Of the many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of digital photos most of us take in a typical year, an average of just 25 graduate from the camera or PC and see the light of day as prints. While the world has quickly embraced the idea of taking digital snaps, turning them into prints has yet to prove anywhere near as popular.

We happily share our digital photos with friends and casual browsers on the web, or send them electronically via email, but printing takes a bit more thought and effort - and it usually costs a bundle.

Tightening the purse strings

Colour printing has always suffered this notion. It's something of a misapprehension.

Printing in colour has never been so inexpensive, giving the lie to the wisdom that doing so is a fine way to spew away money. For home users inkjets have traditionally been the way to go, offering affordable cartridges coupled with low hardware costs. But their resolutions and printing papers often yielded poor results.

Laser printers were a better bet, but colour lasers were only to be found in offices closely guarded by IT managers conscious of the cost of replacement consumables.

The picture has changed in the past three years or so, however, with colour laser printer manufacturers aggressively targeting the home and small business markets. Prices have dropped like a stone: while the models in this month's group test span a range of prices, the Xerox model we review here costs just £219 while the Konica Minolta 2500W in our Top 5 chart, comes in at only £180 inc VAT.

Inkjet manufacturers are trying to fight back, however. At the company's 2007 inkjet printing business conference, Epson's European director for inkjet business, Robert Clark spoke of “constantly reducing prices” over the next five years.

What they are battling over is the emerging demand for high-quality printing, at reasonable cost. This will match the move upmarket from low-end digital cameras capable of capturing between three and five megapixels - and consequently able to satisfactorily print at sizes little more than A5 - to hobbyists and semi-professional photographers with multimegapixel compact and digital SLR cameras.

Such users are more likely to invest time and effort in printing their efforts and are a major growth area for manufacturers.

At the same time as laser printers have become more affordable, the industry has begun to act on consumer discontent about consumable costs. Until very recently, it was extremely difficult to get anything approaching an accurate idea of how much it would cost to print a page in colour - whether that be on a laser printer or an inkjet. There was no uniform standard for hardware manufacturers to subscribe to and reticence on their part about revealing the cost-per-page calculations.

Consumable care

The International Standards Organisation, along with the Japanese government and organisations such as the UK's Office of Fair Trading, have brought pressure to bear. Big-name manufacturers such as Canon, HP, Lexmark and Epson are working towards agreeing upon an industry standard for measuring inkjet coverage.

ISO 24712 will act as a standard so that measuring print yields and calculating print costs across printers made by different companies will be much easier. For everyday printing, this standard takes a mixture of monochrome and colour documents with a standard five percent ink coverage.

You should bear in mind the cost of replacing the toner and drum for a colour laser printer, too. A drum may last for up to 10,000 pages so, while a significant expense, it's not something you're likely to do more than once a year to 18 months.

However, with printer hardware and consumable costs at an all-time low, buying a colour laser makes more sense than ever.

How we test

As we've outlined throughout this group test, the total cost of ownership is at least as important as the initial purchase price when choosing a colour laser printer. Given the difficulty of ascertaining precise figures, we've calculated these based on the print and drum life of each model and the cost of replacement consumables.

For the performance speed tests we hooked up each printer to the same Windows test PC, printed on standard paper throughout our tests and calculated the processing time separately from the actual print time. We allowed each printer to warm up as the time to first print is not indicative of how long it takes to complete subsequent pages in a multi-page print job.

We printed 10 pages of the colour test file containing a Jpeg image. We assessed the resulting prints for accuracy and consistency of colour, having first calibrated the printer and test PC. We found the time to print for a single colour page all but identical to that when printing multiple colour pages. We also printed off 10 pages of monochrome text at a standard five percent coverage.

As well as calculating running costs, print speed and quality, we scored each printer for build quality, features and usability.

Business users will find features such as large-capacity input trays and duplex printing particularly valuable, while we've commented where a printer is particularly large or compact since size can be critical for a cramped home office - or if you need to lug the unit up the stairs. We commented where there were any particular setup issues, but in general found installation straightforward.

The overall scores are an amalgamation of the value, performance, build and feature sets of each printer tested.

Click on the following links for our colour laser printer reviews:

Epson Aculaser C1100

HP 2700n

Konica Minolta Magicolor 2550

Lexmark C530dn

Oki C8800n

Xerox Phaser 6180