Under-$100 color inkjet printers may be a hot segment in the computer market, but our reaction to the latest models in this category was decidedly cool.

It's not that we want everybody to spend more, but the quality of $150-plus printers has improved dramatically, leaving units like Lexmark's Z11 and Apollo's P-1200 in a bit of a squeeze.

Lexmark led in breaking the C-note barrier, factoring in its frequent rebate offers, but Hewlett-Packard spinoff Apollo just entered the market. (Its newest offering is a flower-motif Barbie printer.)

The Apollo P-1200 comes in gray or "lunar blue" with a three-color cartridge, leaving you unable to print in true black (text looks bluish and fuzzy) unless you buy an optional $18-$28 black cartridge. While the looks are appealing, the printer hides power and parallel-cable connectors in klutz-hostile, recessed slots.

Apollo delivers the P-1200 with a minimum of documentation: Beyond an enigmatic four-language single-sheet pictorial setup guide, there's only the software's online help system. Good luck!

The P-1200 produced text at a pokey 2:20 a page, probably because it had to spray multiple color inks to imitate black. Multi-color Web pages took a slow but not unbearable 2:40 per page. But those pages looked washed out and grainy -- the P-1200 prints black at 600 by 300 dots per inch but color at only 300x300 dpi. Digital camera images didn't look much better, even on glossy photographic paper.

Lexmark's 1,200-dpi Z11 offers better instructions, ran quieter and gave us sharper images. It comes with black and color cartridges, which you switch between as needed. Like the Apollo, it works with parallel ports, not Universal Serial Bus connections.

Black text looked sharp, if quite light, with each page taking 30 to 40 seconds. Switching to the color cartridge, our test Web page took 3:45 with credible blacks but slight banding in images. Photos had decent color rendition but more pronounced banding -- and an 8-by-10 required more than 20 minutes.

If photo output isn't a priority, the Lexmark is the better pick of these two. But higher-quality inkjets aren't that much pricier -- for instance, Lexmark's 3200 and Epson's Stylus Color 440 -- and demand fewer compromises.

P-1200, Apollo: Win 95-98/Win 3.1/DOS, $79, 877/692-76556, http://www. myapollo.com

Z11 Color Jetprinter, Lexmark: Win 95-98/Win 3.1, $119 ($30 rebate available), 800/539-6275, http://www.lexmark.com

CAPTION: Lexmark's Z11.

CAPTION: Apollo's P-1200.