Hewlett-Packard Makes Business' Best Friend

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- With the annual tax nightmare finally over, it's time to take a look at what passes for an imaging system in that office of yours.

I don't know about you, but in my world, tax time just rubs it in on how poorly small businesses -- mine included -- produce, manage and distribute paper documents. Take a look around your office and what do you see? Chances are, it's paper. In piles. In folders. In notebooks. In piles inside of folders that are inside of notebooks that make up more piles. Don't even pretend that's not you.

Major imaging vendors like Xerox ( XRX), Canon ( CAJ), Brother and Lexmark ( LXK) do their best to sell us stuff meant to unpaper our lives. But actually killing a pile, that's another matter indeed.

So how rare -- and wonderful -- is it to find a modestly priced, modestly featured imaging tool that does exactly what a small business needs: quickly, inexpensively and simply print, scan, copy and fax basic black-and-white paper business documents.

Meet HP LaserJet M1212nf MFP ($199).

What you get: a seriously easy small-business imaging system.

Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) had no answer as to why it took the company so long to get hip with small biz doc need: a desktop laserjet printer, scanner, fax and copier that is svelte enough to fit on a shelf, reasonably priced to buy and keep in ink and idiot-proof enough to not only print, scan, fax and copy, but to set up and troubleshoot as well.

But Hewlett-Packard has done it at last: The 1212 is small: With add-on trays, the usual spacer killer with multifunction printers, it's less than 14 inches wide, just over a foot high and 17 inches long, which really will fit on any cubical shelf.

HP then cleverly built the drivers and other software into the digital guts of the printer itself. So, no, there are stupid CDs to lose or software to download. Just plug in the USB connector, follow the instructions and you're done. My test unit actually set up a tricky network configuration without issue. That's not easy. Paper output was fast, at 19 pages per minute, scanning ran at a hefty 1,200-by-1,200 dots per inch. And a fat stack of 150 pieces of paper fit into the tray.

Replacement laserjet ink cartridges run a reasonable $90-ish, which should last the average business close to a year, or about half the cost of inkjets, and for some paper types, in-line with true laser printers. Again, impressive stuff.

And while far from perfect, the 1212 took all of 12 minutes to set up and has worked dead on since. What's not to love?

What you don't get: Don't misinterpret my enthusiasm to expect the 1212 is a full-featured imaging device.

The 1212 solves a problem, not all problems. It only prints black and white. And image quality, while perfectly fine, is nowhere near the best printers on the market. And $199, and $90 for the cartridge is, believe it or not, a lot of money for a printer. And sophisticated network- and document-sharing is beyond this unit.

Listen up: You will be wasting your money if you expect the 1212 to do anything more than to create moderate-output, black-and-white business documents.

Bottom line: Yes, it's a sad world, indeed, when a well-done, black-and-white printer rates as newsworthy. But such is the state of small-business documents. If you want a a simple, good value imaging device, the 1212 is the one to consider.

Now, if someone could figure out how to kill off the rest of my piles, I'd be all set.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.