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Dell 5100cn

  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent


  • Inexpensive;
  • fast print speeds;
  • built-in duplexer;
  • network ready;
  • good service and support packages


  • Mediocre graphics print quality;
  • dull-looking design uses cheap plastics

Colour laser printers run the gamut in price, from the inexpensive Samsung CLP-500 to the premium Lexmark C762n. Treading the middle ground is the Dell 5100cn, a sub-£500 (ex. VAT) colour laser printer with Ethernet capability, two-sided printing, solid paper handling and enough speed for an office workgroup. Although the Dell 5100cn doesn't have as many extras as Lexmark's C762n, such as usage tracking by account or trays for banner printing, the 5100cn's own stable of paper-handling extras cost much less. Except for its merely good black text, the Dell 5100cn's print quality is on a par with the Lexmark C762n's. So unless your office needs to print banners for corporate cake-cuttings or window dressing, the 5100cn should easily satisfy both your black-and-white and colour office-printing needs for less.

No one should try to cram the heavy and broad Dell 5100cn into a cramped office. This charcoal-on-grey behemoth measures 42.7cm wide by 58.2cm deep by 46.2cm high and weighs 35kg; it has a boxy, utilitarian look about it, despite its flimsy plastics. The front panel flips open to reveal a 150-sheet multi-purpose tray with icons to help guide you through paper or envelope insertion. There is a 500-sheet paper drawer under the body of the printer. The 250-sheet output tray is at the top of the printer, where you can remove a lid to grab the four toner cartridges or pull open the front to clear jams and change the printer drum. The cyan, magenta, yellow and black cartridges are neatly lined up for easy access. An LCD on the top panel shows toner levels per colour, as well as a full printer control menu for paper tray selection, network settings and maintenance. A five-way navigation cluster below the LCD negotiates the menu features. On the back of the printer are USB, parallel and Ethernet ports (no cables included); the power switch is easy to find along the right side of the unit. Installing the printer through its Ethernet connection was as easy as installing it locally via USB, so you can expect a simple, out-of-the-box networking setup: we plugged an Ethernet cable into the printer, used the LCD to print a test page, and installed the enclosed CD software. When prompted, we chose network installation and typed in the IP address from its display on the LCD. Within minutes, we accessed our printer from other PCs around the office.

Although it doesn't burst at the seams with the expandability of the Lexmark C762n, the Dell 5100cn has more affordable upgrades. In addition to the standard 500-sheet paper cassette and 150-sheet multi-purpose tray, you can add a 500-sheet input tray for £169 (ex. VAT) or a 1,000-sheet tray for £279 (ex. VAT). This printer also comes with a built-in duplexer that prints double-sided pages quickly and quietly -- an extra, costly feature on the already pricier Lexmark C762n. Aside from speed and enough memory to sort out multiple print jobs as they arrive, a workgroup printer must have good network-management tools. Dell's Printer Web Tool, which installs along with the drivers, provides essential tracking via a Web interface. Using this tool, your network manager can check toner levels, request email alerts when toner or paper are running low, and monitor usage patterns, although with less detail than the Lexmark C762n. Dell even offers a Color Track driver so that you can shut out certain users from colour printing by making the feature password protected upon installation. When it's time to print, the Dell 5100cn's driver is full featured yet easy to use. It's organised into tabs, and you can adjust basics, such as paper type and size, or add a watermark. You can also specify how you want your two-sided document to flip. Plus, a handy graphic on the driver reflects any changes you make to the printer settings. Most laser printers offer inexpensive prints, and the Dell 5100cn is more parsimonious than its rivals. Replacing the 9,000-page black toner cartridge costs just £23 (ex. VAT); the 8,000-page colour cartridges cost £99 each. Factoring in the cost of the drum and transfer roller, Dell estimates that monochrome printing will cost you a delightfully low 0.57p per black-and-white page or 4.3p per colour page. The Dell 5100cn ships with 128MB of RAM but can hold up to 640MB, and an extra 256MB of DIMM costs only £34 (ex. VAT). This Dell includes PCL6, PCL5e, and Adobe PostScript page description languages, so if you plan to print professional graphics documents using PostScript, you may want to shell out for extra memory. The 5100cn is compatible with Windows, Mac, Unix, Linux and Novell NetWare operating systems; for IPP, IPX/SPX (NetWare P-Server), AppleTalk and SMB protocols, you'll need an extra Multi-Protocol Card.

Speed This printer was noisy and sluggish when warming up. However, once it got started, the Dell 5100cn's greyscale printing raced ahead of that of every other colour laser we've tested. It beat the pricier Lexmark C762n by 7.5ppm for text and 9.5ppm for greyscale graphics, although Lexmark's printer was faster at handling colour pages. If you need to print piles of black-and-white laser pages in a hurry, with occasional colour, the Dell 5100cn won't disappoint. Quality Although the Dell 5100cn was admirably fast -- especially with black-and-white text and graphics -- its output quality left something to be desired, strangely unlike its cheaper cousin, the Dell 3100cn. Most laser printers score an excellent rating for monochrome text, but the Dell 5100cn used too much toner, which gave text a fuzzy, over-sprayed look, tolerable to the naked eye but obvious in tiny fonts or under magnification. When printing monochrome graphics, the 5100cn did a good job on shaded areas that faded from dark to light, but graphics looked grainy and lacked fine detail. This printer was incapable of reproducing a smooth, pure black; so solid darks looked mottled and cloudy. Colour text looked good at first, but close inspection betrayed less-than-smooth blending, which made for jagged edges. Colour matching was poor in our tests, and the 5100cn's inability to capture finer details gave many elements a blurry, unfinished look.

Service & support
The Dell 5100cn comes with a quick-start poster that covers the basic installation, plus a thick paper manual that adds network-setup tips and support contact information and a CD user manual that addresses software concerns, troubleshooting and maintenance in addition to the setup basics. The one-year warranty includes free phone support and next-business-day on-site service -- essential for an office. You can upgrade the warranty to two years for £160 and three years for £230 (ex. VAT). Dell's online support includes access to documentation, a searchable knowledge base, driver downloads, FAQs and even tutorials. Another perk we like is Dell's unusual offer to recycle your old printer for free, no matter what brand: you can stick your old printer in the 5100cn's box, fill out the enclosed free shipping label, and send the package back to Dell.