Printers on Review

by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. First published in Our Computer Player, December 18, 1992.

There's good news for printer buyers all across the price range. The recent release of a number of excellent quality 600 dpi lasers, including Hewlett Packard's LaserJet IV, all in the $1500-2000 range will push prices lower on the former standard-- the 8 ppm (page per minute) 300 dpi models. As they drop to around $1000, this will push the prices of the 4 to 6 ppm personal lasers lower, which in turn will push prices of inkjet prices, which in turn will push down prices of 24-pin dot matrix printers.

Already, we're seeing 24-pin dot matrix printers on sale for under $200, and that means that the former low-price printers, the 9-pin dot matrix printers will simply disappear as a category

So let's look at what's current and what's to be expected in the various categories of printers.


The traditional start-up system favorite is the dot-matrix printer. Quality is up, prices are down (new 9-pin models are in the $100-200 range). Despite this, fewer are being sold each year. Dot matrix printers have gotten a bit of a bad reputation. This is based on the often low print quality, the slow speed, and finally, the buzz-saw sound.

Despite these problems, for many people, dot matrix printers may still be the best solution. They are still the only solution for users on a tight budget, with many models around the $200 mark. As 24-pin models replace the cruder 9-pin models, print and graphics quality has improved. And many manufacturers, notably Panasonic (also being marketed in BC as the popular Raven) have been working hard to minimize dot matrix noise levels. Even the often cranky paper handling has been improved.

And dot-matrix printers have other advantages. They can be the cheapest to run per page. As impact printers, they are the only widely-used printers (aside from the even more obsolete daisy wheel printers) that can print multiple-part forms. If you need to print wide spreadsheets or accounting information, a wide-carriage dot-matrix printer may be your best bet. And for school and home use, more and more models are supporting colour options. You can even print colour, iron-on decals to make custom t-shirts!

Finally, dot-matrix printers got their start as high-speed, high-output line printers doing big printouts powered by mainframes. And there are still printers aimed at that market, such as Facit's new $3,799 (US) list E950. Even if that's a bit out of your price range, you may find a new, low priced model like Fujitsu's DL5800, Panasonic's KX-P2124, or the Epson ActionPrinter 3250 worth more than a brief look.

SPLISH-SPLASH: Inkjet printers

These printers work by spraying droplets of ink on paper. While this could produce near-laser quality, they were for a long time plagued by water soluble inks that easily smeared, and by print nozzles that easily clogged. In recent years, these problems were solved, and two manufacturers, Canon, with their BubbleJet series, and HP with their Deskjets, have been filling the gaps between dot-matrix and personal laser printers.

Ink jets now produce good quality output with minimal noise, and start at a $400-500 price range that is an often-affordable alternative to 24-pin dot matrix printers. Still, as low-end lasers continue to drop in price, inkjets may be squeezed off the desktop. Near-laser quality may not be good enough to compete with the real thing, especially when inkjets run at half the speed of personal lasers, and can be even more expensive on a per printed page basis. (Look at cartridge refill kits to help keep costs down).

One surprise to many users: an inkjet with 256k memory can print full-page graphics at 300 dpi, something a laser will need as much as 2 megs memory to do. Despite this advantage, this year has seen a new push towards colour inkjets. On the lower priced end, look at the HP Deskjet 500C ($779 US list) and 550C ($1099 US list). The difference is that the higher priced model has two ink cartridges; a colour cartridge that's identical to the 500C's, and a black cartridge, like the monochrome 500's. This makes it possible to print clear blacks, along with rich colours-- on the lower-priced model you have to choose between a black cartridge or a coloured one. If you need black and colour on the same page, the 500C simulates black by mixing inks... the result is a dark olive shade that seems to take forever to dry.

Despite this, the colour output on both Deskjet models is quite good for the price... as long as you're patient. An 8 1/2 by 11" page printed from a high-colour graphic can easily take hours to print. And like all inkjets, output quality will vary greatly with the paper used. Some papers are simply too absorbent-- inks will wick, spreading out giving a fuzzy appearance to text and borders.

(By the way, HP is also marketing all the Deskjets with MacIntosh software and ports, as the DeskWriter series).

At the high priced end, you can look at colour printing from the Canon Bubble Jet BJC-800 (US list $2795) or the HP PaintJet XL300 (US list $3495) which can be upgraded with Postscript and 6 megs of RAM. Though pricy, these models are a half the price of wax transfer colour printers.

The other place where inkjets are popular is as portable printers. HP has recently debuted a portable Deskjet 500, joining offerings from Canon, Kodak, and Brother. All these are monochrome only. Finally, check out the brand new offerings from IBM Lexmark. Their printers are high quality at surprisingly competitive prices, and should give HP a real race.


Every couple of years, it seems, Hewlett-Packard decides to shake up the printer market, and comes up with a new model packed with new features, and priced lower than the less-capable model it replaces. By doing this, they leave their competitors behind, and cement their hold as not only the trend-setter, but also the best seller of the laser printer market.

They virtually created the market for laser printers as add-ons to personal computers with their original LaserJet in the mid '80's, then, brought out the LaserJet Plus and LaserJet II models. Even though pricing on these models slowly dropped, a laser printer was still seen as too high priced for personal use. Then HP created the category of personal laser, with its lower priced (although slower) model the HP-IIP.

When it seemed like dozens of companies were moving in on the office printer territory of the HP-II series, they brought out the HP-III, with more fonts, but most signicantly, sharper output. And again, at a lower price than the older HP-II.

