Fax, printer and scanner suffer when combined in one machine

Personal Computers

September 15, 1997|By Stephen Manes

THE IDEA seems intriguing: Build a fax machine around a computer printer and scanner. You get a copier in the bargain, and it all fits into a single unit not much bigger than a typical printer or fax machine. Not only do you save money and precious desktop space, you eliminate extra cables, not to mention the thermal paper that produces the unwieldy scrolls and curly pages.

Until recently the idea has been better than the execution, in part because the scanners in these units have been monochrome, with resolution good enough for faxing but hardly ideal for photos or optical character recognition. But as always in the computer hardware industry, products keep adding more abilities while decreasing in price, and the newest models come with color printers and scanners. Unfortunately, the most interesting entries in the all-in-one sweepstakes, the Officejet 600 models from the Hewlett-Packard Co. at around $600, suggest that the compromises remain real. Like a Swiss Army knife, one of these units will do lots of jobs adequately, but not quite as well as tools tailored to specific tasks.

The Officejets rely on your computer's power to do some of the dirty work. Although they are supposed to work with computers as slow as a 486/66 with Windows 3.1 and RAM as low as 16 megabytes, the recommended minimum system is a Pentium 90 with Windows 95, 32 megabytes of RAM and 120 megabytes of hard disk space. I tested it on a "recommended" system and consider it the minimum acceptable; unless you disable it, the Officejet software demands about seven megabytes of memory every time your machine starts up, potentially slowing down other programs even when it is sitting there doing nothing.

A company spokeswoman said the printer at the core of the unit is based on Hewlett-Packard's year-old 680 series engine. But the test unit's print quality was disappointing by today's standards. Black text on plain paper was less crisp than I expected from an H-P machine; viewed through a loupe, it revealed significant splatter and jaggedness. Color photos revealed horizontal bands in solid tones and a stippled dot pattern throughout. And the printer is slow, spewing out only about two pages of text per minute. Much better output is available from many of today's $300 printers.

The printer's limitations hide the scanner's flaws. It delivers adequate scans for output on the Officejet, but it is not up to the demands of more revealing devices. At the highest resolution, 300 dots per inch with 24-bit color depth, scans clearly revealed annoying vertical banding even on a computer screen. And, like any sheet-fed scanner, this one is limited to things that can fit through the slot, which eliminates magazines and books. Small, thin and fragile items can be copied with the help of plastic document carriers that come with the unit, but those carriers sometimes produced visible scratches on the output. The sheet feeder has an annoying tendency to skew the paper away from the perpendicular.

As a copier, the Officejet 600 gets mixed marks. The sheet feeder limits what you can copy, plain paper copies that include large image areas invariably warp the paper as ink bleeds through to the back, and copying speeds are limited by the sluggish printer. But color copies are surprisingly good, although your computer does most of the work of producing them, and a full page can take eight minutes to emerge.

The Officejet offers the flexibility of a fax modem without the need to leave your computer on all the time and also has the advantages of a plain-paper fax machine, such as the ability to receive faxes even if it runs out of paper. It draws other benefits from its computer connection, such as the ability to accept information directly from the computer keyboard rather than forcing you to enter it from the inadequate number pad and the ability to pipe faxes to the computer instead of printing them out.

An annoying and serious design flaw is the single output tray for both originals and printouts, an arrangement that has the potential to damage originals. Copies with lots of ink on them emerge from the unit quite wet. Since originals emerge face down, it is possible for one to be sullied by the ink from a newly printed page lying face up in the tray.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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