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 to other computers, send e-mail, exchange documents on disk or over the network.

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. Certainly, even though you can buy hundreds of great works of literature on a CD disk or two, no one is likely to curl up with their computer in place of a good book.

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. (When I first started with a laser printer and DTP software, I often found myself printing 30 or more test pages, before finalizing a design. Slowly, I've 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, it's 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 sizes?

-- will you be primarily printing text? Relatively simple graphics? 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 output 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 model, to close to $10,000 for a colour laser. We'd all like colour laser quality at an entry-level price, so be prepared to make some compromises between what you'd like and what you can afford, in order to settle on what you really need.

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 'letter 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 excellent, they were limited to a single font and size (unless you changed the wheel to a different font or size). And they couldn't print graphics. Dot matrix printers have lost a great deal of their former popularity, but have kept a few market niches... very low price (and low quality) printers, very high speed, industrial strength printers, and anything that needs to print on multiple-part forms. Your corner video-store probably uses a dot-matrix printer so that both you and the store can have a copy of your rental receipt. The classic dot-matrix machine-gun like roar has become quieter over the 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 often awkward paper handling doesn't make them something I'd recommend, unless you really can't afford anything else.

Ink jets

As dot-matrix printers have lost their former popularity among home and small office users, ink jet models have filled the gap. These models are whisper quiet... like dot-matrix printers, they form letters and graphics out of tiny dots, but rather than hammering onto a ribbon, in jets spray 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 that page for a moment or two when it first comes out of the printer! As well, different papers respond differently to the liquid ink-- some, even expensive letterhead paper, may 'wick'... soaking up the ink like a tiny sponge. Try out some brands of paper designed for your printer, and decide whether 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 colour printing, but quality varies. The better models load four different inks 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 while the printers themselves are affordable, the cost of ink and paper is relatively high, producing higher cost per copy than with either less-expensive dot matrix, or pricier laser printers. And the cost for colour pages is even higher (and the time to print them is longer-- sometimes much longer. Don't be surprised if you wait half an hour for a full-colour photo to print).

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 colour photos is simply spectacular. While it requires special coated paper for that quality, Epson sells this paper for much less than the special papers 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 lower quality than their stay-at-home equivalents.

All in all, for home use, especially with kids, for portable computing, or for a small business that produces relatively few pages a day, an inkjet 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 powdered 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 separate toner cartridges, have started to appear, finally under $10,000. At the other end, personal laser printers start around $500-- about the same price 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 per copy. But no colour. So you have a decision to make-- for families, printing 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 personal laser.

For years, lasers all produced 300 dpi (dots per inch) resolution... recently, 600 dpi has become standard in all but the lowest-end models. This higher resolution improves graphics output, but is rarely noticeable in straight text. And sending a page in 600 dpi sends 4 times as much data 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 text-only, you may want to switch to 300 dpi by default-- and if nearly all your work 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 evaluated one laser printer model that shipped with 512kb ram, with a form of memory compression... it couldn't print pages I sent it with text plus graphics-- 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 ram, instead. This strategy works, and results in lower printer prices. But it takes more of your computer's resources, taking longer before you can 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 your printer can emulate some other popular model-- one that is widely supported by software.

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 users had to reinstall soft-fonts for each application they used. Today, with the widespread acceptance of True Type and Postscript Type 1 font standards, 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 software, and for all printers... don't buy one brand of printer over another simply 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 $1000 to a printers price. It still demands a premium, though this is now just a few hundred dollars. Do you need it? Probably not, unless you are working with graphics professionally, and expect to produce files that will ultimately output on high-resolution printers by a service bureau. In this case, you'll 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, Postscript 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 new-breed 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 quality) 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 your computer.

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 function, 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 become affordable-- in the past year, suddenly a half-a-dozen manufacturers have begun to produce models, hovering around the $1000 price point. By combining 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 somewhat similar to all-in-one stereo-systems. They're cheaper and more convenient 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 advice, you might want to take a look at a free booklet, "The Printer Guide-- Buying a Printer Made Easy". It's been recently published by printer giant Hewlett Packard, and if you ignore the subtle bias towards that company's products, it has a lot of information, in a readable format. You can get a copy by phoning 1-800-558-5029, or faxing 1-800-814-8207.

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