Hardware Review: Lexmark Optra E312 Laser Printer

by Bob can Poel

It isn't every day I go out and buy a new printer. As a matter of fact, I've been happily using an Epson laser printer I purchased as a reconditioned unit for the last eight years, without any problems. Unfortunately, the Epson is on its last legs and not worth fixing, so a replacement is now on my desk.

Before deciding on a printer, you have to carefully look at your printing needs and hope that something on the market meets them, as well as your budget. Some of the items I considered include:

<il>- What kind of printing do I do? If you are into a lot of graphics you probably need a better quality color printer. Just do a few notes from time to time? Then a low-cost ink-jet might be fine. In my case, I print a lot of sheet music for the various bands I'm in, plus correspondence and tutorial material for my wife's art lessons. A monochromatic laser fits both my budget and print needs. Most modern laser printers now print at 600 dpi, which should be adequate for all but the most demanding applications.

<il> - What is the cost per sheet? If you print low volumes, this probably isn't a major issue, but the long-haul price of an inexpensive ink-jet printer can get very high when you factor in the price of those expensive, low-yield cartridges. Laser printers are no different--before you buy, check the price of toner cartridges and their capacity.

<il> - Will the printer work with your operating system? This is a no-brainer for our friends with that main-stream OS, but for us it can be a bit of a problem. Quite a few low-end ink-jets only work with Windows. A number of these incompatibility problems are being resolved by the Linux community, but do check before you buy.

To find my new printer I scoured the Net for product reviews and comments from other users. It didn't take long for the Lexmark E312 Laser to bubble to the top of the list. It didn't appear that this printer made it to the very top of anybody else's list: it doesn't have the best resolution, the most economical price per image, nor the highest printing speed. But it ranks favorably with its competitors in each department. However, this printer has a secret feature (ignored by most of the Windows-centric reviews)--Postscript Level 2 is built in!

The printer as a relatively small footprint, it only takes up a 12" x 14" square of desk space--less than my monitor or scanner. It has a 150 sheet input tray, plus a single sheet slot. Both are conveniently located on the top of the printer. The output tray is of the vertically stacking variety, directly to the front of the input trays. According to the specs, the output tray will hold 100 sheets, but I would empty it before it got that full. There is also a little door on the front of the printer that you can open. In this case the printer output is sent to your desktop. The advantages of this bypass slot are twofold: it straightens out the paper path (particularly useful when printing on heavier stock), and it increases the output stacking size.

As for switches, etc., there's not a lot there. The back of the printer has standard Centronics and USB connectors. According to the documentation, you can connect two computers to the printer (one USB, one Centronics). I don't have USB on my computer so I didn't test this feature. In addition the printer has a side mounted on/off switch, front panel RESET button and six LED status and error indicators.

When the printer arrived it took me about ten minutes to unpack it and install it on my desktop. Configuration, via CUPS, took less than a minute--just a matter of selecting the correct printer from the CUPS HTML interface. Oh, if it'd been that easy when I did my first Linux installation (but that's another story). The CUPS test page printed; my first output worked and it was perfect.

Since installing the printer I've done some fairly large print jobs and have little to complain about. The advertised speed for the printer is "up to ten pages per minute". Printing out 200 sheets of music for our new bass player didn't run quite that fast, but it was certainly faster than nine pages per minute. Very impressive.

Of course, the load on my computer has been considerably reduced. I still need ghostscript to preview things via gs, but printer output is dumped to the printer as a PS file; no more rasterizing by the computer CPU. This printer also does PCL emulation, but I haven't tried it--why would I? I suspect that it would be slower due to the greater volume of data that would have to be sent to the printer. In the past I've noticed that program listings I print with a2ps were very slow, but with the E312 they fly out. My biggest problem, now, is that I'm printing more...that happens when it gets easier.

I still remember being fascinated by the truly awful output of my first printer. Some seven-pin dot matrix beast that took forever to print a page, and let everyone for miles around know that you had a PRINTER. My, how things have progressed. At 600 dpi the output of this printer is extremely sharp and clear. Even with my aging eyes, I can easily tell the difference between this and the 300 dpi of my old laser. I printed a few graphics out as well, and found that the graduations were smooth and detailed. Blacks printed solid and deep.

According to the documentation, the printer also supports 1200 quality, but that is through some internal fiddling. The engine is 600 dpi, so don't be fooled. There is also a 300 dpi mode (which I haven't figured out how to use with Linux) which apparently saves on toner consumption. If you are printing lots of listing or throw-away documents this might be worth a look.

The E312 ships with 4MB of RAM. I attempted the most complex documents I could find, and they all printed just fine. If you find that you do need more memory, you can upgrade the printer to a maximum 68MB.

Various paper sizes from A4, US legal and letter right down to 3" x 5" index cards are supported. Recommended paper weight is 20 lb, but Bristol stock up to 100 lbs can be fed via the manual sheet feeder. In addition, envelopes, transparency and label stock designed for laser printers can be used.

Lexmark offers a one-year warranty on the printer, as well as an optional extended warranty. The printer is shipped with a 100-page manual and a CD-ROM (the CD contains Windows and Mac software). The Lexmark web site offers more product information, FAQs, suggestions and a print driver RPM for Linux. I've not bothered to download the RPM since CUPS seems to work just fine. If you need printer assistance you can contact Lexmark via e-mail or toll-free number.

This review would not be complete if I didn't point out some of the deficiencies of the printer:

1. The input tray is a tad undersized. At ten copies per minute it only takes 15 minutes to empty.

2. The bypass door on the front of the printer is difficult to open and close. It uses two pressure locks that have to pushed using both hands. I think a small toggle lock, centered, would be easier to handle.

3. There is no LCD display. All error and status reports are done via the six LEDs on the front panel. If you have a problem more serious than a paper jam, you better have the manual at hand and be prepared to count blinks.

4. Lexmark hint that this printer can be used in a networking environment, but that is only true if you have a printer hub. The printer has no provision for the installation of a network interface card.

Fairly minor points in my office; your applications might cast a different outlook.

If you are shopping for this printer, be aware that Lexmark also markets an E312L (note the "L" suffix). This is printer is identical to the E312, with three exceptions: the supplied printer cartridge only prints 3,000 copies (the 6,000 copy cartridge does fit when this runs out); it comes with 2MB of RAM vs. the 4MB in the E312; and it doesn't have Postscript.

So don't be fooled by the $100.00 savings. The reduced memory and the smaller toner cartridge alone makes up the difference in cost. Add in the lack of Postscript, and the E312L is no bargain.

Lexmark recommends a price of $399.00 for the E312; I paid 379.00 (including shipping) for it via mail-order. Due to the volatile nature of internet pricing I'm not going to bother listing the name of my vendor--shop around. The 6,000 image toner cartridges have a suggested price of $136.00, which comes to just over two cents a copy. And you can do a bit better on the toner price, or consider refilling if you do a lot of printing. Even at full suggested-price, the cost if pretty reasonable. If you are on a budget or would like to save a few dollars, have a look at the Lexmark site for the availability of refurbished printers: as I write this review they have the same printer I just paid $379.00 for listed at $319.00 with a "same as new warranty".

If you are looking for a medium-duty, quality laser printer, have a good look at the Lexmark Optra E312. I'm certainly happy with my decision.

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