Editor's note: The ratings for this review have been changed since the original publication. (2/11/05)
Color laser printers run the gamut in price, from the inexpensive Samsung CLP-500 to the premium . Treading the middle ground is the Dell Color Laser 5100cn, a sub-$1,000 color laser printer with Ethernet capability, two-sided printing, solid paper handling, and speeds fast enough for an office workgroup. While the Dell Color Laser 5100cn doesn't have as many extras as Lexmark's C762n, such as usage tracking by account or trays for banner printing, the 5100cn's own stable of paper-handling extras cost much less. Except for its merely good black text, this Dell's print quality is on a par with the Lexmark C762n's. So unless your office must print banners for corporate cake-cuttings or window dressing, the Dell Color Laser 5100cn should easily satisfy both your black-and-white and color office-printing needs for less. No one should try to cram the heavy and broad Dell Laser 5100cn into a home office. This charcoal-on-gray behemoth measures 16.8 by 22.9 by 18.2 inches (WDH), weighs 84 pounds, and has a boxy, grim, "locked behind the Iron Curtain" aesthetic--perfectly utilitarian, despite its flimsy plastics.
The front panel flips open to reveal a 150-sheet multipurpose tray with icons to help guide you through paper or envelope insertion. There is a 500-sheet paper drawer under the body of the printer. The 250-sheet output tray is at the top of the printer, where you can remove a lid to grab the four toner cartridges or pull open the front to clear jams and change the printer drum. The C, M, Y, K cartridges are neatly lined up for easy access.
An LCD on the top panel shows toner levels per color, as well as a full printer control menu for paper tray selection, network settings, and maintenance. A five-way navigation cluster below the LCD negotiates the menu features. On the back of the printer are USB, parallel, and Ethernet ports (no cables included); the power switch is easy to find along the right side of the equipment.
Installing the printer through its Ethernet connection was as easy as installing it locally via USB, so you can expect a simple, out-of-the-box networking setup: we plugged an Ethernet cable into the printer, used the LCD to print a test page, and installed the enclosed CD software. When prompted, we chose network installation and typed in the IP address from its display on the LCD. Within minutes, we accessed our printer from other PCs around the CNET Labs. While it doesn't burst at the seams with the expandability of the , the Dell Color Laser 5100cn has more affordable upgrades. In addition to the standard 500-sheet paper cassette and 150-sheet multipurpose tray, you can add a 500-sheet input tray for $280 or a 1,000-sheet tray for $500. This printer also comes with a built-in duplexer that prints double-sided pages quickly and quietly--an extra, costly feature on the already pricier Lexmark C762n.
Aside from speed and enough memory to sort out multiple print jobs as they arrive, a workgroup printer must have good network-management tools. Dell's Printer Web Tool, which installs along with the drivers, provides essential tracking via a Web interface. Through this tool, your network guru can check toner levels, request e-mail alerts when toner or paper are running low, and monitor usage patterns, though with less detail than the Lexmark C762n. Dell even offers a Color Track driver so that you can shut out certain users from color printing by making the feature password protected upon installation.
When it's time to print, the Dell Color Laser 5100cn's driver is full featured yet easy to use. It's organized into tabs, and you can adjust basics, such as paper type and size, or add a watermark. You can also specify how you want your two-sided document to flip. Plus, a handy graphic on the driver reflects any changes you make to the printer settings.
Most laser printers offer inexpensive prints, and the Dell Color Laser 5100cn is more parsimonious than its rivals. Replacing the 9,000-page black toner cartridge costs just $50; the 8,000-page color cartridges cost $170 each. Factoring in the cost of the drum, Dell estimates that monochrome printing costs will run you a delightfully low single cent per page or 7.4 cents per page in color.
The Dell Color Laser 5100cn ships with 128MB of RAM but can hold up to 640MB, and an extra 256MB of DIMM costs only $80. This Dell includes PCL6, PCL5e, and Adobe PostScript page description languages, so if you plan to print professional graphics documents using PostScript, you may want to spring for extra memory. The 5100cn is compatible with Windows, Mac, Unix, Linux, and Novell NetWare.499 operating systems; for IPP, IPX/SPX (NetWare P-Server), AppleTalk, and SMB protocols, you'll need an extra Multi-Protocol Card for $99. This printer was noisy and sluggish when warming up. However, once it got started, the Dell 5100cn's grayscale printing raced ahead of that of every other color laser we've even seen in CNET Labs. It beat the pricier Lexmark C762n by 7.5ppm for text and 9.5ppm for grayscale graphics, though the Lexmark was zippier with color. If you need to print piles of black-and-white laser pages in a hurry, with color sometimes too, this Dell won't disappoint.
|Color graphics||Color text||Black graphics||Black text|
While the Dell Color Laser 5100cn was admirably fast--especially with black-and-white text and graphics--its output quality left something to be desired, strangely unlike its cheaper cousin, the . Most laser printers score an excellent rating for monochrome text, but the Dell Color Laser 5100cn used too much toner, which gave text a fuzzy, oversprayed look, tolerable to the naked eye but obvious in tiny fonts or under magnification.
When printing noncolor graphics, the 5100cn did a good job on shaded areas that faded from dark to light, but graphics looked grainy and lacked fine detail. This printer was incapable of reproducing a smooth, pure black; so solid darks looked mottled and cloudy.
Color text looked good at first, but close inspection betrayed less-than-smooth blending, which made for jagged edges. Color matching was poor in our tests, and the 5100cn's inability to capture finer details gave many elements a blurry, unfinished look.
|Color graphics||Color text||Black graphics||Black text|
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Performance analysis written by CNET Labs project leader Dong Van Ngo. The Dell Color Laser 5100cn comes with a quick-start poster that covers the basic installation, plus a thick paper manual that adds network-setup tips and support contact information and an CD user manual that addresses software concerns, troubleshooting, and maintenance in addition to the setup basics.
The one-year warranty includes 24/7, toll-free phone support and next-business-day onsite service, essential for an office. You can upgrade the warranty to two years for $129 and three years for $156--worthwhile, considering that Lexmark charges nearly three times as much for warranty upgrades for its .
Dell's online support includes access to documentation, a searchable knowledge base, driver downloads, FAQs, and even tutorials. Another perk we like is Dell's unusual offer to recycle your old printer for free, no matter what brand: you can stick your old printer in the 5100cn's box, fill out the enclosed free shipping label, and send the package back to Dell.