Ink jet printers are worth extra cost over dot matrix


April 04, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

A couple of weeks ago I remarked that a new crop of inexpensive ink jet printers has virtually driven dot matrix printers from the market.

That brought calls and letters from some readers who said there were still some perfectly good reasons to buy a dot matrix printer, and others who didn't understand what the difference was.

Before I address the first group (who have a good point), I'll talk a bit about the different types of inexpensive printers on the market today and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Dot matrix printers have been around since the dawn of the personal computer. They were the first high-speed printers, and their 80 character-per-second speed (now much higher) was considered absolutely blinding at the time.

Dot matrix devices use fine steel wires to strike the paper through a ribbon as the print head moves across the page. Each wire produces a tiny dot, and each wire is controlled individually by software. Depending on how the software functions, they can be used to form printed characters or graphics.

Since most of us use printers for word processing, printer manufacturers made it easier to drive their machines by including internal character set programming. If you're using the printer in standard text mode, your software doesn't have to worry about driving each wire. All it has to do is send the code for the letter "A" and the printer takes care of the rest.

Most dot matrix printers have several character sets in different sizes. The most common is a monospaced typewriter-style font known as Courier. In a monospaced font, all the characters have the same width. But there are usually other fonts available, including a version of the proportionally spaced Times Roman that makes the output look more like the work of a professional print shop.

Early dot matrix machines had print heads with only nine wires, which meant that the basic pattern or "matrix" for each character was only nine dots high by nine dots wide. This was fine for printing lists and spreadsheets full of numbers, but the result was too coarse for serious correspondence.

Eventually, printer makers developed machines with 24-wire print heads. These produced tighter dot patterns and output that rivaled office typewriters. Most dot matrix printers today have 24-wire heads.

Technically, ink jet printers are dot matrix devices too. But they form their dot patterns by squirting ink onto the paper through a print head with tiny nozzles. Early ink jets required special, coated paper to keep the ink from bleeding and blurring the images they produced. Today's ink jets are much improved. They can be used with virtually any kind of paper, although they'll still produce the best results with paper designed for them. Ink jet printers also come with a variety of internal typefaces.

Both types of printers are available in black-and-white and color models. Color dot matrix printers use a ribbon with black, red, yellow and blue stripes. Color ink jets have multiple ink reservoirs. You'll pay a premium for color, particularly with ink jet machines.

Ink jets produce better quality output because they have fewer moving parts, and they're not relying on a moving cloth ribbon that will degrade the quality of text and images as it wears out. Dot matrix printers also suffer from the inevitable mechanical jerking of their typewriter-style platens, which results in "banding" and other glitches when they're used to print charts and other graphics.

Modern ink jets can produce superb text that rivals standard 300-dot-per-inch laser printers. Their graphics are far better than dot matrix machines, although their moving print head can still produce enough banding to put them a notch or two below laser printers.

At two pages a minute for standard text, ink jets are also faster than dot matrix printers and virtually silent.

So why buy a dot matrix printer if an ink jet is so much better? Price is one reason, if you're on a tight budget. Decent 24-wire dot matrix printers are available for as little as $200. Color models are about $50 more. Ink jets start at about $375 on the street, with color models in the $550 to $600 range. Unless you're really strapped for cash, ink jet quality is worth the price.

Operating cost is far more important over the long run. With ink cartridge prices at $15 to $30, ink jet printers are still far more expensive to use. Figure 4 to 7 cents per page for text, two to three times that much for full-color graphics. The cost of dot matrix printers depends on how long you're willing to use a ribbon, but it's rarely more than a penny or two a page.

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