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September 2000

Lexmark Optra E312 Laser Printer

By Isaac Leung ©September 2000

Lexmark Optra E312 Product Info: http://www.lexmark.com/printers/laser/Optra/E312.html
Drivers: http://drivers.lexmark.com/drivers.nsf/printer+driver/D04FDC349E5CC940852561540050828B?OpenDocument
Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price: $399US or $636CDN
Street Price: $585CDN

Why the Lexmark?

When I set out to find an entry level laser printer for home use, I initially had my eye on just two. Either the HP 1100 or Lexmark E310. In past experience, HP's had always served me well in the office and, of course, OS/2 compatibility was a requirement, so that pretty much narrowed down the field to these two contenders. In addition, it was to be a lightly used home printer, so any of the higher end (i.e. expensive!) models from either company were ruled out.

It didn't take too long for me to reject the HP 1100, which had the same street price as the Optra E310 (within $5!). The E310 got great reviews in the local computer press, and for the price, it was more fully featured. Even better, I found out that the E310 was discontinued in favour of the newer Optra E312, which was even better (more RAM and faster), and cheaper to boot!
Lexmark Optra E312
HP 1100
10 ppm
8 ppm
600DPI w/ 1200DPI enhancement
PCL6 and Postscript 2
Parallel and USB
10,000 page/month
5,000 page/month
Win 3.xx, 9x, 2000, NT 3.51, NT 4.0; DOS 5.0 and up, IBM OS/2 2.1 or higher, AS/400, UNIX, AIX 4.x; Compaq Tru64 UNIX 4.0, HP UNIX 10.x, 11.x; Red Hat Linux 5.2, 6.0 or higher; SCO OpenServer 5.x, Unixware 2.1.x, 7; SGI IRIX 6.x; Sun Solaris x86, 2.5, 2.6, 7, 8, Sun Solaris 2.5, 2.6, 7, 8; SuSE 6.1 Linux or later; Caldera OpenLinux 2.3 or later; Turbo Linux Workstation 3.6 or later; Apple Macintosh 7.5
DOS, Win3.xx, Win9x, 2000, WinNT, OS/2

Just look at that list of supported platforms. Incredible! At least on paper, the Lexmark wins the spec. shoot-out hands down.

It also looks way cooler. :)

But how does it live up to its promises? I set out to check it out on the only USB capable system I have. My trusty IBM Thinkpad 770X! Pentium II 300MHz, 128MB RAM Warp 4 + Fixpak 13.

Hardware Setup

I opened up the box to check out my new toy. It was fairly well packed and easy to take out. Inside, it came with the following: Manual, Toner Cartridge, Driver CD, Power cord, French face plate and the Printer!

Nope, no parallel or USB cables, so don't forget to pick one up. The HP apparently comes with one though. For the small price of some cables, I felt they should've just included the cables in the box and tacked on an extra $20 or whatever it is for a USB and Parallel cable. (I got one extra little goody probably not available elsewhere, which is that "French Face Plate". I'm talking about that little control panel on the front that comes with the English one installed by default. Only in Canada...)

Installation was a simple matter of slipping in the new toner cartridge, plugging in the power cable and the parallel cable. Yes, I have to admit, I played it dangerous and didn't read the manual first. (I did go back later, and I assure you, the instructions for setting it up are very clear and concise).

Software Setup

So how did the OS/2 experience stack up? Well, there can't be much higher praise when I say that it wasn't much of an experience to speak of. The documentation was simple and straightforward. Not that you have to really read it. Right on the root directory of the CD, just run the file called SETUPOS2.EXE

An installation dialog pops up with a big list of options. All are rather descriptive and there are no mystery options.

Install Dialog

Just click on "OK" to install both the Postscript 2 and PCL 6 driver. And that's it! I'm not sure how to make it much easier! Once the installation is done, you'll have two printer objects (one for PCL and one for Postscript) and also a new folder is created with a bunch of Lexmark Printer Utilities.

Install Dialog

MarkVision is a utility for managing your printers, much like HP's JetAdmin. I've heard it's actually gotten pretty good reviews in the press, but I didn't get a chance to test this out. It's unlikely any user of the Optra E312 will get a chance to play with this, as it is really only useful if you're managing several networked printers.

Driver Features

Check out the "Properties" available on the PCL6 driver. I installed the drivers under Win98 as well, and OS/2 doesn't take a back seat here in terms of driver features or quality!

PCL Dialog

It even has a "Web" tab with one click buttons to take you to the Driver, Supplies, Tech Support or Lexmark Home page on the web. There so many options, I don't even know what to do with some of them. Thankfully, the "Help" is relatively thorough and clearly explains each option. (Though there are some options listed in the Help that don't seem to be applicable to this particular model). Now that's a full featured printer driver!

The Postscript properties page is not quite as detailed as the PCL driver, but still just as complete as any other PS printer. You can even adjust for gamma.

