Editor's note: We've updated this printer's grayscale speed scores to reflect improvements from a second round of testing. Our original tests erroneously used PostScript page description language instead of PCL. (1/19/05)
The Dell 3100cn tips the scales at 72 pounds but dazzles the eye with great output, and its zippy grayscale speeds tower over the competition. This color-laser contender does a great all-around job at printing; its color graphics are exceptional, with the photographic clarity you'd expect from an inkjet, without the smeared edges that can plague fresh inkjet prints. As for black text, the staple of laser printing, the clarity of the Dell 3100cn's output ranks among the best, including that of the and the . Plus, at $549 (as of November 2004), the Dell 3100cn is a reasonable buy for a networked printer, and the printing cost per page is also modest: each text page runs 1.5 cents, with color graphics at 9.9 cents. So, what's the drawback? This printer demands a hunk of desk space, and it plods along at 4.2 pages per minute (ppm) when using color. Still, its 22ppm grayscale text speed suggests that this Dell can compete in a heavy text-printing environment, especially in a workgroup. The boxy gray tower of the Dell 3100cn color laser printer might overshadow other equipment in your work area. You might want to give this 21-inch-high machine its own desk to handle its hefty 72 pounds, even though it takes up only a 16-inch-square footprint. This printer includes a beefy 400-sheet paper tray and four 4,000-page toner drums but features only three front-mounted buttons below its blue-light LCD screen: menu and cancel buttons and a select button surrounded with four-way arrow keys. This turns any adjustment you need to make into a menu-driven ordeal, such as the six-step process of changing the paper-input size settings.
The Dell 3100cn features a toner carousel, which rotates the single black and three color cartridges, one at a time, to the front of the machine for replacement. This design forces you to consult the LCD to move colors one by one to the front, so you can't manually pop cartridges in and out of the machine as easily as you can with the. Flipping open the toner compartment before it loads is tricky; we suffered more than one spill. If you don't mind dealing with the moving parts inherent in the carousel design, the Dell 3100cn might work for you; otherwise, you should consider a machine with more straightforward cartridge changes, such as the Oki C5200n color LED printer.
This printer comes with three ports: USB 2.0, parallel, and Cat-5 for network printing. As usual, cables aren't included, though Dell sells them for around $20 a pop. The Dell 3100cn supports three page-description languages: PCL6, PCL5e, and PostScript 3, and it comes with 81 fonts and Symbol Sets, 35 PCL fonts, and 136 PostScript fonts. This allows for compatibility with multiple fonts, high-end graphics, and publishing software.
We reviewed the 3100cn model using Windows XP, with the $229, additional 500-sheet paper tray. You can also add a $300 duplexer that enables two-sided printing; with this unit, the driver software allows you to create n-up booklets that shrink several documents to fit onto one sheet of paper. The $849 total for the printer plus the duplexer is reasonable, but add the 500-sheet feeder, and you'll creep up into the price stratosphere.The Dell 3100cn is a versatile printer with loads of connectivity options and support for Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. This printer ships with a standard 64MB of RAM, enough to support a workgroup of about 10 people.
The printer driver software we tested under Windows was capable enough, though it's nothing to write home about. Once you install driver software for the Dell 3100cn, an always-on status monitor warns you of low toner levels, paper jams, and paper outages. The Now Printing window tracks the toner levels in each of the four colors and links to an ad for purchasing new supplies; this pitch can wear on you after a while. The status monitor is rudimentary, offering only basic messages, such as Now Printing and Paper Jam, without true troubleshooting tools. A program inserted into your Windows Start menu during installation enables you to buy supplies via the Web using your printer's serial number.
In addition to covering the usual bases such as paper size, type, and orientation, the driver software provides some fancy options. You can change the brightness, the contrast, and the color values of documents; add custom or preset watermarks; and print 2x2, 3x3, and 4x4 poster prints with crop marks. Irritating, though, is an omnipresent booklet-printing option that returns an error message unless you have installed Dell's $300 duplexing unit.We were impressed by the Dell 3100cn's print quality. Black text was crisp and legible even at the smallest font sizes. Grayscale graphics showed even gradients and fine, sharp details. Color text was decent but became blurry in some torture-test formats, such as bold maroon and dark green letters. For a laser printer, the color graphics and even the photographs were exceptional, with great color matching and smooth gradients. At first glance, we assumed the Dell 3100cn's test photo prints came from a color inkjet. You should still rely on a photo-grade printer to produce snapshots and portraits, but the Dell 3100cn beats any inkjet if you need to mix text and graphics.