If your home office still isn't equipped with a color inkjet printer, it's not for a lack of choices. Sharp Electronics is getting into the act with the AJ-1800, the company's official debut in the color inkjet market. But in an arena already crowded by the likes of Epson, HP, and Canon, Sharp has tough competition. To its credit, the AJ-1800 is inexpensive, and it boasts good color output, adequate speed, and a relatively low cost of consumables. But its lackluster plain-paper text quality and comparatively slow speed may give some buyers pause. If your home office still isn't equipped with a color inkjet printer, it's not for a lack of choices. Sharp Electronics is getting into the act with the AJ-1800, the company's official debut in the color inkjet market. But in an arena already crowded by the likes of Epson, HP, and Canon, Sharp has tough competition. To its credit, the AJ-1800 is inexpensive, and it boasts good color output, adequate speed, and a relatively low cost of consumables. But its lackluster plain-paper text quality and comparatively slow speed may give some buyers pause.
Boxy but bright
At first glance, the AJ-1800's boxy design is reminiscent of older inkjets'. However, its translucent, lavender front cover and output tray give a nod toward the current trend in more colorful designs. Setting up the $129 Sharp AJ-1800 is carefree, thanks in part to an eight-step installation flyer. The printer is both Mac and PC compatible, and it can connect via USB or parallel port. But as with many printers, the cables are not included. Sharp bundles a CD-ROM with drivers for five platforms (Mac OS 8.5 and Windows 95, 98, 2000, and NT 4.0) and MGI's PhotoSuite III SE, an adequate imaging suite that insisted on upgrading our copy of Microsoft Internet Explorer (a minor annoyance). A detailed and well-illustrated setup guide covers basic installation, and a user-friendly online manual (available in PDF format) provides instructions on print settings and options.
Sharp's ink cartridge design is both easy and economical, accommodating separate ink tanks for each color (black, cyan, magenta, and yellow). Inserting and removing the cartridges is easy. And because you replace only the color that's emptied instead of all three at once (as with the multicolor cartridges you'll find on most inkjets), you'll pay less over time. According to our calculations, the AJ-1800 costs a mere 3.1 cents per page of text and 32 cents per color page, making it one of the more economical printers we've tested.
More paper than most
The AJ-1800's paper handling is pretty good. Its input tray has a generous 150-sheet capacity, compared to 100 sheets for most other low-cost printers. The printer supports a diverse assortment of media, including photo, transparency, envelope, and greeting card stock, as well as labels and iron-on transfers.
The AJ-1800 packs in some other convenient features. At the back of the printer, you'll find a bypass tray for single-sheet feeds. A knob located on the side of the printer lets you adjust the feeder for printing envelopes or thick paper. The printer's front panel includes a power button as well as a paper-feed button. Three indicator lights warn you when the printer has a paper jam or an error and when the printer is out of ink or paper.
The print driver comes loaded with options. You can set print quality to one of four modes including Draft, Sharp Special, Normal, and Best. You can also choose N-up printing, which lets you view and print up to four pages on a single sheet. A zoom option lets you reduce or enlarge prints from 25 percent to 200 percent. The software also supports watermarks, including Top Secret, Confidential, Draft, Original, and Copy.
Life in the slow(er) lane
While the AJ-1800 has a good set of features and economical inks, its drawbacks fall into the key areas of speed and print quality. In CNET Labs' tests, the AJ-1800 didn't come anywhere close to achieving Sharp's claim of 10 pages per minute (ppm) for color printing. Compared with other color inkjets in its price range, such as the Canon BJC-S450 or the Lexmark Z52, the Sharp's 2.9-ppm text speed was just below average at its default setting of 600 by 600 dots per inch (dpi).
The AJ-1800 printed mixed results. While both plain and coated paper color graphics looked good, plain paper text rated poor, with fuzzy, jaggy serifs. However, on coated paper, text was both readable and crisp.
The AJ-1800 comes with a one-year limited warranty. Sharp also offers toll-free phone support Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. central time, as well as FAQ and email support via its Web site.
So does the AJ-1800 cut it? Well, almost. It offers a good feature set and a good cost per page for its price. On the other hand, it's slow, and its text quality on plain paper is subpar. You could pay a little more for a printer such as the Canon BJC-S450 and get a faster machine with better overall print quality. Sharp's initial foray into inkjets is adequate but not remarkable.