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If you're cramped for space -- trying to squeeze all your electronic gear onto a dorm-room desk or setting up a home office in a studio apartment -- it's time to consider an all-in-one printer. These multifunction machines can print, scan, copy, and sometimes fax, and they hog a lot less desktop surface than the array of standalone machines that do the same things.

I looked at a handful of all-in-ones, from the $100 Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) PSC 1510 to the much more capable $250 Canon (CAJ) Pixma MP760. In between, I tried out Brother's MFP-420cn and the Epson Stylus CX6600, either of which can be had for about $140 to $200, depending on how diligently you shop.

I tested only inkjet models. You won't get the crisp, clear text of a laser printer, but it's good enough for most purposes. The bonus with inkjets is that you get color prints and copies without breaking the bank. That includes color photos, which color laser printers can't really handle.

If you haven't shopped for multifunction printers lately, you'll be surprised at how much they can do. To use them as copy machines or photo printers, you don't even need to hook them up to a computer. You undoubtedly will, though, since you're buying a printer mostly to churn out text documents. Still, you don't have to fire up your computer if all you want to do is make an occasional copy or print a snapshot.

FAT BRIEFCASE

Where space is really tight, you'll want to see the HP and Brother models. They're each about the size of a bulging briefcase. These two are best if you mainly want a multifunction printer for copying and printing text and graphics. They can do all the tricks, such as reducing and enlarging copies, even photos. But I wasn't impressed with the picture quality of either. The HP prints are a little fuzzy and lack detail; the Brother's look grainier than those from the other printers.

Neither has a display to preview individual pictures before you print them. The HP has no slots for camera memory cards, so you have to hook up your camera or boot up your computer to print a photo. (The PSC 1610 model, for $20 more, has card slots.)

Despite its just O.K. snapshots, the Brother has a couple of features hard to find on a printer in its price range. It has a built-in fax machine, and it can be networked to two or more computers, handy if you have a roommate and want to share a printer. It's also the only one I looked at with an automatic document feeder to copy a stack of papers instead of doing them one at a time.

If you need a digital darkroom that also can handle the other office functions, you'll be better off getting the Canon or Epson printers. These are not space savers -- they're taller and bulkier than the HP or Brother models -- but the quality of their photos is much closer to that of professionally printed images. The pricey Canon printer can even scan film negatives and slides -- which means you can print photos directly from processed film.

So if space is your issue or if you want to unclutter your desk, take a look at an all-in-one model. It won't set you back much more than an ordinary inkjet printer, and you'll find yourself using it a whole lot more.

By Larry Armstrong


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