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Put a little colour into your life without breaking the bank

Rapid advances in inkjet technology have made colour printing affordable both for the business and home user. PC Magazine has tested seven of the leading models to see which of them produced the best results.

Just as black and white televisions and computer monitors are a thing of the past, so soon will black and white printers be. In fact, even by computer-industry standards, where new technology is introduced at an ever-alarming rate, colour printer technology has been travelling at light speed.

There's no better example of this than colour inkjet technology, where not only has the technology increased dramatically in the past year but, unusually, the prices have been dropping at the same rate. It is astonishing to think that colour printing can now be yours from around pounds 105.

Colour has been the buzzword for technology in 1997. If you have a digital camera or scanner that provides low-cost colour input devices, then you need a low-cost colour printer to compliment this and give you good quality output.

Inkjet printers used to be the poor relation of the printer industry. They were slower than their laser printer cousins and their only plus point was price. However, Hewlett-Packard was the first manufacturer radically to alter this image with its DeskJet 850 series - the first inkjet touted as giving output described as "near-photogenic" in 1995. Since then the technology has gone from strength to strength. The basics of inkjet printing - spraying tiny drops of ink on to the paper - is the same at it always was, but different manufacturers have made great improvements in the shape of the ink nozzles, the size and number of drops and the way the ink is heated. These innovations have noticeably improved output quality.

Most inkjet printers accept plain photocopier paper and a variety of film, card, label and other stock of many different sizes. All manufacturers stress that to get the best possible results it is advisable to use glossy finish paper, but an A4 sheet of glossy paper can set you back anywhere from 80p to pounds 1.80 per sheet. So, unless you are doing special prints you will probably be using plain paper. When choosing a printer it is worth investigating its output and quality on both plain and glossy paper.

Printer manufacturers have been quick to latch on to this need for low- cost, high-quality colour printing and four main manufacturers dominate the market - Canon, Epson, Lexmark and Hewlett-Packard. However, not only are there four manufacturers to choose from, but also they do multiple models. For example, in the December edition of PC Magazine, there were three printers from three of these companies and four from Epson. To determine an Editor's Choice, each of the printers were put through vigorous testing in PC Magazine's performance labs and then the output was analysed by a judging panel.

All the printers reviewed were four- and six-colour ink models and could take a variety of paper types. While none of them could be considered a poor choice there was one clear winner; the Epson Stylus Colour 600. Its printing quality is only slightly behind its big brother, the Epson Stylus Photo, which is the leader for outright quality, but its price tag of pounds 242 is over pounds 120 cheaper.

The Stylus 600 was also one of the fastest printers in the review, making it suitable for a business that might want to print mixed text and graphics documents as well as for home use.

Nicola Lynch

PC Magazine