-by-17.2-by-16-inch, 11.6-pound unit easily meets the needs of small offices. The input tray can hold 100 sheets, and the output tray, located above it, holds 50.
Wake-up time in our tests averaged 14 seconds. A text-only document printed at 4ppm black, and a small color graphic required 54 seconds, both in EconoFast mode (300dpi). This was slightly slower than the vendor's estimated print speeds of 5ppm for black and 1.7ppm for color. The text results in EconoFast mode are good enough for most applications, but you'll want to use the slower Normal for important documents (a Best mode is also available and is recommended for photographs and important color output). In our testing, we printed a text-only document in Normal mode at slightly better than 2ppm and a mixed text and graphics page at 1ppm. The text was sharp, dark and crisp, and the colors were bright and accurate.
In Normal mode, black text and color both print at 600x300dpi (HP relies on its Photo Resolution Enhancement technology to produce photo-quality results)
Consumables are relatively costly: Black cartridges run $32.95 (650 pages at 5 percent coverage), color cartridges are $34.95 (313 pages at 15 percent coverage), and photo cartridges are $39.95 (360 images measuring 3 by 5 inches). Twenty sheets of HP's Photo Paper cost $11.95.
The DeskJet 694C employs black and color cartridges for everyday use; you swap the black for the photo cartridge to print photos. When using HP Photo Paper and Best mode for printing photographs, you can expect great results, but be prepared to wait several minutes for a print.
The 694C comes with a Getting Started guide and a CD that contains the manual, drivers and bundled software, including HP Photo Project CD collection, Corel Print House, Storm Technology's Easy Photo and PrintPak's Awesome Iron-ons software.
And the winner is ...
For ink jet printers, the meter doesn't stop running when you leave the store. The Epson's consumables and output come in at a lower cost. And you don't need to change its cartridge to obtain photo-quality results-not so with the HP DeskJet 694C. The HP, however, after a slightly longer wake-up time, did print text faster than the Epson. Color print quality for both was close, with a slight blue tinge on the Epson.
The HP DeskJet 694C's cartridge-swap requirement keeps it from earning a berth on our WinList. The quality of its photo-realistic output, however, makes it a contender for home offices and small business. The Epson Stylus Color 600 is superior to the HP and the Canon BJC-620 in both cost and output, and it replaces the latter on our WinList. Covered by a two-year limited warranty and toll-free technical support for the life of the printer, the Epson crosses the finish line with-well-flying colors.
The cartridge yield for the HP DeskJet 694C is higher than for the Epson Stylus Color 600, but the cost per page (cartridge cost divided by yield) is higher as well. This amount does not include paper costs.