A rash of 2,400dpi inkjet printers have hit the market in the last few months, varying in price from the Z52’s $179 to almost $400. The printers all claim to offer 2,400dpi output, although some do this by interpolation and averaging instead of generating a true 2,400 dots of final image. Lexmark provided one of their Z52 Color Jetprinters for us to look at. After they read this review, they’ll probably wish they hadn’t.

The Lexmark Z52 can be connected to a PC or a Macintosh and there are CD-ROMs with drivers and support software for both platforms. Installing the printer is simple enough: plug in either the USB or the parallel port cable, let the operating system find the printer, and load the drivers off the CD-ROM. On our newly installed Windows 98 Second Edition test system, the install went awry, first with the system hanging up while loading the Lexmark software, and then after a reboot, freezing yet again on the driver. After removing the driver completely and installing from CD-ROM after a reboot, the software loaded without problem. Still, the glitch with the driver load would cause problems for anyone not familiar with Windows and drivers. The problem repeated itself on a second system, so something in the install software needs fixing.

The problem didn’t stop there. After booting the machine after the driver install, the system would start to hang on the Lexmark driver (lexpps). Ending the lexpps task would allow the system to be used again, and the printer was still usable. Even stranger our Windows 98 machine failed to recognize its network card anymore after lexpps was loaded. The Lexmark Web site has no information on the problem with lexpps, nor an updated version, but Lexmark needs to look at this issue. We disabled lexpps for our tests as our systems were not stable with it running.

After installation, the Z52 prompts you to install the ink cartridges (if not already done), and then initiates a printer alignment utility. This utility prints a full page of lines, and you have to select the lines that look the straightest, inputting that number on an alignment page. The entire process took only a minute, and the factory defaults are close enough for those who want to skip this step.

The Z52 uses two cartridges: one for black and the other for color. This is simpler than competing 2400dpi printers such as Canon’s which uses individual cartridges for each color and black, but does mean that if you use up a single color, such as blue, you have to replace the entire cartridge anyway. Unless you’re printing a lot of single-color dominant photos, though, this isn’t going to matter that much.

The print utility that pops up when you go to print has four different quality settings: draft (300dpi), normal (600dpi), high (1200dpi) and photo (2400dpi). There are also two settings for color saturation: vivid and natural. An automatic selection (the default) chooses a balance between the two. Finally, a black setting is for all-black text or images. There’s a selection window for paper type, as well as a timer for drying prints if you want to use it. An advanced page tab in the printer property sheet allows better control of individual colors, brightness and contrast, as well as settings for halftone. The advanced settings can be used to manipulate an image, but the effect is rather hit-and-miss and should really be done with editing software prior to printing.

Printing speed is dependent on the quality and photo complexity. The progress of a print request is shown in a window on the screen, along with print cartridge ink levels. In the Draft setting of 300dpi, pages take about one minute to print but the quality is pathetic. At 600dpi (Normal mode) a typical page takes three minutes, while at High (1200dpi), a photo can take up to eight minutes to print. Lexmark claims the printer is good for 15ppm but this figure is based on draft black content pages only, which is misleading for consumers considering the printer. For images with any color density at all, such as photos, the ink over-saturates even premium inkjet paper and bleeds across edges. In the Photo mode on photo paper, a full-page photograph can take from ten to fifteen minutes to print. Even on the highest settings with the best paper, there is still a slight bleed problem, as well as jagged edges between colors.

One cause of the color bleed problem is the speed at which the paper feed device grabs sheets of paper from the paper hopper. In its rush to feed paper to the printer, the paper often gets twisted slightly out of square. This causes registration and alignment problems at one edge of the page, as the photo of a section of the jellybean picture shows. The problem corrects itself a little towards the center of the photo, but the edges of the jellybeans still show alignment problems and color bleed, even on the highest quality paper. The overall alignment of the picture on the page, printed from Photoshop, is uneven and requires a lot of experimentation to correct.

Expect to spend quite a bit on cartridges for the Z52. The color cartridge that accompanied the printer lasted only fifteen color-saturated high-resolution print jobs. The drain is less in lower resolution modes, of course, but since most readers are going to be interested in the Z52 for its photographic output, that’s the way we tested this unit. While the Z52 does generate 2,400dpi output, much the output resolution appears to be interpolation of adjacent pixels and not true pixel-by-pixel output from the source. This is evident in Photoshop, which allows you to set pixel counts accurately and compare an on-screen image to the Z52 output.

Overall, the Lexmark Z52 doesn’t live up to its billing. The cartridges don’t last very long, print speeds are comparable or slower than many other 2400dpi printers, and the alignment problems and color registration results are below the standard set by some other printers. Problems with the print driver are unforgivable, especially since most users of this type of printer are going to want a true plug-and-play experience. The Lexmark Z52 is at the low end of the pricing for a 2,400 dpi photo-quality printer, but the low price reflects the quality. If you can afford a few dollars more, you can get much better output.

Rating: 2/5

Summary: Inexpensive 2,400dpi printer with driver problems, minor alignment problems, and minor color saturation and registration problems. Skip this one unless it’s all you can afford.