To access ink cartridges, the 942 yawns open across the middle of the base. Once open, a plastic bar drops into place to prop up the lid, freeing room for your hands to pop the cartridges in and out. Because the Dell 942 holds only two cartridges at a time, you'll become intimately familiar and probably annoyed with swapping inks when you want to print photos and text in rapid succession. A sensor conveniently distinguishes between plain, coated, or glossy paper and transparencies and adjusts the settings to match; but you can override those settings if you wish.
With an external power supply fitting into the back of the machine, the Dell 942 power cord thankfully lacks the bulky converter brick that would otherwise hog space on the floor or around your power socket.With its LCD, full-featured control panel, and built-in scanner, the Dell 942 all-in-one photo printer can do a lot without your computer. You can slap a document on the glass bed and punch a button for standalone color or black copies. And by scrolling down the LCD menu, you can tweak photocopy quality, squeeze an original to print it up to 16 times on a page, and shrink or enlarge copies. The control panel is easy to use, thanks to function-specific buttons and a four-way rocker button for navigating the menu.
When you insert a memory card, the system switches into photo mode. This allows you to display and print photo thumbnails; view images as a slide show; or rotate, crop, adjust, and print pictures. But of course, you'll have to stop and switch ink if you were just printing a black text document earlier. With 32MB of RAM, the Dell 942 easily zipped through a photo card full of high-resolution images in CNET Labs' tests. The menus also let you upload photos straight from a memory card to your PC. However, the 942 lacks one common multifunction feature: a standalone fax. Using Windows' Fax Console software and your PC's fax modem, you could scan a document, convert its format, and send it--but that's a lot of work. Still, many multifunctions lack any fax capabilities at all, so this could work for you if you need to fax only once in a while.
When connected to a PC, the Dell 942 serves as a printer and a scanner, as well. Dell includes applications to edit card images on your PC, but both are crippleware: after 90 days Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8.0 expires, and Jasc Paint Shop Photo Album 4.0 reverts to a limited version. You also get the full Abbyy FineReader Sprint 5.0 optical character recognition package, which converts scanned images of text files into text you can edit on your PC.
Dell's software provides useful functions, too. The printer driver lets you set up duplex jobs and create booklets, reduce and print several pages on one sheet, produce banners, and enlarge a page into a poster. An I Want To menu walks you through printing envelopes and posters. A separate utility, the All-in-One Center, guides you through scans, faxes, and copies by making sure you pick the appropriate resolution, color depth, image cleanup, and so on. If you're new to scanning, the Dell 942 makes it easy.
The printer comes with large ink cartridges at $24.95 for black and $29.95 for color. Don't forget that you'll need to buy a $24.95 photo cartridge right away, since you don't get one in the box. If you don't plan to print much, Dell sells smaller replacement cartridges for a few dollars less.The Dell 942 all-in-one photo printer topped the chart in CNET Labs' text printing speed tests, pumping out 7ppm, far ahead of other multifunction printers. It took 4.8 minutes to print a high-resolution 8x10 photo, against the 9.6 minutes spent by the Lexmark X7170.
The Dell 942's scanner was also speedy, producing 4.2ppm for grayscale documents and 3ppm for color. This device also photocopied 3.5ppm, again the fastest we've seen. Throughout our tests, the Dell 942 worked flawlessly overall and exceeded our expectations for a multifunction of its class. This unit was tested with it default settings, which can be adjusted to improve the performance.
For the most part, we liked the Dell 942's solid black text prints. It was hard to read at the smallest fonts but clear enough to decipher at 3-point size--impressive for an inkjet. Big letters showed choppiness or rough edges, especially inside curves, but text looked even, smooth, and clean. Color prints looked even better than text, with smooth shading transitions, fine detail, and accurate colors. Unfortunately, the document showed graininess throughout. Photographs came out grainy and a bit warm, though dynamic range was decent. We also saw signs of posterization, a banding effect produced by reducing the number of gray tones in an image.