Multifunction devices -- the computer industry's artless term for printers that also scan, copy and, often, fax documents -- are coming into their own. Many earlier models performed only one of those tasks adequately, but the latest hardware can handle all these chores well, and for under $250.
We tested four new multifunction printers. All of them do color scanning, black-and-white and color copies (even when the computer is off), and color prints. Two of them also feature full-fledged fax machines. All four of these USB-connected devices claim compatibility with Windows 98 or newer as well as with Mac OS 9 and X.
Lexmark's $150 X5150 was the least expensive model we tested and, across the board, the slowest. It took 10 minutes to churn out an 8-by-10 color picture; its sharp, vibrant prints suffered from a slight greenish cast. A seven-page text document took more than three minutes, although the resulting quality was at the top of our field.
The 5150 can't send or receive faxes, but you can use its bundled software to scan pages, then fax them using your PC's modem. The scanner mechanism makes it awkward to get to the ink cartridges.
With speed and great-looking color prints, Epson's Stylus CX5200, at $199, almost hit the ball out of the park. It produced the best-looking color prints and copies, with vivid color. Its text output was sharp. And it was the fastest machine for text documents and black-and-white copies, spitting out that seven-page test document in about 11/2 minutes and cranking out color copies in a respectable 50 seconds. But 8-by-10 color prints took seven minutes, only average performance.
Our test unit suffered a print-head clog early on, which was easy to fix with Epson's software but unusual for a new ink cartridge in a new printer. The CX5200 lacks its own fax hardware, instead bundling software to send faxes using your computer's modem. A $149 model, the CX3200, which we did not test, prints and copies more slowly, at a lower resolution and with a less durable grade of ink.
If scanning and printing color images is important, the speed and print quality of HP's $200 OfficeJet 5110 won't disappoint you. At less than five minutes, it was the fastest machine for 8-by-10 color prints, generating excellent output with only slight graininess.
Fax capability is built in, and HP's scanning mechanism employs a sheet-fed design (with an automatic document feeder) instead of a flatbed layout. That makes it incompatible with a book but quick to digest stacks of loose-leaf papers.
For everyday printing, the 5110 produces sharp, clean text, but it tied with the Lexmark for slowest text printing. The OfficeJet could also be surprisingly loud when starting and finishing print jobs.
The Brother MFC-4420c ($250, available later this month) delivered less than its price might suggest. Our color prints and color copies were marred by horizontal streaks that screamed "I came from a printer." Our text document's letters looked slightly chunky -- nothing near the laser-sharp print of the HP and Lexmark.
The 4420c includes its own fax hardware, plus CompactFlash, SmartMedia and Memory Stick slots for printing directly from digital-camera media. (It lacks an SD Card slot, an unwise omission considering the popularity of that format.) Prints made from these media slots looked better and took less time than ones sent from a PC.
All of these printers are cheap to buy but not to use, especially for printing color photos. The costs of ink and photo-grade paper really add up. If black text is all you need, a laser printer can save more money over time.
On the other hand, if you need to make prints of your digital-camera shots, the Stylus CX5200 and OfficeJet 5110 both deserve a look. If text output is your priority, the Stylus CX5200 has a slight edge for its speed. As for the Lexmark, its sharp text output couldn't make up for its sluggish pace -- it's a good fit for the patient and those short on cash, but few others.