New ink jet printer is cut above past models

Your computer

November 02, 1997|By Michael Himowitz

IN THE past, when people have asked me whether they should buy a laser printer or an ink jet, I've always told them that true business-quality correspondence required a laser.

There are good reasons. While ink jet technology has improved by orders of magnitude over the past few years -- even low-end models can produce startling color photographs -- many ink jets still can't produce text with the crispness and clarity that say "I'm a professional." When you find an ink jet that can produce laser-quality text, chances are good that you'll grow old waiting for a letter to emerge.

I'm beginning to rethink that old prejudice, and one reason is the Hewlett Packard DeskJet 890C. This is a no-compromise ink jet printer that can turn out excellent correspondence at a speed that won't try your patience. It also turns out superb color charts and photographs, even on plain paper.

This versatility has its price. The 890C retails for about $450, which is about $150 more than most ink jets designed for the home market, and about $50 more than a good personal laser printer. But it can be networked if you're using it in an office, and its 3,000 page per month duty cycle makes it a good buy for businesses and professionals who need industrial-strength capacity.

Like all HP DeskJets, the 890C sports a somewhat boxy design that will occupy a 15-by-17-inch space on your desktop. Its front-feed paper tray has a generous 150-sheet capacity, but the output rack above it can only hold 50 sheets, so you'll have to stick around if you're printing a long report. With a dedicated slot above the paper tray, HP turns the normally onerous job of printing an envelope into a no-brainer.

Setup was a no-brainer, too. In fact, the hardest part was separating the printer from the packaging. The 890C uses two print cartridges -- one for black ink and one for color -- both of which snapped into place easily. The driver software -- which tells your computer how to make the printer work -- installed without a hitch. It's available from the print menu of any program and allows you to clean the print head, run an alignment test, and select from three different printing modes -- fast, normal and high quality.

The printer also ships with a new desktop publishing program called iPublish from Design Intelligence, along with a variety of software tools to speed up standard business chores. If you haven't tried real desktop publishing before, you can get started quickly, although I still prefer Microsoft Publisher for this kind of work.

Throughout the industry, printer makers have been working overtime to develop ink jets that can produce realistic photo images and laser-quality text. This isn't easy, because instead of fusing toner directly to the paper, as laser printers do, ink jets produce images by squirting tiny droplets of ink. These droplets tend to blob and splatter, particularly on plain paper. So, to get the best results, ink jets have always required special coated paper, which costs anywhere from 10 cents to 75 cents a sheet. Not the kind of stuff you want your kids to fool around with.

In the last year, however, manufacturers have been able to work some real magic. HP calls its brand of legerdemain PhotoRet II, which uses smaller ink drops to deliver dots that aren't as visible and produce more shades of color for realistic photo images.

I printed a variety of images from scanned photos, digital cameras and Internet downloads. The 890C produced excellent detail, realistic skin tones and delicate gradients, even on plain paper. On coated paper and photo stock, it was hard to tell the difference between the DeskJet's output and the real thing.

The text output was uniformly excellent, even at small type sizes, and was definitely a match for my trusty LaserJet. On my printer torture test -- a Microsoft Word document that includes a dozen different text effects, business graphics and a photograph -- the 890C performed superbly, even when I overlaid text on a gray background.

This is one of the toughest jobs for an ink jet.

The type was clear and there was no banding in the background.

HP says the 890C is its fastest ink jet, which is a little like claiming the world's fastest Clydesdale. True, it will print black text at up to 9 pages per minute in economy mode, which is fine for drafts. But the quality isn't anything you'd want to show the boss. To get the best results, you'll have to select high-quality mode, which slowed the printer down to just over three pages per minute in my six-page, all text test document.

It isn't stellar, but it's as fast as any ink jet I've tested at that quality, and only a bit slower than many personal laser printers.

All things considered, this is the first ink jet I've tried that's both fast enough and good enough to be your only printer. If you're looking for the same quality for less money and you're willing to settle for a little less speed and a lighter duty cycle, the HP DeskJet 722C uses the same underlying technology.

For information, call 800-552-8500, or point your Web browser to www.hp.com.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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