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  • Hardware Reviews: Where’s the Trust?

    February 11th, 2006

    In the days when I reviewed products for major publications, it was normal to suffer a vetting process, where my material and the lab tests results were examined carefully before publication. While usually prepared by separate writers, an error in one part of the review would severely hurt the credibility of the other.

    For the most part, the editors I worked with were quite dedicated to their jobs, and did their best to make sure that the printed article was as accurate as possible. I did have a gig, I might add, where one editor would occasionally attempt to manipulate the process and steer articles to adhere to one particular point of view regardless of the facts. I would not tolerate that sort of behavior, and eventually stopped working with that person.

    These days, I handle the entire review process myself; an imperfect process, to be sure, but one I try to make honest, without any preconceived notions about what my tests will reveal. I’m delighted to end up amazed that something works better than I expect. At the same time, I do often check out what others are saying about a product, just to satisfy my curiosity, or to discover something that I’d like to check out personally.

    A few days ago, I received a Xerox Phaser 8500DN printer for review. I have covered a number of inkjet and laser printers over the years, but this was my first exposure to solid ink, which is touted as a solution that combines the best elements of the other two. While checking out Xerox’s reviewer’s guide and some of the online chatter, I chanced across a review of a high-end version of the product, the Phaser 8550DX, at InfoWorld. The 8550DX differs from the 8500DN in two important respects that might affect output quality. One is a slightly faster print speed rating, up to 30 pages per minute, and a higher resolution option for photos.

    To say the article had some peculiar observations is an understatement, at least compared to my own brief tests and I’ll take them in no particular order. First is the claim that their test unit rendered their “grayscale photo in a pinkish color composite.” Maybe it did, but the article doesn’t describe which particular printer setting delivered that result, so I’ll assume it was the default. If that’s the case, it’s not a problem that I have yet observed with black and white matter on the 8500DN. The article also complains about the inability to meet the rated print engine speed, but conveniently ignores what the specifications state, that this speed is only achieved in the “Fast Color” mode, which trades off quality for speed. The 8550 features a “Standard” mode, rated at 24 pages per minute, an “Enhanced” mode, rated at 16 pages per minute, and a High Resolution/Photo setting, rated at 10 pages per minute.

    The review complained that the printer’s “fastest time when printing 10 copies of a 10-page, plain-text Word document was a paltry 15.4 ppm.” At what setting and was “Fast Color” ever attempted? Inquiring minds want to know. Just to put matters in perspective, I output a 20-page, plain-text Word document in a brief test. In the “Enhanced mode,” the first 12 pages were printed in approximately one minute, which is precisely the rated speed of the 8500DN; in “Fast Color” mode, it took about 50 seconds to output the entire document, which clearly indicates it would come extremely close to its rated 24 pages per minute.

    Other questionable observations included one that the unit “paused frequently to adjust itself.” Both the 8500 and 8550 have automatic idle modes, and they configure themselves based on the way you run the printer during the first weeks of ownership. If you print a document when the unit is idle, it’ll go through several warm up procedures before it begins to function. But once powered up, I have detected no pauses whatever, other than to process a complicated document with full-color images. This idle mode is clearly noted on the display panel, and is not unusual among high capacity workgroup printers. Curious.

    The final criticism is even more unusual, that the printer’s wax-based ink can produce an unpleasant odor while melting. Now I’m not one to go over to a printer, put my nose against it and smell it. But I did, with that 8500DN, which uses the same ink as its big brother. Now maybe growing up in the northeast has suppressed my ability to detect unsavory odors, but I could not smell a thing. Not so with many laser printers, where the stench of spent toner can be detected without much difficulty.

    So as I proceed in evaluating the printer, what am I to make of this strange review? It could be that some of the oddities are the result of receiving a defective unit, or simply not taking the time to read the spec sheet and the manual, as reviewers are supposed to do. Or perhaps it’s the result of some unnamed editor attempting to present a particular viewpoint without regard to the actual facts.

    To be sure, the 8500/8550 series is rather unique among workgroup printers and my initial exposure has been highly encouraging, but, unlike some writers out there, I’m not going to make any snap judgments until I spend more time with the product.

    Update: After writing this article, I contacted one of the two authors of that review, just to see if I could get a better understanding of the apparent flaws in the article. The message exchange has been frustrating. One of the authors stands by the results, yet her only detailed response contradicts two major points in the article. In the end, I’m even more troubled by the review and the serious errors it contains, and I’m particularly concerned over the fact that at least one of the authors remains oblivious to those errors, which are quite obvious. I’ll have more to say on the subject after my initial evaluation of the 8500DN is complete.



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