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Pick The Perfect Printer
For just a few hundred bucks, you can get a state-of-the-art laser printer or ink jet that turns out top-notch prints. Here's the lowdown on the latest developments, plus some tips to help you shop smart.

-- by Eileen McCooey

If you're in the market for a printer, it's a red-letter day-literally and figuratively. Thanks to remarkable strides on the price/performance front, you can now get a whole lot of printer for a whole lot less money.

Want color to liven up presentations and images? With about $200 to spend, you can buy a color ink jet printer that delivers a crisp resolution of 600 or even 720 dots per inch-with a generous software bundle thrown in for good measure. Need top-quality laser output? For as little as $350 or so, you can find a laser printer that turns out 4 to 6 pages per minute at 600dpi.

What makes these bargain prices truly remarkable is what you're getting for the dollar-faster speeds, higher resolutions and more features. That's especially true of ink jets, which are moving beyond home use into the business world thanks to vastly improved print quality and faster speeds. With ink jets now a viable option for business, and lasers affordable even if you're on a spartan budget, there are many more product choices-and more decisions to be made-than ever.

Here's an update on the latest developments in the ink jet and laser markets, and an overview of some of the printers in these categories. We also offer some pointers to help you pick a printer that meets your expectations.

Ink Jets: Better than Ever

Color is perhaps the main reason ink jets are taking off so strongly. The ability to print color output for hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars has made ink jets a favorite for fun, games and everyday text output on the home front. As performance continues to improve, small businesses are finding ink jets up to snuff for routine correspondence, with the added value of color for brochures, letterhead and graphics. Even corporate users hooked up to networked laser printers for high-quality, high-volume text output are turning to ink jets to add color to overhead transparencies, charts, graphs and images.

Not surprisingly, ink jet printer vendors are putting great emphasis on color-meaning quality is continually getting better. The latest development is photo-quality color, which enables ink jets to produce high-quality, detailed color images similar to professionally developed photographs. To achieve photo-quality output, ink jets typically place specially formulated ink on coated paper, adjusting the placement and size of ink droplets. At its best, this technology can even do a decent job with hard-to-reproduce skin tones and reflective surfaces such as chrome, while reducing graininess and improving color depth and gradations of color.

Photo-quality capability can be standard or an option that typically costs around $50. Output may be four-color (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, commonly called CMYK) or six-color, which adds lighter shades of cyan and magenta to the standard CMYK palette. Both Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark introduced six-color technology last year.

Photo capability is standard on Epson printers, which use the regular ink cartridges to produce four-color output. On Canon printers, which also produce four-color output, you have to substitute a photo ink cartridge for the cartridge containing both the black and color ink tanks. Canon offers upgrade kits to add photo capability to its existing printers and has just introduced versions of its BJC-240 and BJC-4200 printers with photo capability. Estimated street prices for the BJC-240 Photo and BJC-4200 Photo are $199 and $299, respectively-$20 more than their standard counterparts.

Lexmark and HP printers use a six-color process that requires you to replace the black cartridge with a special photo cartridge, while leaving the color cartridge in place. Photo capability is optional on both.

If you don't fancy the idea of printing your own photos, photo-quality output may strike you as icing, rather than cake. In fact, vendors may be a bit ahead of the curve, because many users don't yet have scanners or digital cameras to get images into the printer in the first place. But the use of scanners and digital cameras is growing steadily. Realtors and insurance adjusters are among the first to realize digital photography's possibilities. There's also rising interest in downloading photos from the Internet or printing photos from CD-ROM.

Odds are if you're not interested in printing photos now, you will be down the road, according to Charles LeCompte, president of Lyra Research in Newton, Mass. "Within the next five years this will probably be the way most of us print our photos," LeCompte says.

As the focus on photo output increases, expect to see more dual-cartridge designs, with separate cartridges for color and black inks. This provides four-color output with true black. Single-cartridge models mix cyan, magenta and yellow to create a composite black that tends to be muddier and less crisp than the real thing. Almost half the ink jets shipped last year were dual-cartridge models, and by 2000, almost nine out of 10 will have dual cartridges, according to Lyra Research.

What goes into those cartridges is also changing-and that's good news because there have been some major gripes with ink jets: The ink smears if you handle a page too soon or get it wet, and it bleeds when you run a highlighter over text. The output also fades when exposed to light. Newer pigment-based black inks are now available in quick-drying, waterproof versions that are relatively light-fast. In addition to resisting smears, faster-drying inks don't bleed or crawl on the paper, so there's less of a fuzzy effect.

Dye-based color inks pose more of a challenge because they're even more vulnerable to water and light. If you leave a document in the sun for a long enough time, the text will remain but the color will fade out. But you can expect to see some improvements on that front. Newer color inks are more light-fast, an important characteristic if you want to frame photo-quality output.

