I've been beating up my Hewlett Packard LaserJet II for about four years now, and it shows no signs of quitting.
This is good news and bad news. Good news, because the LaserJet is the best piece of computer equipment I've ever owned. Just last week I used it to turn out three revisions of a 235-page book, and it never complained once.
The bad news is that there's no way I can justify buying a newer and niftier printer when the old one works just fine. For a gadget guy like me, that's frustrating.
When I bought the LaserJet, laser printers were still exotic technology. But today, a laser printer is well within the reach of any home and small-business user. In fact, a laser may be cheaper in the long run than the less-expensive ink-jet printers that have become popular in the last year or so.
Low-end laser printers are available today for as little as $600, compared to $350 to $400 for a good ink-jet. At the very least, an inexpensive "personal" laser printer will provide more consistent quality than an ink-jet, at twice the speed, and with greater versatility. For $1,300 to $2,000, you can get an office laser printer that will provide absolutely stellar performance.
Unlike dot-matrix or ink-jet devices, which use print heads that travel across the page to lay down ink strip by strip, laser printers use technology borrowed from office copiers. They transfer images to paper using a photosensitive drum and toner that's fused to the page by heat.
This is one reason laser printers are less expensive to run. The toner they consume costs 2.5 cents to 3.5 cents a page, compared to 6 cents or 7 cents a page for ink-jet cartridges. In a busy office, a laser printer can easily pay for itself, although its speed, convenience and quality may be worth the price regardless of the volume.
While a copier uses lenses and mirrors to duplicate images of existing pages, a laser printer's image is created by a laser beam or light-emitting diode controlled by your computer and the printer's internal electronics. The image is composed of tiny dots -- and the fineness of those dots is the key to the laser printer's quality.
Typically, inexpensive laser printers produce an image with a resolution of 300 dots per inch. This resolution makes for smooth graphics and text with a near-print-shop look. While ink-jet printers now boast the same theoretical resolution, the jerkiness of their print heads and small variations in ink flow can produce an unevenness and "banding" effect that puts their quality a notch below that of laser printers. To make things easier on your computer, laser printers have internal programming and memory chips that allow them to produce text in a variety of fonts, ranging from standard typewriter faces to printer fonts such as the popular Times Roman. They can also download additional fonts from your computer.
When you buy a laser printer, more money buys you higher resolution, greater speed, a heavier duty cycle, and Postscript capability. At the very high end, even more money buys built-in networking capability and the ability to accept input from both IBM-compatible and Macintosh computers.
For example, Hewlett Packard's standard office machine, the LaserJet 4, produces output at 600 dots per inch (dpi). That's four times the resolution of lower-priced personal laser printers. Ah, you ask, how does 600 dpi work out to four times as much as 300 dpi? It's because resolution is really measured in square inches. If you multiply 600 dots by 600, you get 360,000 dots per square inch, which is four times the 90,000 dots available from lower-priced printers.
In reality, that means smoother graphics and text that looks closer to the output of expensive phototypesetters, particularly at smaller sizes. For business correspondence, internal reports, fliers and newsletters, the difference may not be noticeable. For the company's annual report to stockholders, it might. Take a look at the output from both kinds of machines and decide for yourself.
Speed is another issue. Personal laser printers produce four pages per minute; office machines produce eight. If you're turning out a few letters or short reports, higher speed may not be important.
Duty cycle refers to how many pages per month the printer is designed to produce -- it's a measure of the durability of its moving parts. If you're a hobbyist who does weekend woodworking projects, you don't need the same kind of power drill as a carpenter who drills 500 holes a day. The same goes for printers.
For home use, it's unlikely that you'll ever dent the duty cycle of the lightest-weight personal laser printer. But office use is something else. Standard eight-page-per-minute machines have a duty cycle of 3,000 pages per month or more. If you expect to give your printer a workout, get one designed for long distance running.
Memory is another issue. Laser printers use memory chips to store both downloaded fonts and the contents of the page itself. Inexpensive printers come with as little as 512K of memory. To produce a full page of graphics at 300 dpi, you'll need at least 1.5 megabytes of memory, which is the minimum I recommend.
Postscript capability will also add to the cost of a printer. Postscript is the trademark of a graphics programming language and font-scaling technology developed by Adobe Systems Inc.
While Postscript is the standard for professional graphics designers, competing and less expensive technologies available in other printers have made it less important than it was a few years ago. A Postscript laser printer is a good idea if your computer is an Apple Macintosh. Otherwise, for home and small office use, it isn't much of an advantage.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.