PS Dialog

Bugs? What about any problems? The only bug I encountered is if I pressed the "Cancel" button in the PCL printer setup, it would lock up the application. Pressing "CTRL-ESC" brought up the good ol' Warp dialog to ask me to kill the unresponsive process, which it does nicely. This problem occurred seemingly randomly and I've only seen it twice to date, and I've been unable to replicate the problem reliably. I don't know if this is inherent to the Lexmark drivers or OS/2 in general (though I don't recall it when I used the HP 5MX/Si drivers). For now, I guess I can't really blame this on Lexmark yet without further testing.

USB Support

Since Round 1 was such a let down, I decided to try for USB printing. Here, maybe I would finally get some adventure! First, you need to download USB printer support for OS/2 from IBM's OS/2 Device Driver Repository. Unlike the other USB device support files, USBPRTEN.EXE is a complete, standalone package. There is no need to download the USBBASIC.EXE package first. (My only complaint is that perhaps Lexmark should've included this on the CD. After all, the Win98 USB stuff seems to be there, and the USB drivers have been specifically tested with the Optra 310. However, in all fairness to OS/2 or Lexmark, I couldn't get the USB working under Windows98, despite it being "smart", detecting the new device and offering to install the new drivers for me. I didn't really fight too hard with it, as I don't usually use Windows98 to get any "real" work done anyways).

I ran the self-extracting executable and followed the instructions. There are 6, count 'em, 6 very simple, clearly explained steps telling you how to install USB support for your printer. It was very comforting to note that the README stated that it had been tested on the Optra E310 already. If you can read English, you pretty much can't go wrong. One reboot later and the deed was done. Uhh. Yeah. And that's about it for Round 2. I fired up Word Pro again to print out a test page. It came out as expected, very anti-climactic. For what it's worth, I didn't notice any slow down printing from the USB port either. One goodie that I found very useful about this printer was that it can simultaneously take a connection on the USB and the parallel port. Since I just happen to have 2 machines that require the services of this printer, this saves me a big headache in having to get a printer switchbox or some such device to share the printer.

Print Testing

So how does the inexpensive printer stack up in use? Well first of all, it has a gravity fed paper tray at the rear. I think that's pretty much standard for most printers around this price range. I had no complaints about the paper feed, but if you're heavy user, you should note that it only holds 150 sheets. (Then again, if that is a problem, you probably shouldn't be using such a printer in this case). The output tray only holds 100 sheets, but again, this shouldn't be a problem in the target market.

For an initial test document, I picked the Optra E312 specification sheet itself (.PDF) because it contained a nice mix of graphics and text. No trouble printing from OS/2 and no slow down or anything when it was spooling. But after that experience, I'm off searching for more RAM. If you're going to be doing heavy graphics regularly, you'll quickly find that 4MB is not enough to get a printout in decent time.

Fortunately, it takes a standard 72-pin SIMM. But be aware that you need to have SIMM's with low-profile chips or ones with chips only on one side. The SIMM lays down at an angle, and there are other components that could get in the way, preventing it from physically fitting in. The upgrade slot is easily accessible underneath the printer. One half of the bottom swings out, held on by three screws. There are 2 slots available, one for standard memory and the other for a FLASH memory SIMM.

The file did print without any problems. The text was very crisp and legible, no smearing or fuzziness or anything like that. A good, solid black and no alignment problems. If I had to compare to a big HP 8000 network printer that I use at work, I'd say the quality was the same. No complaints about the text!

The images were perhaps another matter, though I'd have to try some more to be sure it's not an issue specific to this document. It seemed like 600DPI wasn't quite enough for my taste. Certainly, it didn't look like any photo-realistic black and white image. To be fair, this is not an issue specific to the Optra E312. For most people, 600DPI will be more than sufficient. (I remember being impressed when we got our first 600DPI laser printer and I compared a 300DPI image side by side)!

Do I need 1200DPI? Well, the Optra E312 supports a virtual 1200DPI mode, even under OS/2, so I tried the same document with all the enhancements turned on. PQET (Print Quality Enhancement Technology) supposedly smoothes the edges of graphics and text. Okay, turn it on! Bitmaps? Select 24-bit grayscale levels! Finally, the resolution, I chose the 1200DPI Image Quality setting.

With all the settings turned on, it took even longer for the document to print. Comparing the images side to side, the "maximum quality" settings appeared to have better contrast. However, with this document at least, any resolution improvements were not discernible.


The Lexmark Optra E312 is an entry-level laser printer which is very well specified against its competitors in its price class. One very nice feature is support for the simultaneous use of the USB and Parallel port from different computers. Anyone looking for a Postscript capable printer will find this one extremely hard to beat for the price. (I don't think it has any Postscript competitors in this price range). Though there are a few minor complaints, these aren't really an issue for the target market, and are only of concern for the spoiled user who's been accustomed to the higher-end laser printers. Any users with heavy graphics requirements will likely want to expand beyond the standard 4MB, even though this is quite generous for printers in this class.

For the OS/2 user, it's a printer that is officially, and fully supported for use under our favourite platform. It performs near flawlessly under OS/2 and is at least as feature complete as the equivalent Win9x drivers. Any home OS/2 user will have a hard time arguing the case for another entry-level laser printer, at least for now.

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