And this fall, they've done it again. Just as a number of their competitors began to bring to market models with the enhanced 300 dpi (dots per inch) output of the HP-III, Hewlett-Packard announced the next generation. Called the HP-IV (couldn't you have guessed that?), this model produces output at 600 dpi, which can be improved even further through resolution enhancement. And of course, this model lists for less than its predecessor. It can even be bought as a postscript model, the HP-IVM (for Macintosh, although it will work with PC's as well).

Even though they weren't the first printer to break the old 600 dpi standard, this new model from HP is the one to beat. It boasts a smaller footprint (no more projecting paper tray), and a standard 2 meg of memory (upgradable to 32 meg, using SIMMs... no more memory boards needed). 35 Intellifont scalable fonts are built in, but there's an extra treat for Windows users: 10 built-in TrueType fonts to speed up Windows printing. If you opt for the postscript upgrade, you get the standard 35 postscript fonts and the postscript interpreter on two SIMMs, for fast installation. Automatic switching between postscript (if installed) and PCL modes, parallel, serial, and AppleTalk support. Even a fast, two-way enhanced parallel port, just waiting for your computer's parallel port to catch up with it.

The HP-IV is the big news at the end of a year that has seen over 100 new printer models. As always, HP has started a trend. Suddenly, most of its competitors' model seem old hat; by next year, we should expect that 600 dpi output will be standard on most laser printers.

HP doesn't have the market sewed up, however. Competitors continue to offer interesting and innovative products. Some to look at include:

-- LaserMaster WinPrinter 800 ($1595 US list). This 4 ppm printer uses your computer's memory and CPU to produce sharp, 800 dpi HP emulation or Postscript. The catch is you must be working from Windows (hence the name). If you already have an HP LaserJet, you can add the same capabilities with LaserMaster's WinJet 800 add-on ($795 US list).

-- IBM Lexmark LaserPrinter 6P and 10P are 6ppm and 10 ppm models (at $2295 and $3795 US list) that come with postscript and a choice of 300 and 600 dpi output along with their own breed of resolution enhancement. A Windows accelerator driver is also included from this suddenly competitive IBM spin-off.

-- NEC SilentWriter 95 is 'only' a 300 dpi model, but it's very affordable ($1749 US list) for a printer that boasts both postscript and HP emulation. It automatically senses what language you're printing in, and switches modes as necessary. For an additional $599, it can turn into a super-high quality fax machine, and can operate as a printer and a fax at the same time.

-- Apple LaserWriter NTR ($2199 US list) is the first printer from Apple to include a PC-standard parallel port. Is this Apple's way of saying kiss-and-make-up? It's a 4 ppm postscript printer, but isn't as HP compatible as the NEC or other printers. On the higher end of the scale, take a look at the LaserWriter IIg ($3499 US list), with 8 meg of ram, and PhotoGrey, for 65 levels of grey scaling.

-- Kyocera Ecosys a-Si ($2395 US list) is trying to be the 'green' printer in the pack. It sports a non-throwaway drum and photoconductor, to reduce laser-trash. It also releases less ozone than its competitors, and the lowest price per page of any laser. It's a 10 ppm HP-III compatible, that, I suspect will lose out despite good intentions, in the stampede to 600 dpi.

Finally, if you need a big, fast printer to run on a network, take a look at Compaq's PageMarq 15 or 20. Compaq had never sold a printer before, but got it right on their first try with these expensive ($3999-5499 US list) 15-20 ppm postscript and HP compatible printers.

If that's a little out of your range, there's one more HP model to take a look at: the IIP Plus. With a $1299 US list, it's at the high end of the low end, but this price will certainly come down as the HP IV pressures prices across the board. It's fast and capable, and you can even add postscript. On the other hand, it may be worth waiting to see if HP comes out with a IVP model anytime soon.


If you're looking at laser printers, one big decision is whether to get postscript or not. A few years ago, it was easy... postscript added at least $1000 to the price of a printer, and was difficult to justify unless you either used a Mac, or were a graphics professional. In either case, postscript was compulsory.

Then Apple and Microsoft put aside other differences to wage war on Adobe, owner of the postscipt standard. In order to survive, Adobe dropped prices, and opened up one-time secret standards of font hinting. Font prices dropped as a result, as did the price of real postscript printers. Now, postscript is surprisingly affordable.

But is it necessary? Maybe not. If you're working primarily with text, on a PC, TrueType, standard with Windows 3.1 provides a workable scalable font standard. Yes, there are only a few hundred TrueType fonts currently available, compared to the thousands of postscript fonts, but these may be all most users need. While TrueType on the Mac got an early reputation as being slow, Microsoft has made it print faster than postscript in Windows. And postscript fonts can be added to any Windows program by using Adobe Type Manager, which is inexpensive or free if you purchase many programs. So we're back where we started. If you use a Mac, if you work extensively with graphics (ATM does not provide postscript's graphics capabilities), or if you produce output that will ultimately be printed on a super-high resolution Linotron (up to 2400 dpi), then postscript may be the only way to go. But if that's not the cases, it's probably not needed.

More quality for less is as true for printers this year as with computers in general. No matter where in the price range you look, you'll be able to get output that would have cost double only a couple of years ago, if it was available at all. Should you buy now, or should you wait a while to see if things get even better? Maybe that depends how much longer you can put up with the buzz of that old 9-pin printer that's sitting on your floor. If you want to see the full range of printers for yourself, wander over to THE PRINT CONNECTION, at #200-242 East 10th Avenue, in Vancouver (604-879-7776). As the areas only retailer specializing in computer printers, they carry the widest selection, and can certainly answer your questions and find the model to best suit your needs. (Tell Cal that 'Our Computer Player' sent you!) Happy printing.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan