Laser printers are the best option for small organisations that want speedy prints, low running costs and efficiency in the workplace.

They are cheaper, faster and cleaner to run than inkjets, though obviously you pay more for these efficiencies and more for replacements, too. At just over £200, the E340 represents the bottom end of Lexmark's range in business printing terms, with the rest of its business printers scaling up and away towards monstrous enterpriselevel machines. In this context, the E340 is a no-frills printer that gets on well with small group jobs and can be relied on for speedy, professional black-andwhite document printing.

For a good comparison, sit the E340 next to HP's equivalently priced mono laser, the HP 1320. We think this highlights the virtues of the former. HP is the market leader in this sector, but the E340 gives the Goliath a serious run for its money. Aside from being more compact and a bit cheaper to buy, the E340 simply looks more pleasing to the eye, with its squat Humvee lines and black and grey casing. It looks reliable and sturdy and, true to form, has power in abundance.

More power

Lexmark has improved the processor speed over the previous E332n from 200MHz to the E340's 366MHz, with 32MB of RAM and options to raise this to 160MB if needs be. This new level is three times the chip speed of the HP 1320 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, will produces faster print times, too.

The E340 will run out pages at between 28-32 pages per minute depending on the print set-up, which compares to just 21 pages for the HP 1320. In reality, it's hard to think of a home-business situation where you would need faster printing than either of those speeds, but for small businesses the faster batch time could be reason buy.

Where this printer is likely to be used the most is for printing small jobs, such as letters and the like, and running small batches of between one and four pages at a time. Here another favourable time is achieved. The E340 prints the first sheet in just 7.5 seconds, which is about a second faster than the HP.

The costs of consumables for the printer are reasonable, though HP has much better distribution and a more ready supply. A new standard-yield cartridge for the E340 will cost £56, and a replacement for the HP 1320 costs just a pound less at £55. Both will give you 2,500 pages of life, which is a standard at this level. Higher-yield cartridges are available and make more financial sense. The 6,000-page cartridge for the E340 costs just £81, for example, so has more than double the life.

One problem we found with the Lexmark cartridges is that they are a bit hard to pick up in the UK from a reseller. We phoned around a few of the bigger cartridge supplies vendors and had no joy. Your best bet is to buy from one of the bigger online US retailers, or from Lexmark direct. HP has an advantage here as its supply chains octopus the world fairly comprehensively, so you can get faster local delivery. This shouldn't be a problem for a well-organised office manager, but in a fix it could become one.

Prints and tones

Common sense says it must be possible to source cartridges for the E340 from a UK reseller, but from where exactly wasn't immediately obvious. At least once you have found a new cartridge and are at the stage where you can replace it, it is a very simple two-stage task on this front-loading machine.

In terms of print quality, we had a bit of trouble discerning tonally close shades of grey and black - the sensitivity was a bit blunt. Fortunately, the problem was easy to rectify as the default level of toner darkness was set too high. Resetting the toner at the four mark is recommended for optimum results.

The on-board software is very simple to use. There are also only four control buttons to get used to and the menu is next to the LCD. It's all very easy. Changing the print resolution setting from its maximum of 1,200dpi down to its minimum of 300dpi is about as easy as accessing a text message on you mobile phone.

Lexmark has done a commendable job with the E340 and built a very strong product. It will be interesting to see how well it does in the market against HP's offerings. The only real problem it faces is that most office managers pick new printers on brand loyalty. James Ellerbeck

The E340 is a no-frills printer that gets on well with small jobs and can be relied on for speedy printing