LAST TIME AROUND, I wrote about the advantages of laser printers, which combine computer electronics with copier technology to turn your PC into a miniature typesetting shop.
With street prices now under $1,000 for low-end models, laser printers are attractive buys for small businesses and even home users who demand high quality and speed.
But laser printers have their problems and limitations. Before you buy one, think carefully about what you need and how much time you're willing to put into getting a printer to work the way you want it to.
While laser printers produce superb text and graphics for correspondence, reports and proposals, they're not much good for two common business applications -- mailing lists and multi-part forms.
Laser printers are designed to print a single sheet of paper at a time. Unfortunately, most businesses and organizations manage their mailings by printing mailing labels.
Computer mailing labels generally come mounted on long, narrow sheets of backing paper with perforations designed for tractor-feed dot matrix or daisy-wheel printers.
Likewise, mailing list software, and most list managers built into word processors, are designed to use this type of label. They read a record from the mailing list, print a label, then advance to the top of the next label.
These tractor-feed labels just can't be used with laser printers.
There are a couple of workarounds. Many laser printers can be outfitted with envelope feeders that allow you to feed in 50 or 100 envelopes at a time. The address is printed right on the envelope.
However, not all software can perform this little trick. Envelope feeders are notorious for jamming, and the 100-envelope limit makes the arrangement unsuitable for large mailings.
Some manufacturers now offer special labels for laser printers -- and special software to manage them. Avery's Label Pro, about $50 on the street, will print gorgeous labels, complete with graphic designs, using the company's special laser printer label stock.
The program has its own database manager for small mail lists of up to 300 records. It can also print labels by reading records from files stored in dBase or structured text format. However, it can't sort or pick out particular records from these imported files, which limits its flexibility.
Likewise, businesses that use multi-layer forms, such as invoices, packing lists or sales orders, will have to stick with dot matrix or character printers for these jobs. Laser printers just can't handle them.
However, you can have it both ways by driving both a dot matrix and a laser printer from a single computer.
Adding a second printer port to your computer is easy and relatively cheap, $100 or less. Or, you can add switch box that lets you address more than one printer from the same computer port. But be careful here. Get a switch box designed specifically for laser printers. Cheap switch boxes can ruin a laser printer's circuitry.
Another issue to consider is the cost of operating a laser printer. When you add up paper and toner, you're talking two to four cents a sheet, compared to a penny or less for dot matrix or daisy wheel printers.
The laser printer's speed and quality may well be worth the price. But in high volume operations, you can easily spend more on consumables over a year's time than you spent to buy the printer.
If you have an Hewlett-Packard LaserJet or one that uses the same toner cartridge, you can cut these costs by having your cartridges refilled.
A new HP toner cartridge sells for $75 to $100 and is good for 3,000 to 4,000 sheets. Most big cities have firms that refill these cartridges for $35 to $40.
Once again, be careful. Some reprocessors do an excellent job, and their refilled units may give you more copies than the original. Others cut costs by using inferior toner or pushing cartridges beyond their useful life. A bad cartridge can damage your laser printer.
Finally, if you're shopping for a laser printer, consider the type of print "engine" it uses. HP and compatible machines use a one-piece cartridge that contains both the toner and the actual print drum that produces the image.
When you replace the cartridge, you're replacing the most sensitive and critical moving part of the printer. This makes cartridges more expensive, but it ensures consistent quality.
Some other laser printers are more like office copiers, using bottled toner.
Their manufacturers claim that toner printers produce better quality output. There's a grain of truth here, because the finer grain of bottled toner can produce blacker, richer images than cartridge toner. However, the printer's electronic circuitry and typeface generating software are much more important in determining the appearance of your document.
Manufacturers also claim that toner models are much cheaper to operate. But these savings are largely illusory.
The printer drum on toner based machines will eventually have to be replaced, at a cost of $175 to $300, depending on the machine. These types of drums are also more susceptible to scratching during paper jams. Other models may also have expensive developer units that need replacement.
I've had experience with both types of laser printers. Quite frankly, the toner designs have been nightmares. My advice is to stick with a cartridge model. The ease of use and piece of mind are well worth the small additional cost.