Sharp and Speedy

Enhanced color and ink quality aren't the only news in ink jets. Resolution and print speed are also on the rise. Even budget-priced ink jets now produce 600x600dpi or even 720x720dpi. The results are clean and crisp, especially on quality paper-light-years ahead of the fuzzy prints of yesteryear. Odds are you'll find ink-jet quality acceptable for all but the most demanding business applications.

Epson has just raised the bar with two new printers, the Stylus Color 600 and Stylus Color 800, both of which print up to 1440x720dpi in black and color. Epson says its piezoelectric process, which uses an electronic pulse to force ink through the print head, allows for smaller, sharper, cleaner dots and higher resolutions than those produced by thermal models that heat the ink.

Ink jets are also getting steadily faster. In this price range, most units produce 2ppm to 5ppm of letter-quality monochrome output, but that's climbed to 7ppm at the high end. Things slow down markedly when you're dealing with color. Most printers in this class are rated at about 1ppm to 2ppm for color output, but actual speeds can be much slower-a complicated, colorful image can take as long as 10 minutes. (Calculating and comparing print speeds can be tricky, as we'll explain later in this article.)

But the speed limit is rising. Epson's Stylus Color 800 can produce up to 8ppm in black and 7ppm in color, a big leap on the color side. Epson got the color print speed close to the monochrome speed by designing a larger print head with more nozzles for color ink.

Is there an upper limit to how fast ink jets can go? That depends. Canon has a high-end industrial ink jet that spits out more than 30ppm by using multiple print heads that don't have to move across the page with each pass. It may be possible to get more speed out of lower-priced printers by improving the print mechanisms, using wider print heads with nozzles that can place more ink in one pass and developing lighter inks.

While quantitative factors such as resolution and speed are getting much attention, manufacturers aren't neglecting the quality of the printing experience. Ease of use is a major focus. Quick-start guides make it easier to get going with your printer, and troubleshooting aids lend a hand if you run into snags. HP's Printer Toolbox tells how to solve problems and perform common tasks, such as printing envelopes and banners. Epson's diagnostic software has an autofix feature that identifies problems, then corrects them.

Increasingly, you'll find you can manage your printer from your computer, thanks to on-screen controls and pop-up alerts that warn you of low paper or ink supplies. To make sure output lives up to your expectations and matches the image on your screen or another original, Epson has software that allows you to adjust individual CMYK values as well as saturation, brightness and contrast.

Additionally, connectivity options are expanding, which can be a boon if you have different PCs to hook up, or if you switch from one platform to another when you buy a new computer. Epson and Canon offer both PC and Macintosh connectivity on some of their printers. Epson has added parallel and high-speed serial ports, and built-in Ethernet and LocalTalk capability to some models.

As if faster, better and cheaper hardware weren't enough, vendors are now bundling more software with their ink jets. Along with software for creating greeting cards and T-shirts, you'll find more functional business-oriented programs that will help you create stationery, newsletters and flyers, among other things. Canon has just added a software utility called WebRecord that speeds and simplifies Web page printing (see NewsTrends section in this issue). It formats pages for readability, can print all pages from a site (even those you haven't visited), and creates a table of contents and index of links.

Lasers Right on the Beam

The fact that you can even get laser printers-with their high-quality text and reliable performance-for several hundred dollars is big news. It wasn't long ago that lasers were available only at much higher prices. Even the biggest name in the business, HP, has lowered the cost of admission. HP recently cut the list price of its entry-level laser, the LaserJet5L Xtra, to $499, which should translate to a street price under $400.

Like their ink jet counterparts, lasers are turning out better-looking pages more rapidly. Even in this budget segment, 6ppm speeds are common, and you may find an 8ppm model. In terms of resolution, 600dpi has become the standard, and the print quality is outstanding. It's likely to be a while before 1200dpi quality migrates downward from its $1,500-plus perch, vendors say, because it would be difficult to produce the required exacting mechanisms at lower prices.

Most printers enhance resolution through techniques such as Canon's Automatic Image Refinement and HP's Resolution Enhancement technology. In some cases, vendors claim the improvement makes resolution look higher than it is. For instance, Panasonic says its Edge Enhancement Technology gives 300dpi output the appearance of "600dpi class" output.

Memory is more of an issue with lasers than with ink jets because on a laser a whole page, rather than a line at a time, must reside in the printer. Budget-priced lasers generally come with anywhere from 512KB to 2MB of RAM. Most use memory enhancement, which doubles or even triples memory. Memory enhancement uses data compression to process and transfer information more quickly, minimizing memory requirements.

