Amazing things are happening in the world of personal computer printers. The speed and quality of these hard-working machines including those shoe-box-sized printers designed for home users keep going up, while prices plummet. There are two reasons for these pleasant developments:

The first is competition. The major printer makers Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Lexmark, Epson, Panasonic are all battling to be first to market the next technological breakthrough. Barely three years ago, a print quality of 300 dots per inch (“dpi”) was the standard for computer printers; for a couple of thousand dollars, you could venture toward a 600-dpi machine. Today, that 600-dpi quality level is a standard for printers in the $400 range, and machines that turn out 720 or 1,440 dpi are proliferating.

The other pertinent factor here is the “razor blade” effect. In the same way Gillette gives out free razors so it can sell more blades, printer manufacturers see ink cartridges as a major source of profit. So they sell us the printer cheap and then recoup the money when we have to buy new cartridges every few weeks at $25 apiece.

Some of these printers are just printers, but there is also a wide range of “MFP,” or multi-function printers, that perform a number of office chores. If you have the money and the desktop space, it is probably better to get a separate telephone, printer, fax machine, scanner and copy machine for your office. If you have limits in funds or space, though, the MFP machine combines all these tools into a single unit.

The last time we looked at these multi-talented machines, the best ones offered high-quality printing and copying in black and white. The class of 1997 in MFPs, though, has made the step up to color and we mean beautiful, photographic-quality color. We recently tested two of the latest MFP offerings; with some reservations, we recommend both highly.

Panasonic’s Panafax UF-344 is a compact unit (21 pounds) a fax machine, basically, with a plug for a computer cable on the back. It has all the standard fax features, including a useful memory function that will capture and hold messages even if your machine runs out of paper or ink.

But if you hook up a parallel cable from the Panafax to your computer, and load in a couple of software programs provided by Panasonic, this unit becomes a high-quality color printer and scanner. And it is a beauty. Panasonic rates the printer at 360 dpi, which doesn’t sound particularly sharp. But the machine has built-in capabilities that produces gorgeous color graphs and illustrations. Panasonic calls it “Super Smoothing.”

The reverse procedure scanning a color document into the computer also worked nicely, with the screen image very close to the various shades and hues of the original document.

We had no trouble printing and scanning on the Panafax from a Windows 95 computer. The software says that the machine will also work with Windows 3.1, but we couldn’t get it to print under that older operating system.

This do-it-all Panasonic machine sells for about $1,800, which is a huge bargain compared to the total you’d have to pay to get such high-quality color printing/scanning/copying capacity in separate machines.

Hewlett-Packard has also produced some impressive new color MFPs. We tried the HP Officejet Pro 1150C, which is a combination printer, scanner, and copier that was recently on sale at our local Office Max for $999.

The HP 1150C is bigger and heftier (32 pounds), clearly designed for heavy-duty use in a decent-sized office. It doesn’t have a fax machine, but it has a flatbed copier. That is, you can copy or scan a framed photograph or a page from a book. You don’t have to feed the original into a slot, as you would with a fax machine.

Print quality on this HP machine is spectacular. If you set the printer (or copier) for “Best” resolution (that is, 600 dpi) and print out a photograph on glossy paper, it is not easy to tell which is the original photo and which the computer printout.

Our one complaint about the Officejet Pro 1150C is one we’ve had before with HP printers: installation of the software was a messy task. The rather skimpy user manual offered a quick overview of the installation process. But the software didn’t work the way the manual said it would, and there was no advice on how to cope. In all, it took about an hour and a lot of creative guesswork to finish a job that should have taken five minutes.

If all you need is a good color printer, you can get one for less than these multi-function machines cost. Later this summer, we’ll take a look at the new, low-cost color printers on the market. But for combining many business chores with high-quality output, these two new printers represent the state of the art.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at [email protected], or Brit Hume at [email protected].

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