Selecting a new printer 1995
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1995. First
published in Our Computer Player, October 1995
One of the big lies in computing has been 'the
paperless office'. Presumably,
once we have these digital tools, we no longer need to put our thoughts
onto paper-- we can save files instead of filing papers, fax directly
other computers, send e-mail, exchange documents on disk or over the
Sounds good, but it doesn't seem to work that way.
Maybe it's because
no one really likes reading large quantities of text on screen.
even though you can buy hundreds of great works of literature on a CD
or two, no one is likely to curl up with their computer in place of a
Instead, computer users seem to produce more paper,
not less... some
of this may be that we all want to see our ideas, on paper-- so-called
hard copy. And since computers make making changes easy, we take a look
at the printed output, make some changes on-screen, and print again.
I first started with a laser printer and DTP software, I often found
printing 30 or more test pages, before finalizing a design. Slowly,
gotten better about this).
So a computer user without a printer seems sort of
like an electric
guitar player without an amplifier-- lacking a way to share his or her
creations with the rest of the world.
Buying a printer today means more choices, and better
quality, at even
more affordable choices than ever before. But before going shopping,
worthwhile to ask yourself a few questions, about how you expect to use
your new toy.
-- is it for personal use, small business, or a large
office? A few
copies now and again, or a relatively non-stop usage? Single user or on
a network? Adult-only use, or will there be kids using it?
-- do you need to print multiple-part forms?
Envelopes? Unusual paper
-- will you be primarily printing text? Relatively
Photographs? Is colour a welcome frill or a vital need?
-- do you need a printer that can go on the road with
you? One that
can fit in a restricted space? Should you combine other functions like
fax or scanning or copying?
-- what computer platform and operating system do you
use-- most of
the time, and some of the time? Will you be producing test pages for
that will be eventually printed professionally?
If you can answer those questions, then you're ready
to think of a budget.
Printers can start at a bit over $100 for a low-resolution dot-matrix
to close to $10,000 for a colour laser. We'd all like colour laser
at an entry-level price, so be prepared to make some compromises
what you'd like and what you can afford, in order to settle on what you
Maybe we're ready to look at some options.
Dot-matrix and Daisy-wheels
These two printer types are both 'impact printers'...
like a typewriter,
something hits a ribbon, making a mark on paper. Daisy-wheels, the
quality printers' of the early-80s, use actual formed characters, on a
removable wheel. Dot matrix printers produce letters out of tiny dots.
Daisy wheels are hard to find today-- while their print quality was
they were limited to a single font and size (unless you changed the
to a different font or size). And they couldn't print graphics. Dot
printers have lost a great deal of their former popularity, but have
a few market niches... very low price (and low quality) printers, very
high speed, industrial strength printers, and anything that needs to
on multiple-part forms. Your corner video-store probably uses a
printer so that both you and the store can have a copy of your rental
The classic dot-matrix machine-gun like roar has become quieter over
years, but it's still too loud for many settings.
In most cases, unless you really need to print
multi-part forms, I'd
avoid dot-matrix printers. Their poor print quality, combined with
awkward paper handling doesn't make them something I'd recommend,
you really can't afford anything else.
As dot-matrix printers have lost their former
popularity among home
and small office users, ink jet models have filled the gap. These
are whisper quiet... like dot-matrix printers, they form letters and
out of tiny dots, but rather than hammering onto a ribbon, in jets
tiny dots of liquid ink right onto the paper.
The trick here is to let the ink dry without
smudging-- ink formulations
have gotten better, but it's still a potential problem. Don't handle
page for a moment or two when it first comes out of the printer! As
different papers respond differently to the liquid ink-- some, even
letterhead paper, may 'wick'... soaking up the ink like a tiny sponge.
Try out some brands of paper designed for your printer, and decide
the increased print quality is worth the price.
Ink jets occupy the low-to-middle of the price range,
from just a few
hundred dollars, up to $800 or so. Today, all but a few models offer
printing, but quality varies. The better models load four different
at a time-- three for colour, plus black. Three-colour models produce a
pseudo-black, by mixing all three colours. This black looks more like a
dark olive-green to my eyes. Luckily, these models let you replace the
colour cartridge with a black one, if you want to print black and white
text or graphics.
Ink jet print quality often gets called 'near-laser',
but to get the
best quality, be prepared to buy coated papers. And you'll find that
the printers themselves are affordable, the cost of ink and paper is
high, producing higher cost per copy than with either less-expensive
matrix, or pricier laser printers. And the cost for colour pages is
higher (and the time to print them is longer-- sometimes much longer.
be surprised if you wait half an hour for a full-colour photo to
My personal favorite inkjet is Epson's Color Stylus.
It's the only printer
in its class that can print at 720 dpi resolution, and its output of
photos is simply spectacular. While it requires special coated paper
that quality, Epson sells this paper for much less than the special
sold by its competitors. Such pages take a long time to print, and its
price is at the high end of its class-- around $800, but if you want to
print colour photos, you need to compare this one's output.
Inkjets have also emerged aiming at notebook users...
these can be portable
enough to take on the road, though their output tends to be somewhat
quality than their stay-at-home equivalents.
All in all, for home use, especially with kids, for
or for a small business that produces relatively few pages a day, an
can be a good choice.
Laser printers use similar processes to photocopiers,
using actual lasers,
or in some cases, banks of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and dry
toner to print onto paper. Until recently, this has been any colour you
wanted, as long as it was black... but now, colour lasers, using
toner cartridges, have started to appear, finally under $10,000. At the
other end, personal laser printers start around $500-- about the same
as an average-quality ink jet.
At that low end price-point, lasers feature crisper
print quality (even
on standard paper) than inkjets, faster performance, and a lower cost
copy. But no colour. So you have a decision to make-- for families,
only a small number of pages, a colour inkjet may be the better costs;
most small offices, however, will probably be better served with a
For years, lasers all produced 300 dpi (dots per inch)
recently, 600 dpi has become standard in all but the lowest-end models.
This higher resolution improves graphics output, but is rarely
in straight text. And sending a page in 600 dpi sends 4 times as much
from the computer to the printer as a 300 dpi page-- requiring more ram
in the printer, and taking much longer to print. If you're printing
you may want to switch to 300 dpi by default-- and if nearly all your
is text-only, you may not need to pay a premium for a 600 dpi printer.
Speaking of ram in the printer-- a recent innovation
has been to include
some sort of memory compression, starting with HP's Memory Enhancement
Technology, quickly matched by its competitors. This allows printers to
handle larger, more complex documents than would otherwise be possible
without upgrading the printer's ram-- but it's still no cure-all. I
one laser printer model that shipped with 512kb ram, with a form of
compression... it couldn't print pages I sent it with text plus
the graphics came out on a separate page. Even with compression, get a
printer with at least 1 meg ram.
Some printers are now shipping with no cpu chip or ram
at all-- a throwback
to the early days of laser printers. They use your computer's cpu and
instead. This strategy works, and results in lower printer prices. But
it takes more of your computer's resources, taking longer before you
get back to work. And it tends to limit the printer's usability-- some
models, for example, are Windows-only... no printing from DOS programs,
or OS/2. In general, if your printer isn't one of the 'standard brands"
-- an Epson dot matrix, or an HP LaserJet, or Postscript, make sure
printer can emulate some other popular model-- one that is widely
Once upon a time, the number of fonts included on a
printer was an important
feature-- it was often difficult to download fonts from software, and
had to reinstall soft-fonts for each application they used. Today, with
the widespread acceptance of True Type and Postscript Type 1 font
this is no longer an issue. These font-types are installed once in the
operating system (Mac, Windows, or OS/2), and can be used by all
and for all printers... don't buy one brand of printer over another
because it claims to include a greater number of fonts.
A few years ago, Postscript, a page description
language favored by
Mac users and graphics professionals and page designers, added about
to a printers price. It still demands a premium, though this is now
a few hundred dollars. Do you need it? Probably not, unless you are
with graphics professionally, and expect to produce files that will
output on high-resolution printers by a service bureau. In this case,
want a Postscript printer in order to get a good idea of how your page
will look before sending it to the service bureau-- but otherwise,
is probably unneeded.
Hydras are no longer just a mythical beast
In the Greek legend, Hercules fought a many-headed
monster called a
Hydra. For several years, people have used the term to refer to a
of office equipment.
Your office may have a photocopier to make copies, a
printer, to print
from your computer, and a fax machine... which can also make (so-so
copies. Add in a fax-modem in the computer, and a scanner, which, like
a fax machine makes digital versions of paper originals, only now, for
Notice anything? There are really only a few
functions-- copying originals,
printing paper output, and sending and receiving digital information...
all of these gadgets perform one or more of those functions, and if you
have the whole collection, you have multiple gadgets, doing the same
in slightly different ways.
Put them all together into a single, multi-functioned
machine, and you
have a modern Hydra. This class of super-printer has only recently
affordable-- in the past year, suddenly a half-a-dozen manufacturers
begun to produce models, hovering around the $1000 price point. By
a fax machine with an inkjet or personal laser printer, users get plain
paper faxing, copying, scanning, and computer printing... for much less
than buying a collection of separate products, and taking up much less
office space, as well.
These are well worth a look, especially if you're in
the market for
more than one of these devices anyway. However, you'll find them
similar to all-in-one stereo-systems. They're cheaper and more
than separate components, but you won't get the same quality. For many
home and small office users, though, they can be an excellent choice.
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Lots of options to
pick from, in selecting
a printer-- no single choice will be right for everyone. For more
you might want to take a look at a free booklet, "The Printer Guide--
a Printer Made Easy". It's been recently published by printer giant
Packard, and if you ignore the subtle bias towards that company's
it has a lot of information, in a readable format. You can get a copy
phoning 1-800-558-5029, or faxing 1-800-814-8207.