Memory is critical if you output complex images. Simple print jobs don't stress the printer's standard memory, but complicated graphics slow the process considerably.

You'll also notice some new developments in printer languages. Some lasers in the $800 range are moving to PCL 6, Hewlett-Packard's new printer control language. The company says PCL 6 offers advantages in graphics handling in particular, enhancing the WYSIWYG factor. It also minimizes memory requirements by reducing file size, which speeds printing, especially of complex graphics. Lower-end models are still using earlier versions such as PCL 3, but could follow suit at some point.

Graphics Device Interface (GDI) printers use the Windows Printing System. The PC shares the burden by allocating its resources to handle some of the formatting. This provides faster print speeds and allows quicker return to application. More products of this type will likely enter the market. This approach costs less, and gets you more computing power when the printer is connected to a high-powered workstation.

Another entry in the market, NEC's SuperScript 860 printer, uses Adobe's new PrintGear architecture, which also reduces costs and increases processing speeds.

As printer languages become more graphically tuned, performance and quality improve. "You can create a business presentation or a master good enough for a newsletter on a $400 printer, which is quite a statement," observes Michael Zeis, president of Blackstone Research Associates in Uxbridge, Mass.

Ease of use is a continuing focus as lasers evolve. Panasonic has interactive animated help that demonstrates problem solving. A status display screen monitors functions, alerts you to problems and allows you to control settings from the PC. On-screen controls are increasingly replacing the buttons and status lights that once adorned the front of most printers.

New laser printers are also smaller than earlier models. Many aren't much bigger than the proverbial bread box, unlike predecessors that hogged half the desktop. Another plus: They run more quietly, meaning they're less disruptive whether at home or in the office.

As with ink jets, laser printers are shipping with a slew of software. Canon lasers come with a special Canon Creative software bundle that includes more than 300 TrueType fonts and more than 300 clip-art images and borders. Brother printers include Surf 'n' Print, which manages print jobs from the Internet or Windows-based online services. Some of HP's software bundles include a personal information manager, font manager and Netscape Navigator, which links you to the company's home page so you can get software, driver updates and other information.

In the future you'll likely see low-end lasers running at higher speeds. With ink jets coming on strong in terms of quality and speed, laser printers have to get faster to offset their lack of color.

Some other interesting developments are going on a step up in price. HP's LaserJet 6P, which sells for about $800, has built-in 4Mbps infrared capability, meaning it prints just as fast over an infrared connection as it does through the parallel port. If prices continue to moderate, this could eventually find its way onto lower-cost models down the road.

What to Buy

So, what's right for you-an ink jet or a laser? That depends.

If you'll be printing mostly business correspondence and don't anticipate a need for color, a laser is the way to go for several reasons. Most experts agree laser print quality is still the best you can buy. Even if an ink jet printer has the same resolution, the laser output will be better every time. So if you need the best possible print quality to impress business clients, think laser.

Also consider your workload. Because their print speeds are more constant, lasers are generally faster than ink jets-even those with the same rated speed-and they're designed to handle heavier volumes. The cost-per-copy is lower as well. Lasers churn out a typical page of text for about 2 or 3 cents a copy, compared with about 3 or 4 cents for an ink jet. If you'll be printing hundreds, or even thousands, of pages a month, that difference adds up.

On the other hand, an ink jet is the answer if you need color output on a budget. Of course, you can print dazzling color on a laser printer-if you have about $5,000. An ink jet may also be an option for regular text output if your workload is modest. Say you print no more than 20 or so pages a day, and decide it would be nice to have the option of using color for letterhead, presentations or just plain fun. Then an ink jet fills the bill.

When you're figuring out how much you can afford to spend, make sure you look beyond the price of a printer to the actual cost of ownership, which tends to be much higher than with other computer-related products due to the cost of consumables like paper and ink. But pinning down the actual cost is no mean feat. Comparing the cost of ink or toner cartridges and their yields is a good starting point, but be prepared to do some number crunching if you're trying to see how 300 sheets at 5 percent coverage stacks up with 600 sheets at 3.75 percent.

It can also be tough to nail down the cost for color ink jet pages, because it depends on the nature of the image. The cost of a color page with 15 percent coverage ranges from about 6 to 23 cents, but can soar to as much as $1 if you're printing images requiring high-quality paper and extensive coverage with specialty inks.

You can do a few things to keep consumable costs from breaking the bank. "One trick is to run test pages in low resolution on cheap paper," suggests Andrew Froning, managing editor for the National Software Testing Labs in Conshohocken, Pa. "When you've got the composition set up the way you want it, then print your job in high res on better-quality paper."

