Playing Fast and Loose with Printer Specs

By M. David Stone  |  Posted 2008-03-03

Playing Fast and Loose with Printer Specs

Choosing the right printer is hard enough when you have all the information you need. It gets harder when manufacturers tout printer specifications that don't tell you what you need to know. Here are some specs to be wary of and others you should ask about, even though manufacturers tend to skip them.

Laser Speeds

PPM (pages per minute) speed claims for lasers are close to the actual speed for printing simple text files at reasonably high quality. But for more complex images, such as intricate graphics, a slow printer engine with a fast processor can beat a fast printer engine with a slow processor.

Ink Jet Speeds

If you take the claimed speeds for ink jets seriously, you'd have to conclude that most ink jets are as fast as or faster than most desktop lasers. They aren't. Claimed speeds for ink jets are based on draft modes you wouldn't want to use very often, and even for those draft modes, the claimed speeds are faster than you'll see in real-world use.

Duplexing Speed: A Missing Spec

Most manufacturers conveniently leave out a rated speed for duplexing, because most printers can't print images on both sides of the page without slowing down significantly. If you print in duplex a lot, it's worth finding out the speed for duplexing as well.

Scanning, Faxing and Resolution

Network Scanning

Most MFPs (multi-function printers) can scan over a network, but not all network scanning is equal. Some MFPs will scan to a variety of destinations, including files on individual PCs, but others are limited to sending to an FTP server or sending a scan to a PC only as an e-mail attachment.


For MFPs that list faxing as one of their talents, find out the choices for faxing. They will usually work as stand-alone fax machines, but there are still some MFPs that won't let you fax from a PC over a network, which is a lot quicker and easier than having to print something, and then fax it.

Resolution: Lasers

Resolution in dpi (dots per inch) used to be good guide to output quality for lasers. Today it's all but useless, both because many printers use various resolution enhancement techniques-which manufacturers often refuse to specify-and because more and more manufactures are using ratings like 1200 dpi quality, which doesn't actually tell you anything.

Resolution: Ink Jets

Resolutions for ink jets are even less meaningful than for lasers. Some printers use low resolutions plus enhancement techniques to get the same image quality that others get with high resolutions alone. In many cases, the top resolution, at thousands of dpi, looks good on a spec sheet, but the setting is hidden in an advanced option because it doesn't offer enough improvement in quality to justify how long it takes.

Duty Cycles

Maximum Duty Cycle: What It Means

The maximum monthly duty cycle never meant what most people assume. It is not the maximum number of pages you should print in a typical month; it's the maximum you can print without driving up repair costs. If you hit the maximum every month, you'll typically reach the printer's lifetime maximum in just a few months.

Recommended Monthly Duty Cycle. Not.

Some manufacturers have taken to slipping terms like "recommended maximum duty cycle" into their spec sheets when they really mean maximum duty cycle. Don't take these claims at face value. If the spec sheet says recommended maximum, ask what the maximum duty cycle is and see if you get the same number.

Maximum Duty Cycle: What It's Good for

It would be nice if manufacturers would publish an actual recommended monthly duty cycle along with the maximum. But because they generally don't, the rule of thumb for getting the longest life from your printer is to print no more than about one-third of the maximum duty cycle in any given month.

The Missing Duty Cycle Specs

There are two other duty cycle-related specs it would help to know: the design lifetime in months and in total number of pages. The total pages divided by the total lifetime in months, would be the same as the recommended monthly duty cycle. Manufacturers don't usually provide this information, but they should.

Cost Per Print

Cost Per Page

The printer industry seems to be converging on a standard for determining cost per page, leading to the possibility of finally being able to compare running costs. But we're not there yet. When you compare claimed costs, be sure to check what method the claims are based on, and don't take comparisons based on different methods too seriously.

Mono Cost Per Page

There are at least three common ways to determine cartridge yield for calculating a monochrome cost per page: 5 percent per page coverage; the ISO/IEC 19752 test suite; and the ISO/IEC 24712 test suite. They all give different results.

Color Cost Per Page

There are at least two common ways to determine cartridge yield for calculating a color cost per page: 5 percent coverage with each color and the ISO/IEC 24712 test suite. Again, they give different results.

Is Black a Color?

Some manufacturers leave black out of the calculation for color pages. It should be included, since most color pages (other than photos) use black too.

Cost Per Page or Cost of Toner?

Most laser printers use other consumables besides toner (also known as routine maintenance items)-things like fusers and transfer rollers. The actual total cost per page includes those items too. Without them, the manufacturer is just giving the cost of the toner.

The Five Percent Non-Solution

Cost per page claims based on 5 percent coverage (or 5 percent per color) need to be taken with a large grain of salt even when you compare them to each other. Unlike the ISO/IEC yield testing, there's no standard procedure for determining things like end of life for a cartridge, so results from different manufacturers aren't really comparable.

Memory and Storage

Lots of Memory

The standard and maximum amount of RAM is a common entry in printer spec sheets, but unless you know what it's used for-holding print jobs in a queue, rasterizing additional pages while other pages print, or something else altogether-it doesn't tell you much. More important, it doesn't tell you what you'll gain from adding the maximum amount.

Hard Drives

Hard drives will almost always show up in a spec sheet if a printer includes one, whether as standard or as an option. As with memory, however, drives can be used for any number of different functions. Unless the spec sheet tells you what the printer uses the drive for, it's not telling you anything useful.

Prints from USB Key

Printing files from a USB key is a useful convenience, but it's important to know which file formats the feature works with. Printing JPG files, for example, won't be as useful in most offices as printing PDF files. On the other hand, printing JPGs may be the better choice for businesses that use photos, including, for example, real estate.

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