In shopping for a computer printer, the PC user is usually forced to choose between dot-matrix printers, which offer low print quality at a low price, and laser printers, which offer high print quality at a high price.
Now there is a new choice. The HP Deskjet 500 ink-jet printer, introduced last week by the Hewlett-Packard Co., might be considered a hybrid between a laser and a dot-matrix printer, offering relatively high print quality at a relatively low price.
The HP Deskjet 500, whose $729 suggested list price will probably translate to a discounted "street" price of $500 or less, is an updated and greatly improved version of the older and more expensive HP Deskjet and HP Deskjet Plus printers.
It creates pages that are closer to laser quality than to dot-matrix, and it incorporates an improved, water-resistant ink that appears to eliminate smearing, one of the biggest drawbacks of ink-jet printers in the past.
Hewlett-Packard, the leading maker of laser printers, is counting on the HP Deskjet 500 to win the hearts of PC users who want laserlike print quality on a dot-matrix budget.
It cannot match a laser for overall print quality, speed or flexibility, but it is certainly an attractive alternative to dot-matrix printers.
In short, the HP Deskjet 500 produces better-looking pages, with greater flexibility in graphics and type fonts, than all but the best dot-matrix machines. It can change between portrait (standard) or landscape (sideways) printing at the touch of a button.
It is virtually silent, unlike the screeching dot-matrix printers. It operates at comparable speeds, and it costs about the same.
It comes with a three-year warranty. About the only area we can think of where dot-matrix technology triumphs is in creating multipart forms.
That is because dot-matrix printers create images on the paper by hammering a cluster, or matrix, of thin metal pins onto an inked or carbon-coated ribbon, forming characters as a pattern of dots.
They are by far the most common type of printer used with personal computers, primarily because they are the least expensive. Dot-matrix prices typically start at about $250 and rise to about $1,000.
Laser printers start at about $1,000 and rise to $4,000 or more. They also construct images as patterns of tiny dots, but the dots are so small -- 90,000 of them in a square inch -- that they become indistinguishable to the unaided eye, yielding what appears to be a solid image.
Many people shied away from early ink jets because of problems with clogging and smearing. Ink-jet technology is particularly tricky. The ink must stay fluid to avoid clogging the nozzles in the print head, and yet it must dry almost instantly when it makes contact with the paper.
With earlier Deskjets and other ink-jet printers, the user had to let the page dry for a minute or so after printing. Even on dry pages, sweaty hands or an accidental coffee spill could wipe out a part of the image. Using a highlight pen on a page often smudged the type beyond readability.
Hewlett-Packard engineers solved the problem by changing the ink solvent and by "inventing a new molecule or two" to make an ink that bonds instantly with regular office paper, said Alan Grube, market development manager for Hewlett-Packard's division in Vancouver, British Columbia. He said the new ink cartridges would be made available for older Deskjet and Deskwriter inkjet printers later this year.
Also, the original Deskjet and Deskjet Plus printers can be upgraded to HP Deskjet 500 for $225 and $175, respectively. The process involves sending the printer back to the factory for a logic-board swap and, in the case of the original Deskjet, a new motor mechanism.
People who buy an HP Deskjet 500 before Nov. 15 will get a coupon that can be redeemed later for a software "driver" that allows the Deskjet 500 to take full advantage of Microsoft Windows 3.0, including scalable fonts, kerning and "what you see is what you get" printing.
Unlike conventional printer fonts, which come in fixed sizes, a scalable font can be made bigger or smaller to meet the user's needs, from footnote to headline size. The driver will be included with the printer after Nov. 15.