A fully network-aware multifunction printer can do a lot more than handle all the printing from a workgroup. The new breed of machine, typified by the Lexmark X736de, provides control through a colour touch-screen and duplex scanning and copying.
It's designed to save energy and costs and to provide the flexibility of custom-written applications, which can be added to the machine's main, graphical menu system.
The large screen of the printer works through a series of virtual buttons and icons to control simple tasks like copying and faxing, but also to work through job queues and schedule printing. There's a USB drive slot on the front panel and, assuming a person has the correct privileges, walk-up printing of documents and images is supported too.
Remote access to the front panel of the printer is available through the supplied monitoring software, which is also security protected, so access can be restricted to staff on a need-to-use basis. Help for busy IT departments is also provided by traffic-shaping technology, which packets large documents emailed from the 600dpi scanner, so they don't hog the network. It may sound like a small, geeky feature, but it can make a big difference to the overall performance of a network.
You can have a lot of fun with the printer’s graphical interface, with many Lexmark resellers prepared to help with customisation or even to produce complete applications from scratch. Typical uses are to provide branded screensavers or even to feed information, such as RSS feeds, through to the printer when it's not in use.
There's quite a bit of flexibility in how you feed paper, too, with a 550-sheet paper tray and a 100-sheet, pull-down multifunction tray as standard and options for three more 550-sheet trays, or a 2,000-sheet high-capacity feeder. It's a bit odd there's no similar expansion on the output side, with collators or multi-bin sorters, but Lexmark argues that in many workgroups, there's little need for one.
Lexmark claims speeds of 33ppm for black and colour print, at the machine's default resolution of 1,200dpi. Our five-page, black text document gave 13.6ppm, but this increased to 22.6ppm when we printed the 20-page test. Even so, it's some way short of the headline figure. Our five-page text and colour graphics test gave 16.7ppm, surprisingly faster than the black text test of the same length.
Duplex print often slows prints down substantially and here the 20-page document returned 12 sides per minute, which is a little on the sluggish side. Even so, it's not slow enough to prevent duplex mode being set as standard in many businesses.
Duplex scanning is standard on the X736de, but only with what Americans call a peek-a-boo paper path, which is also used by the duplex print engine. The paper exits from the scanner after the first side of each page has been scanned, but is then fed back in to scan the second side, as the scanner head itself is single-sided. In fact, each duplex scanned page is fed back through a third time, to turn it round and keep the source document collated.
If this seems a little long-winded, the whole process still manages to keep pace with the print engine in a duplex copy, so isn't a problem. Interleaving of scanning and printing is generally good, so our 20-page simplex copy took just 46 seconds.
Print quality is one of the features for which Lexmark is rightly renowned. Black text is sharp and clean and, even when printing two pages to the sheet, one of the eco-offerings in the printer's arsenal, remains clear and easy to read. Colour graphics are bright and rich, so areas of solid fill look... well, solid.
Colour copies don't do quite so well, with blues showing a slightly purple cast and some bands of lighter colour apparent. For general purpose office work, though, they're acceptable. Finally, photo images are a little over-vivid to be fully natural, but for many purposes will also be adequate.
Consumables are available in two capacities: 8,000 and 12,000 pages for black and 6,000 and 10,000 for colour. The typical costs for these cartridges give page costs of 1.03p and 8.93, respectively, for the high capacity, Return Programme cartridges, but this machine is available to lease, so you can pay by the click, if you prefer. Print costs are better than many, with the colour cost particularly attractive.
Lexmark has a comprehensive recycle programme for used consumables and depending on the size of the customer, can offer pre-paid envelopes or bin-collection facilities for used cartridges. It claims a take-up rate of 78 per cent for its recycling efforts in the UK.