Carefully consider a printer purchase Prices, quality and choice have improved

Your computer

November 17, 1996|By Michael J. Himowitz

IF YOU'RE shopping for a computer this holiday season, don't make the printer an afterthought. It's one of the most important parts of your system.

For the kids, the right printer can be not only an aid to schoolwork, but also an invitation to creativity. If you use a printer in your business or profession, your printer determines how the world sees you -- and you want to look good.

Luckily, there has never been a better time to jump into the printer market. New technology and old-fashioned competition have produced a crop of powerful and affordable machines. All you have to do is pick the right one.

So how do you decide? Well, for starters, you have two basic choices -- a laser printer or an ink jet. There are good reasons for picking either one.

Laser printers use office copier technology to produce text and graphics by fusing toner to paper at a high temperature. Actually, lasers are more accurately known as page printers because they don't all use lasers to create their images. But they all turn out complete pages as fast as the drum inside can rotate.

The main advantages of a laser printer are quality and speed. Good lasers produce images so sharp and crisp that they look like they've come from a print shop. With a minimum speed of four pages per minute, they're faster than most ink jet printers and cheaper to operate.

While lasers were once much more expensive to buy than the competition, that's no longer the case. I've been trying out an Okidata Okipage 4W that retails for only $300, and its output is excellent. You'll find many others in the $400 to $700 range.

Unfortunately, laser printers are limited to black-and-white output, unless you want to spend $3,000 to $5,000 for one of the new color models. But if you don't have kids and your main objective is good-looking business correspondence, a laser printer is your best bet.

What makes one laser printer better (and more expensive) than another? Quality, speed and duty cycle. Most lasers have a resolution of 600 dots per inch, which makes their output almost indistinguishable from that of professional typesetting machines for text. But better printers will produce sharper, more evenly spaced letters and clearer graphic images, particularly photographs.

You'll also pay more for speed. Low-end machines in the $300 to $600 range generally turn out four pages per minute, while you'll pay $800 to $1,400 for eight to 12 pages per minute. If you have to produce large jobs on deadline, the extra speed is worth the dough.

Along with speed comes duty cycle -- how many pages the printer can turn out without overheating or just breaking down. This is generally measured in thousands of pages per month, but price is also a good rule of thumb. Cheap printers use lightweight components. If you regularly turn out 100-page documents, spend the money for a heavy-duty machine.

Now for ink jets. In a word, they're fun.

These marvels, which have virtually taken over the home market, create text and graphics by squirting ink through dozens of tiny nozzles in a print head that passes over the page a line at a time. lTC Color models can overlay dots of cyan, magenta, and yellow ink as well as basic black. The best can reproduce photographs with amazing fidelity.

The main advantages of the inkjet are price and color capability. You'll find acceptable black-and-white ink jets for $200 or less and decent color models for well under $300. And color is cool. Many ink jets come packaged with kid-oriented graphics programs that will have the youngsters happily creating greeting cards, party invitations, calendars, photo albums, Christmas tree ornaments, window hangings, T-shirts and all kinds of stuff adults would never think of. Color is also cool for grown-ups who want to spice up their business charts, graphs and overhead presentations.

On the downside, inkjets come in second to lasers in quality, speed and cost of operation. Now don't get me wrong -- the quality of text from a good inkjet comes pretty close to laser output -- but it's not quite as sharp and the blacks aren't as black. You'll also have to buy a fairly expensive ink jet to match even a low-end laser printer for text speed -- and lasers are much faster at graphic chores.

With a color printer and a couple of kids, you'll also have to watch your pocketbook. All those nifty art projects soak up expensive ink. Color cartridges run anywhere from $30 to $50, and you'll be lucky to get more than a couple of hundred pages per cartridge. By way of contrast, laser toner cartridges cost $80 to $120 and will generally churn out a couple of thousand pages.

Which is the best inkjet for you? More money generally buys better color quality, higher speed and more flexibility. In normal operation, most ink jets have a resolution of 360 dots per inch, although with special paper (20 cents to $1 a sheet), better models can double that resolution for bright, razor sharp graphics and near-photographic reproduction of pictures.

Good ink jets will also produce sharp, well-defined text and deep, rich blacks. While some manufacturers claim their printers can turn out text at speeds up to seven pages per minute, I've never seen one come close. But good ink jets can deliver three or four text pages per minute. Graphic output, on the other hand, is measured in minutes per page -- if you'll be doing a lot of graphics, it may be worth spending money for speed.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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