The Promise of LED: affordable color and high performance

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, February 1999

Printer technology has been pretty quiet for years, since colour inkjets replaced dot matrix models as the standard for home and small office users.

Still not at the price where everyone?s going to run out and get one, though, advances in colour page printing are on the verge of shaking up the networked business market, with eventual fallout into the mass market.

I said ?colour page printing? for want of a more sexy term?you?ll see why in a moment.

Popular inkjet printers, like dot matrix models, print a line at a time?you can watch the page being produced, one strip at a time. This means they don?t need high-end microprocessors or a lot of ram, to store an entire page?s design. This helps keep the price low, ensuring their popularity, but also ensures slow speed.

The alternative has been page printers?in most cases, but not always, laser printers. Most page printers have their own CPUs and RAM?some lower-end models use the processor and memory on the computer, resulting in a cheaper printer, but one that?s dependent on the computer?s resources. In either design, the entire page is laid out, then printed at once.

While most page printers have used laser technology, some have used an alternative?a row of light emitting diodes (LEDs), instead. This technology has been around for years, used primarily in a series of black and white printers from Okidata. Not needing the rotating mirrors and focusing lens required by laser technology, these printers have been smaller, lighter, and less expensive than comparable laser printers. At the same time, they have offered laser-quality print outs.

Offering a ?laser-quality? printer has sometimes been a bit of a burden for the company?Okidata Canada?s general manager Lon Campbell talks about retail salespeople who haven?t shown the company?s products to customers shopping for a laser printers?they?ve known enough about the company?s products to realize that they?re not laser printers, but not enough to realize that they really do offer comparable quality.

While LED printers have quietly occupied a niche in the laser market for years, the advantages of the technology becomes clearer when stepping up to laser-quality colour printers. While colour inkjets are the major player in the home/small office market, the technology is simply too slow for adoption in the larger business market. At the same time, colour laser printers have remained large, slow, and expensive.

Much of this is due to the complexities in moving those mirrors and lens back and forth, while moving the paper through the printer four times (once for each colour). By contrast, recently-introduced LED colour printers again require fewer moving parts, and a straight-through paper path.

The result: less complexity and better paper handling, even with heavy paper stock, transparencies, envelopes, or labels. And that translates into lower prices and faster print speeds.

While colour laser printers from major players such as Hewlett-Packard offer colour print speeds of 4 pages per minute (ppm), Okidata?s newly-released Okipage 8c offers 600 dpi colour printouts at 8 ppm?possible because the paper only needs to pass through the printer once.

The Okipage 8c features a base of 32 Megs of RAM (expandable to 80 MB), a 100 MHz MIPS 4700 RISC CPU, and both Adobe Postscrypt Level 3 and PCL 5c page description languages, at a suggested price of under $CDN5,000. A networked version includes 10/100 mbs Ethernet.

Okidata is no longer alone in pushing the superiority of LED over laser. Lexmark has recently introduced the technology into its model line, with its high-end Optra Color 1200 promising 12 ppm colour print-outs. Like the Okipage 8c, it offers a straight-through paper path, with four separate LED printheads. It?s higher speed, however, comes at a much higher cost?over US$9,000.

Still, the simpler technology and higher performance of the LED models seems a compelling argument?rumour has it that even laser stalwart HP is taking a second look at adopting it for some of their future models. And that makes it even more likely that as it becomes more widely adopted, prices will drop to a level where these colour laser-like printers can become standard office features.

The end-result could well be greater availability of laser printers that paradoxically lack lasers?look for colour LED printers coming soon to a workplace near you.

Earlier in this issue, you may have noticed a review of four books from the recent deluge of volumes covering Windows 98. Here?s another that came too late to make it onto that page, but may be of interest to CCW readers.

? John Woram?s ?The Windows 98 Registry? subtitles itself: A Survival Guide for Users. And for many users, it may prove to be just that. Windows 95, NT, and now Win 98 replace the host of INI files used in earlier versions with a single large system registry, compiling hardware, software, and user information into a single listing.

But the Registry seems like a scary black box to most users, understandably fearful to tamper with its innards. Woram?s book offers background on the Registry?s structure and contents, and tips to using it to tweak Win98?s performance and solve problems. $35.99CDN, from MIS Press (

And many readers of this column may have made use of Tom?s Hardware website ( of the key places on the Internet to keep up to date on the ever-changing computer technology. Independent of hardware manufacturers, Dr. Thomas Pabst (a practicing MD?where does he find the time?) is averaging over a million hits per month, from people wanting the straight goods on CPUs, motherboards, and more.

? Now, Dr. Tom?s expertise is available in hard copy??tom?s hardware guide? (yes, CapsLock Off),
promising High-Performance PC Secrets. A Que book, $42.95CDN. Inevitably, lacking the up-to-the-minute-ness of the web site, but a valuable volume nonetheless, with late-98 state of the art on CPUs, chip sets, BIOS, motherboards, RAM, video, and disk systems. Especially recommended are the sections on overclocking, and on BIOS setup commands, two topics that tend to be poorly documented elsewhere.

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