Good buys abound on printers

Personal computers

December 23, 1991|By Michael Himowitz | Michael Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

In the rush to buy a PC for the holidays, many first-time computer owners put off what may be the most important part of their system -- the printer.

A PC without a printer is like a stereo system without speakers. Sooner or later, you're going to want to communicate with the world, and the printer is your messenger.

Fortunately, these are good times for printer buyers. Competition and constant improvements in technology have made it possible to produce good-looking business documents for as little as $200 and superb, professional quality typography for under $1,000.

The big news in 1991 was a precipitous drop in the price of laser printers. Once too expensive for all but large offices, these technological marvels are now available in "personal" models for as little as $700 on the street. However, the type of printer you buy should be driven by the type of work you do, how fast you need to get the work done and, of course, your pocketbook.

Printers today generally fall into one of three categories, dot-matrix, ink jet and laser. Each employs a different technology, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

At the low end, dot-matrix printers can produce acceptable business correspondence and workmanlike graphics for a few hundred dollars. They use a print head containing tiny wires that strike the paper through a ribbon as the print head moves across the page. Because each wire in the matrix can be controlled separately, the printer can produce text or graphic images.

Cheaper dot-matrix machines have nine-wire print heads. They're suitable for informal work, mailing lables, invoices and the like. Better dot-matrix printers have 24-wire heads that can produce a line of letter-quality text with a single pass across the ,, page.

Nine-wire printers sell for as little as $150 and 24-wire machines start at $200. With that little difference in price, it's well worth the extra expense to get better quality.

Panasonic, Epson, Citizen, Okidata, Star Micronics and IBM are the largest manufacturers of dot matrix printers, and almost all dot matrix machines will emulate Epson's LQ-series printers or IBM's ProPrinter. That means software designed to drive the Epson or IBM models will work with them.

Better dot-matrix printers come with several different typefaces in a variety of sizes. The latest Epson models, taking a cue from laser and ink jet printers, incorporate technology that allows software to produce scalable typefaces in any size up to 30 points (about 1/2 -inch high). While the output from better 24-wire printers is fine for general purpose correspondence, it won't fool anybody into thinking you've been to a professional typesetter.

Also, dot matrix printers are relatively slow. Although faster models can print up to 300 characters per second in draft mode, all but the most expensive models slow down to well under 100 cps in letter quality mode. That means one to two minutes per single-spaced page. And they're noisy enough to drive you into another room if you're printing a job of any length.

Still, dot-matrix printers provide a lot of bang for the buck. They're the best machines for mailing labels, and they'll handle some jobs, such as producing multi-part invoices and other forms, that laser and ink jet printers can't do.

Once curiosities, ink jet printers have come into their own over the past few years, thanks to new technology that allows them to produce excellent output on standard paper. At $400 to $600, they're more expensive than dot matrix printers but still a little cheaper than low-end 1lasers. Hewlett Packard's Deskjet and Cannon's new Bubble Jet are the most popular printers in this category.

Ink jets produce text and images by squirting ink from a cartridge onto the paper through a series of tiny nozzles. With prices ranging from $400 to $700, they can produce text and graphics that rival laser printers, albeit more slowly.

Better ink jet machines are 50 to 100 percent faster than dot matrix printers, and they're virtually silent -- a major advantage in an office environment. Compact models that run on batteries and weigh as little as four pounds make excellent travelling companions for laptop PC's. While ink jet printers with tractor feed devices can print mailing labels without much problem, they're still unsuitable for multipart forms, which require the impact of a dot-matrix printer.

A few years ago, laser printers were $5,000 luxuries. Today, they're inexpensive enough for small offices and even many homes.

Laser printers can turn your PC into a desktop typesetter, with high-speed, high resolution text and graphics. Manufacturers expect to sell 2,000,000 lasers in 1992, and most of the growth will be in low-cost, "personal" laser printers for the home and small business market.

These printers work their magic by combining office copier technology and lasers or other imaging devices. Personal laser printers, which generally print four pages per minute, start as low as $700, while office printers, which produce eight pages a minute, start at about $1,400. Besides speed, more money will buy a variety of features, including memory for complex graphics, built-in typefaces, and most commonly, a Postscript interpreter. Postscript is a page description language that has become an industry standard for both typography and graphics. Hewlett-Packard LaserJets dominate the market for IBM-compatible computers, while Apple LaserWriters dominate the Macintosh world.

If you're looking for professional output, quiet operation and speed -- and if you're willing to pay -- it's hard to beat a laser printer.

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