Stick to run-of-the-mill copy paper, typically 20 percent cotton rag, for everyday text output and even simple images. But don't skimp on paper for important documents, especially those with color. Low-quality paper has a gray cast, which dulls colors. The whiter the paper, the better CMYK shows up. Check for paper labeled "bright white," or buy paper specially designed for use with your printer.

Speed Traps

Now let's talk about speed. Numbers don't lie, but they may stretch the truth a little, especially when you're talking about ink jet printer speeds. As a rule, you can cut the page-per-minute numbers quoted by ink jet printer vendors roughly in half.

Why such confusion over something that seems so straightforward? Factors such as ink coverage, the number of colors used and resolution all come into play. A complex, high-resolution color image will obviously take far longer to print than a typical text-only business letter. But even when you're comparing what seems like apples to apples, there may be variations you're not aware of-such as the length of a letter or the detail of an image. That's why you can't take one printer's rated speeds at face value and compare them head-to-head with those of another model.

That's less of an issue with lasers. They generally print at their rated speeds unless you're dealing with complex pages, which print more slowly.

The best way to get consistent speed ratings is to print the same output on different printers. That's how test labs like WINDOWS Magazine's come up with valid comparisons, and you can rely on our reviews to give you the straight scoop on actual speed. You could try bringing a disk with your own test files to the local computer store and asking the sales-person to run them off on the printers you're considering, but don't expect much luck. At the least, ask the sales rep to print out a sample while you watch to see how long it takes to print that document. Or see if a friend or co-worker has a printer you can try.

Once you've sorted out the major issues like costs and speed, it's time to check out the feature set, which can make a huge difference in your satisfaction with a printer. Here's a checklist of points to consider:

  • What types and sizes of media can the printer accept? If you need to print business cards, legal-sized documents or transparencies, make sure the printer can deal with them.

  • Does the printer have a straight paper path? If not, it may not be able to handle heavier media such as card stock.

  • How does the printer handle envelopes? Can you load multiple envelopes or must you feed them one at a time? If you do a lot of mailings, you should obviously opt for the former.

  • What's the capacity of the input tray? If you print high volumes and don't want to spend half your time reloading the printer, you'd be better off with a printer whose input tray can hold 200 sheets rather than 50.

  • Is there an output tray? Smaller and less costly units may have scrapped that, which means your output drops onto the desk. That can get messy.

  • Do you load paper from the front or back? If easy access is important, a front-loader may be for you.

  • Is there a single-sheet feed? If not, you may have to unload the input tray to use a different type of paper.

  • What's the rated duty cycle? If you'll be outputting thousands of pages a month, don't get a lightweight printer that was designed for occasional home use. Plan to spend a bit more for a heavy-duty machine designed to handle a hefty workload. A laser is probably your best bet.

  • Will multipage print jobs be collated in proper order? Some printers deliver output face up, meaning it's in reverse order. If you print long documents, it can be wearisome to have to shuffle them into the correct order.

  • Is it easy to replace the cartridges? Try before you buy, and you'll find some systems are much simpler than others.

  • Is the printer networkable? If your business grows, you may want to hook up several PCs.

  • Are drivers readily available, including Windows NT drivers?

  • Do the bundled software apps meet your needs?

  • Is technical support readily available? How long is the warranty? Does the vendor offer overnight exchange if your printer malfunctions? Pay attention to support issues like these if you need the printer to keep your business running.

    There are plenty of fine choices on the market. With a little legwork, you'll find the one that's right for you.

    Sidebar -- Printing Pointers

  • Get the most from your photo ink. Be sure to store the cartridge in the special container the vendor provides so it doesn't dry out. Use it judiciously-a pie chart with solid colors will look just as good when printed with regular color ink, which is less expensive than photo ink.

  • Transparencies are notorious for smearing, because the slick surface doesn't absorb ink. They can take 10 minutes to dry, so be especially careful when you handle them. Avoid stacking them too soon or they may stick together.

  • On-screen controls help you manage printing. The Lexmark 2070 Jetprinter displays the ink level so you know if there's enough ink for a given job.

  • Use lower resolutions, draft mode or what some vendors call 'economode' to save on ink or toner.

  • Store your printer paper in a dry place, not a damp basement or closet. Dampness can cause paper to misfeed, resulting in paper jams. It can also affect the way ink interacts with paper, degrading the image.

  • Most ink jets run an automatic clean cycle periodically, blowing a small amount of ink through the nozzles to keep them clear. You can run a heavier-duty manual clean cycle if the nozzles are clogged. Don't overdo it or you'll just waste ink.

  • While you're checking out the supplies situation, make sure the brand you're considering is widely available. Supplies for some of the less-popular brands may be extremely hard to acquire, while other brands are easily obtained even at grocery stores.

Windows Magazine, April 1997, page 220.

[ Go to April 1997 Table of Contents ]