By Cynthia Morgan
The power cord didn't quite reach. Sighing, I tucked the laser printer under one arm, rearranged some cables and froze. I'd just passed a laser printer milestone.
While I can't exactly slip it into my purse, NEC's compact, 20-pound SuperScript 860 is the first high-quality laser printer I can lift without huffing and puffing. Combine that with great output, hot speed and nifty interface, and you get a $500 cutie that beats the pants off most other personal lasers and ink jets.
One of the first to use Adobe's PrintGear architecture and Memory Booster technology, the 860 maxes out at 5MB of RAM; the unit I tested came with only 1MB. Normally, that's not enough to print the smile on a happy face, but Memory Booster effectively triples the printer's memory via compression techniques, so my machine's 1MB became 3MB. If you send a file that needs more memory, the 860 automatically drops from 600 dots per inch to an acceptable 300dpi.
PrintGear processing is much faster than PostScript, and it costs less, too. According to Adobe scientists, roughly 90 percent of anything we put on paper can be described using a list of image primitives: circles, characters, lines and so on. Using methods that resemble those of the RISC architecture, the PrintGear driver breaks down a file into a list of these common building blocks before it leaves the PC. Actual shape descriptions are overlaid only when they can't be described with the primitives.
It's this list, not the objects themselves, that is sent to the printer. The system uses a second, less-expensive processor, in this case Motorola's 68EC000, to manage traffic and ready subsequent pages as they enter the pipeline.
The 860 is definitely a screamer for this category; a solid-text document printed at about 8.5 pages per minute, slightly faster than advertised. Pages with complex graphics were a bit slower, averaging a still-respectable 7ppm. Note, however, that part of the work is taking place on your computer, so fast processors and extra RAM on your PC can influence performance. I found about 0.25ppm difference between a 100MHz and a 166MHz Pentium system, both with 16MB of RAM, under Windows 95.
For all that, the printer returns control to the PC very quickly, even when you don't use background printing. It's almost instantaneous with two- or three-page documents on a mid-range Pentium. In fact, I found it to be so fast that it was sometimes difficult to stop a job I had started by mistake.
The 860's interface is extremely powerful. It can be installed as another icon on your Start menu if you're using Windows 95, so that you can get to all of the printer's features without going through the Control Panel. Tabbed dialog boxes let you manage memory, notification and port options; you can add custom watermarks (such as "DRAFT" or "COPY" notices) to page backgrounds, organize pages for booklet printing, print posters (tile), and run envelopes or two-sided pages through the printer with ease. You can choose a male or female voice to alert you to printer status ("Please check your printer") or shut off the voice when its nagging gets tiresome.
This is one of the few personal printers with enough oomph to be shared on a network, although I wouldn't press my luck with more than two or three extra users. NEC added sharing to the tabbed interface, so it's easier to use than the Windows 95 share options.
I had absolutely no quarrel with the 860's print quality-its 600dpi mode easily rivaled the output of much more expensive departmental printers. Text was sharply focused, while halftone dot resolutions were finer than I expected. Three print modes handle most of the text, graphics and photo combinations you can dream up. There's even a setting that optimizes for subsequent photocopying.
This SuperScript comes with a top-loading, 200-sheet feeder that's very easy to fill by flipping the lid open, inserting the paper on its end and snapping the lid shut. Since the top half of the sheets protrude, though, it's difficult to prevent curling on a humid summer day. Still, I had remarkably few paper jams. For thicker stock, you can straighten the paper path by dropping the front door panel.
This is also one of the first printers I've seen that comes with Internet software. Internet-in-a-Box is included on its CD, along with a copy of Adobe's Acrobat Reader, clip art, extra fonts and a really nice online manual.
NEC offers a two-year warranty and promises to ship a new unit overnight if you call for service before 3 p.m. EST and can't be helped by phone.
Although the SuperScript 860 makes it to our Recommended List , its dependence on PC processor and memory renders it slightly less desirable for low-end, low-memory 386 or 486 machines. But price, great performance and excellent output make it the personal printer of choice for Pentium users.
NEC SuperScript 860 printer
Pros: Speed; quality; interface
Platforms: Windows 95, 3.1x
RAM: 4MB (Win 3.1x), 8MB (Win95)
WinMag Box Score: 4.5