Inkjets let businesses print high-quality colour documents
but the price per page is often more than with a laser printer - Nov 25 1997

My wife and I enjoy watching old, Hollywood movies. As a result, when my son Joey was younger, he had the notion that "in the olden days" reality was black and white. He figured that at some point, probably around his birth, colour was invented.

In terms of business computing, he's almost right. Back a decade or so ago, most office computers sported monochrome monitors: black and white (or black and green, or black and orange). And documents were printed in black and white.

Now, however, nearly all computers sport reasonably high-resolution colour monitors. And it's not just a frill -- colour conveys information. With a lot of detail on screen, it's easier to find what we're looking for on a colour system. Prettier, too.

But most businesses are still printing in black and white. Some of that's due to cost. Colour laser printers, which for a long time hovered around $10,000, have come down in price. But while today's $4,000 is about what the first generation of black-and-white laser printers cost, it's still too rich for most office budgets. And there's also a sense that black and white is more serious, more businesslike.

While black-and-white laser printers rule in the office, in the home a different technology controls the printer market. Most home users are purchasing colour-capable inkjet printers. With prices ranging from $250 to $600, these printers spray tiny droplets of ink onto paper to produce text and graphics. Companies with a major share of the home inkjet market include Hewlett-Packard, Canon and Epson.

Now these companies are all aiming products at the small business and home-office markets. I recently had the use of an Epson Stylus Color 800 printer (1-800-463-7766), which is widely available at a price of about $559. The printer is designed to work with both Windows PCs (Win 3.1, 95 and NT) and Macintoshes, and was easy to set up and operate. It can print at resolutions up to 1440 x 720 dots per inch, a finer resolution than its competitors' -- making it possible to print outstanding, near photo-quality graphics.

(It can only achieve this resolution on expensive, glossy paper, however. On standard paper, resolution is limited to 720 dpi, although print quality on standard paper is still quite good.)

Epson claims that this model prints at speeds up to eight pages a minute for black text, and up to seven pages a minute for colour, faster than its competitors. The key words here are "up to." While I found it printed photos faster than I'd expected, it didn't print plain text documents at anywhere near the laser-like speed the ratings would imply.

Like other inkjet printers, it costs less to purchase than a black-and-white laser printer, but costs more per page in consumables -- toner for laser printers ends up costing about two cents a page, compared to about five cents for inkjet cartridges. And the cost of printing large colour graphics can be much higher -- approaching a dollar per page. Epson provides a nice fuel-tank-type gauge to indicate ink levels, so you're less likely to run out of ink in the middle of a large print job.

With the ability to print onto transparencies, it can be used to make colourful overhead masters for presentations. Other possible uses include signs and labels for retailers, or for making original copies of a coloured flyer, which could then be colour-photocopied for quantity distribution. And even if you're among those who believe that black-and-white text looks more professional, a bit of spot colour in your letterhead will make your correspondence stand out on a cluttered desk.

Eastside Datagraphics, a Commercial Drive stationery shop, recently purchased an Epson Stylus 800. Co-owner John Hamm reports satisfaction with the printer. They've used it to make signs for the shop window, and labels for shelves and products. And they're planning to replace their currently black-and-white sales flyers with more eye-catching colour ones.

The Stylus 800 was recently selected Editor's Choice as business inkjet in PC Magazine's annual overview of printers. The Stylus range also includes the lower-priced, home-oriented Stylus 400 (about $300) and Stylus 600 (about $400). The Stylus 1520 (about $1,000) adds the ability to print onto paper sizes up to 17x22 inches, while the $650 Stylus Photo is optimized for printing photos.

While we're looking at top-rated products, Richmond PC-clone maker Seanix (303-2900) has moved into the highly competitive U.S. market, challenging companies such as Dell and Gateway 2000. Two of their models have attracted favourable reviews in big American publications: PC/Computing liked their low-cost Baby Grand model, while Windows Magazine added the company's DVD-equipped CS DVD 166 model to its best-buy WinList.*

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