JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, laser printers were so expensive
that that companies installed computer networks just to allow their employees to share them.
But they were worth the $5,000 price tag. Laser printers could churn out documents that looked like they'd popped out of an IBM Selectric typewriter at the unheard of speed of six pages a minute. That was about 20 times as fast as the quickest letter-quality printer. And they were mercifully silent -- no noisier than the average desktop copying machine.
Today, you don't need a big corporation's pocketbook to harness that kind of power -- and a lot more.
For $1,000 or less you can put a laser printer on your desktop. For a few hundred dollars more, you can turn it into a miniature typesetter that makes the old office typewriter standard look absolutely tacky.
The laser printer's speed and flexibility open the door to desktop publishing and give ordinary users the power to produce complex documents that once have required the facilities of a fully-equipped print shop.
While they're still a little pricey for the home market, laser printers are no longer luxury items for small businesses. In fact, PC Magazine reports that 30 percent of all printers sold today are lasers.
If you manage a laser printer wisely, it can increase your productivity and give every document you produce a professional touch.
Laser printers represent a marriage of the latest computer wizardry with office copier technology that has been around for years.
Like office copiers, laser machines have a print "engine" consisting of a photosensitive drum that records an image and transfers it to a piece of plain paper by using heat-sensitive toner.
Unlike copiers, laser printers don't use lenses or mirrors to record an existing image. Instead, they have complex circuits that accept data from your printer and record that data as an image on the copier drum.
Most printers in this category actually use low-powered laser beams to record the image. Some printers use other types of electronic imaging technology. The result is the same, and they're all called lasers.
Laser printers record their images as a series of tiny dots -- 300 dots per inch for most office models. The dots can emerge as a variety of printed typefaces, as illustrations, charts or graphs or any combination of these.
To a laser engine, a dot is a dot. What comes out depends on your printer's electronic circuitry, the amount of memory it has (more memory, more dots) and the your software's ability to make the beast do what you want it to do.
From the outset, two companies have dominated the laser printer industry -- Hewlett Packard and Apple. Most machines on the market today are compatible with one or the other, or both.
For years, HP's LaserJet line has set the standard for lower priced text-based machines connected to IBM-compatible printers.
Apple's LaserWriter has owned the high end of the market. Driven by the graphics-based Macintosh computer, the LaserWriter uses a built-in programming language called PostScript to produce superb illustrations and a wide variety of typefaces that are scalable to virtually any size.
But competition and improvements in technology are blurring those distinctions. IBM-compatible computers can produce graphics as stunning as the Macintosh, and HP-compatible printers can be equipped with the same PostScript interpreter used by the LaserWriter. They're a lot cheaper, too.
When you buy a laser printer, you pay for speed, memory, and built-in typefaces.
The hottest items today are so-called "personal" laser printers that produce four pages per minute -- about half the speed of their bigger cousins. The HP LaserJet IIP, the best seller among these, is available on the street for $1,000 or less.
Low-end laser printers generally have a few built in typefaces -- a typewriter style Courier face and a smaller face for spreadsheets and financial reports. If you need a printer for basic business correspondence, you probably won't have to look further.
To add typefaces, you can buy cartridges that plug into the printer or purchase "soft fonts" that are stored digitally on your computer's hard disk and transmitted to the printer as needed.
Cartridges run from $150 to $400, depending on the number of typefaces they store. Soft fonts offer a wider variety at a much lower price, but the cheaper fonts don't look as good as cartridge fonts.
If you want to produce a full page of graphics, you'll need to add at least one megabyte of memory to the printer (not your computer). This can add several hundred dollars to the price of the machine.
This doesn't mean low-end lasers aren't capable of good graphics. Because their electronics are newer and more efficient, they can produce graphic pages as fast as their more expensive counterparts. They're only slower in text applications.
In fact, a $400 PostScript cartridge available for the HP model turns it into a great buy for desktop publishers.
For users who need higher speed and greater volume, eight page-per-minute printers are also getting cheaper and better. Expect to pay about $1,700 for a basic model, and another $300 to $700 if you want enough memory for full-page graphics or PostScript capability.
HP redefined this market last year with its LaserJet III. Besides tweaking the circuitry to produce smoother graphics and better text from the same Canon engine, HP built two fully-scalable fonts into the printer.
That gave it the typesetting capability most business users want without the expense of a PostScript language interpreter. If you do want the advantages of PostScript -- now a standard in the graphics industry -- you can buy it in a cartridge.
As a result of all this activity, if you're serious about the quality of your printed documents, you can get the best without putting a permanent dent in your bank account.