For better or worse, we are not a paperless society. Be they letters to Grandma or photos from your most recent vacation, things have more impact when you can hold them in your hands. If you're going to print documents, you want to know that they are going to look good and print quickly. To help you determine which printer is the right one for you, CNET Labs performs a variety of tests that evaluate print quality and speed. Our tests use a printer manufacturer's recommended consumables (ink and toner) and papers, and they mimic the ways that the average person uses their printers when printing text, photos, and graphics.
CNET Labs tests all printers on a desktop system with a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 550 processor, 1GB of DDR2 SDRAM running at 533MHz, an Nvidia GeForce 6600 PCI-Express graphics card with 256MB of memory, a 74GB Western Digital WD740 Raptor hard drive, and Windows XP Professional SP2. Before testing a printer, we refresh the test system with a clean hard disk image containing the operating system, applications required for testing, and our test documents. Printers are installed according to the manufacturer's instructions.
CNET Labs divides printers into five distinct subcategories and applies different testing methods to each.
- Regular inkjet printers: Budget-minded inkjet printers are designed for everyday printing needs. We expect them to be good with text and some graphics but not as proficient with photos.
- Consumer photo inkjet printers: These inkjet printers are designed primarily for printing photos. We expect them to produce high-quality photos on special photo paper, but not to perform as well with text on plain paper.
- Snapshot printers: These small printers are designed to print photos exclusively, typically using dye-sublimation or inkjet technology. We expect them to produce high-quality photos that are just as good as you would get from your corner photo finisher.
- Multifunction printers: These devices, in addition to providing typical printer functionality, fax and scan as well. These printers may use inkjet or laser print engines and should produce documents comparable to those from a standalone printer.
- Laser printers: High-speed laser printers are designed to print high-quality text and graphics on photocopy paper. Similar to inkjet printers, we expect them to be good with text and some graphics but not as proficient with photos.
CNET Labs uses the "click-to-clunk" approach for its timed tests. "Click" refers to the last command executed to initiate a print job, and "clunk" refers to the moment when the last printed page of the job falls into the output tray. Although there are numerous methods for timing printer speed, we believe that this method most accurately portrays a user's experience. We perform all of our print speed tests using a printer's automatic mode (where the printer automatically picks the print settings based on the paper type it is printing on), except for the Photo speed test. In the Photo speed test, we use the printer's photographic-paper setting, and we set the print quality to the second-best setting available for photos. We perform at least three trials of each test to ensure consistent, repeatable results.
CNET Labs performs this test on all printers except snapshot printers. Our test document is a 10-page, text-only, 62Kb Microsoft Word DOC file that employs a variety of font sizes and fonts, including serif, sans serif, italic, bold, and plain typefaces. We use Microsoft Word 2003 to conduct the test.
We perform this test on all printers except laser printers. Our test photograph is a 4x6-inch, 500-dpi, 8.4MB TIFF image containing multiple objects of different shapes, sizes, and colors, and four people with a variety of skin tones. The test image we use is the industry-accepted PhotoDisc Target document. We use Adobe Photoshop CS2 to conduct the test. We perform two different timed tests: The first test times how long it takes to output a single print of the image; the second test times how long it takes to output 10 copies of the same image.
We perform this test on all printers except snapshot printers. We print a graphics-heavy, 10-page PowerPoint PPT file consisting of graphs, imbedded images of Web pages, and photographs. We use Microsoft PowerPoint 2003 to conduct the test.
We perform this test only on multifunction printers. We scan two documents, one grayscale and one color. The grayscale document is the Kodak Digital Science Imaging Test Chart TL-5003 with one grayscale photo, gradient grayscale patterns, and text in different fonts and sizes. The color document is an 8.5x11-inch document that incorporates one monochrome and one color photograph, color gradient patterns, continuous-tone color patterns, a multicolored overprinting test pattern, and detailed line-art graphics. We use Photoshop CS2 when conducting the test, and we record the time it takes to scan each document.
We perform this test only on multifunction printers with an autofeed feature. We use the machine to print out a mixed, text-and-graphics document that includes serif and sans serif text of different sizes and typefaces, a line-art drawing, detailed black-and-white photographs, shaded gradients, and symbols. We use the printer's bundled photocopying application when conducting the test, and we record the time it takes the multifunction device to photocopy and print 10 copies of the document.
CNET Labs evaluates, in a well-lit room, the print-quality ratings for each printer's output samples. The text samples are evaluated for overall legibility; the clarity, density, and weight of the text at different sizes and fonts; and the absence or presence of a wide range of printer-induced flaws. We also consider the quality of the black ink: Is it dark black or a muddier brownish or bluish color? We compare graphics samples to an original/archetypal version printed on an IRIS commercial offset-press proof and fine-arts-reproduction inkjet printer, paying close attention to the range of tones produced in color and monochrome gradients; color qualities such as warmth, coolness, and depth; color accuracy; photo quality; details; and the absence or presence of other printer-induced flaws. We rate the photograph output sample on many of the same criteria: crispness, clarity, color accuracy (especially rendering skin tones), and overall quality. For multifunction devices, we also evaluate the quality of the scanned images against the originals.
With the printer set to best-quality output, we print two samples on letter-size, 20-pound bond, copy paper:
The first sample document is a one-page Microsoft Word DOC file that employs a variety of font sizes and fonts, including serif, sans serif, italic, bold, and plain typefaces--we use Microsoft Word 2003 to conduct this test.
The second sample document is a one-page, Adobe PDF file that contains several monochrome and color photographs, as well as a variety of graphical elements--including numerous color gradients, seven blocks of solid color, a multicolored overprinting test pattern, and several line-art representations of a variety of objects--we use Adobe Acrobat Reader 7.0 to conduct the test. This test is run on both laser and inkjet printers.
With the printer set to best-quality output, we print two samples on coated paper specifically designated by the printer manufacturer to be used with the printer being tested. The two sample documents are the same ones we use with the plain-paper quality tests. This test is run only on inkjet printers.
With the printer set to best-quality output, we print on photo paper specifically designated by the printer manufacturer to be used with the printer being tested. The sample document is the same TIFF file we use for the photo speed test. We use Adobe Photoshop CS2 to conduct the test. This test is run on inkjet and snapshot printers.
This test is performed only on laser printers. With the printer set to best-quality output, we print on letter-size, 20-pound bond copy paper. The sample document is Microsoft Word DOC file containing a mix of black-and-white graphics and text. We use Microsoft Word 2003 to conduct this test.