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Lexmark C543dn Colour Laser Printer

Lexmark's C543dn color laser printer sports a completely new engine and is available at a temptingly low price (US$399 as of 12/16/08). A small office printing simple, everyday documents might find it a good value--especially considering a duplexer comes standard. But if you need to print complex graphics, you'll find faster-printing, better-looking results elsewhere.

Setting up the printer was largely a smooth process, with just one problem: the layout of the setup guide. With 24 languages jammed on each page, reading even the top line of English can induce dizziness--let alone finding one's native tongue somewhere in the middle.

The C543dn produced mixed results on our speed and print quality tests. It printed text at a decent clip of 19.8 pages per minute (ppm)--about average compared with other color lasers we've tested. The text itself looked black and pretty crisp. Color graphics proved to be a tougher haul, as they came out very slowly: The C543dn's top speed of 2.8 ppm lagged much of the competition's by a wide margin. Color graphics and photos looked pretty natural on plain paper, but photos appeared surprisingly worse on Lexmark's own glossy laser paper: washed-out, grainy, and oddly tinged. The upshot: Stick to plain paper, and prepare for a wait.

The boxy printer's configuration has one nice bonus, standard automatic duplexing. Everything else is basic: a 250-sheet main input tray with a manual-feed slot, and a 100-sheet top output area. If you need more paper capacity, a 550-sheet second drawer costs $199. That seems pricey, but it includes a 100-sheet multipurpose feeder. The control panel is minimal but usable, with a two-line monochrome LCD and self-explanatory navigation buttons.

Maintaining the printer is fairly simple. The new engine features keyed toner supplies nestled behind a door on the side of the printer--which makes for easier access than having to open up the printer's guts. While it's initially unclear whether you should pull or push on the cartridge release levers, instructions inside the compartment door eased my confusion. Trickier, but rarer, tasks include replacing the toner reservoir and the print heads.

Low-cost lasers tend to have high-cost consumables, but the C543dn offers some relief. In a surprisingly generous gesture, the machine ships with the high-yield, returnable versions of its toner supplies: 2500-page black (K) cartridge, and 2000-page cyan (C), magenta (M), and yellow (Y) cartridges. Replacing these supplies would cost $70 for black and $83 for each color, resulting in acceptable costs of 2.8 cents per plain text page and 15 cents per color page (using all four colors). Avoid the lower-yield, 1000-page supplies, because they are extremely pricey: black costs $68 or 7 cents per page, while each color costs $90 or 9 cents per page. A four-color page would cost a whopping 34 cents.

The C543dn must live down Lexmark's worse-than-average rating for reliability in PC World's Service and Reliability Survey. Let's hope it can overcome its past, because it would make a decent, low-cost printer for small offices with light graphics needs.