The HP Color LaserJet 3550 is compact and a cinch to use, but it's barely affordable at $800. Compared to the it replaces, this updated model prints a bit faster across the board, and on color graphics speed, it surpasses competitors such as the and the . But where speed really counts--on churning out plain text--the other printers beat the HP 3550 to a pulp, making it a weak contender for general-purpose office use. And that's a double shame, because this HP prints beautiful text but drops the ball on color graphics. As a result, we have a hard time recommending this printer to anyone in particular. A small office that needs a desktop color laser should shop instead for the budget or for the blazingly fast, strictly business Dell 3100cn. This printer's single-pass engine, which moves pages through the device only once to pick up all four colors, distinguishes the HP Color LaserJet 3550 from its rivals. It also explains why the 3550 prints color almost as fast as black and white--although not why it's slow overall. The vertical engine accounts for the 3550's tall 18.5 inches, though the machine takes up a space only 17 inches deep by 19.5 inches wide on your desk. Weighing 70 pounds, the printer is hard to lift even for two people, despite the two built-in handles.
The 3550 features some friendly design elements, such as an easy-to-reach side power switch near the front. The paper-size guide inside the 250-sheet main tray moves smoothly and provides arrows to help you fit pages of different sizes. However, the 100-sheet auxiliary tray's lip is so shallow that it escaped our grasp as we tried to open it. And since the 3550 uses the same shell as another printer model, the 3700, you'll notice several mysterious doors and flaps that lead nowhere. One sweet feature: when you open the 3550's front wall, a rack holding the toner tilts out so that you can easily change cartridges and extract paper jams. The HP Color LaserJet 3550 is a basic machine that comes with 350 sheets of total paper capacity--not so generous if you're using it at work. The only add-on available is a 500-sheet paper feeder for $300. HP sells no two-sided printing option; its 64MB of memory is also the maximum, and since you can't add networking to the 3550, you'd have to buy the 3550n, which comes with an external print server, if you want to deploy this model in a workgroup. The downside to this setup? The 3550 itself is a dead end, and the 3550n with a print server costs an extra $200. You can find a better color laser deal elsewhere, such as the low-cost but nonnetworkable.
The 3550 lacks its own processor, because HP's host-based design uses your PC to grind most of the data. This doesn't affect functionality, but it deserves some blame for the mediocre speeds.
The control-panel menus are generally easy to use, thanks to good prompts and buttons to match the menus--though we wish that for $800, HP would light up the LCD for easier reading. The drivers limit watermarks to a few colors and lack common features, such as blowing up a page into a poster or adjusting color densities individually. But don't get the impression that the 3550 is bereft of useful capabilities. Although you can't make two-sided prints hands-free, you can, for example, duplex manually, a function many printers exclude to nudge you into buying duplexing hardware. The 3550 makes it easy to print report covers and dividers by drawing different pages from different trays. And a simple test through the onboard control panel helps you to pinpoint the cause of some color-quality problems. This printer offers a status monitor that keeps an eye on toner and paper levels.
The USB installation is simple: You insert the CD, the installer asks you a few questions, then it churns away until a prompt tells you to plug in the cable, which HP graciously provides.
HP includes full-size cartridges with the 3550, unlike many rivals that ship with almost-empty cartridges to replace soon after unpacking the new toy. Toner prices run high, however, at about 2.2 cents per page of black and 12 cents per color page, based on vendor estimates. For comparison,Speed uses about 1.7 cents for black and 9.2 cents for color, and the about 1.1 cents for black and 8.3 cents for color. The 3550's other replaceables tack on only an extra 0.2 cents per page.
In CNET Labs' tests, the HP Color LaserJet was slow to print in grayscale, yet peppier for color. It fell behind most of its rivals; the biggest gap was its text speed of 9.6 pages per minute (ppm). That's a whopping 12.28ppm slower than the cheaper , and it's a figure that would've been considered slow even several years ago. The cheap beat the 3550 by 4.59ppm in the same category. Still, this HP ran faster than most for color printing, since its single-pass design doesn't run a sheet through the machine one time per each of the four colors.
The HP Color LaserJet 3550 operates quietly, a home-office plus. But this machine gets mixed marks for print quality. It did a great job creating clean and balanced black letters without hatching or choppiness even down to the 3-point size, and the tiniest letters remained legible. This machine also printed excellent color text samples with good registration, so that letters comprised of multiple colors escaped the fuzzy or shadowy look common to color lasers.
However, when we switched to graphics, the 3550 let us down. It insisted on blending hints of color into grayscale images; when we constrained the driver to print in black, it captured good detail, but patchy, uneven coverage detracted from solid black areas. And because we couldn't turn off the color in the driver when printing color documents, the grayscale areas in our color graphics test printed in rainbow tones. HP says that's due to the host-based architecture and can't be adjusted--in other words, it's a "feature," not a bug. Pure color areas also suffered, with solid blocks contaminated by other colors and serious oversaturation elsewhere.