If you've been looking for a new printer or fax machine, you may want to consider an all-in-one device that combines printer, scanner, fax and copy machine into a single unit. Called multifunction printers (MFP), they take up less room and are less expensive than buying separates.
The manufacturers are aggressively pricing these MFPs because with their copier capability they use much more ink than a plain printer. (And while we can't blame them for the junk fax epidemic, they benefit from that, as well.) Each device can print and fax from the computer, scan information into the computer, and fax and copy even with the computer turned off. They all have an automatic document feeder and a glass platen for scanning and copying pages of a book.
I found these products to be generally competent but not exceptional in any area. They use older generation print engines and entry-level scanners. Nevertheless they provide a good value for something that does so much.
The products are bulky, about the size of a copier. The Lexmark and HP are about 20" x 20" x 12", the Canon about 10 percent smaller. They connect to the computer using the USB port. Too bad they don't provide the needed USB cable.
Installation of the software was simple for the Canon and Lexmark, but a real pain for the HP. After a very long installation process and successfully printing a test page, it failed to print further. A one-hour phone call with HP technical support was needed to correct the problem. It required reinstallation of the software with some added steps that weren't included in the user manual.
The Lexmark software was the best of all. It had a clear and simple interface and displayed its own print status bar with a cancel button at the lower right of the screen, rather than relying on the buried Windows print status menu.
Unfortunately, the Lexmark hardware performance fell way behind the software, with printing speeds so slow you have time to take a coffee break. The print quality of black and white text pages was just fair, with the print a dark brownish-gray instead of dark black.
In my speed tests I printed high-resolution color images, Word and Excel files, and a color Yahoo home page. Canon printed high-resolution color pages about twice as fast as the HP, and about five times faster than the Lexmark. But the Lexmark image was more vivid than either the HP or Canon's, which were similar in quality.
However, HP and Canon printed higher-quality black and white text up to 10 times faster than the Lexmark. A one-page Word document took 20 seconds on the HP, 25 seconds on the Canon and 3 1/2 minutes on the Lexmark.
Paper feeding was best on the Canon in the limiting testing. The HP misfed a sheet of glossy photo paper when it was in the tray next to plain paper, and on a couple of occasions paper fed into the Lexmark document feeder became skewed and jammed.
HP has the best quick-dialing capability for one-touch faxing. You type in your frequent names and fax numbers on your computer and it transfers the data into the machine. The others require you to enter data using the tiny display and multifunction keys, much like on a cell phone. The scanning, copying and faxing functions on these devices all worked well.
The Canon has flash-memory slots for camera memory cards. (It's available on the HP in the 7130 model at $499). Images can be printed directly from the cards, bypassing the computer. The slots can also be used to transfer images to your computer. Printing costs are the highest on the Lexmark, Canon is the lowest, with HP slightly more than Canon.
So does it make sense to purchase a MFP? If you want the best photo quality prints, stick to an individual printer. Photo printers are constantly improving and you can find superb units for less than $200. If you're satisfied with a good (but not the latest) printer, want to conserve space and need a copy machine, scanner and fax, then consider an MFP. While my problems with the HP software and hardware could have been an isolated case, even without the problems I would opt for the Canon, which is $100 cheaper, smaller and has the flash memory card slots. I can't recommend the Lexmark because its printing speeds were so slow.
Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.