Ink jets and lasers good for all that's fit to print

September 28, 1998|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

A friend called the other day to tell me the good news: He was finally replacing a computer he had bought during the second Reagan administration.

No, there was nothing wrong with the old box - it still started up every day, and he'd used it to write a couple of books. But no one had written any new software that would run on the machine for the last six or seven years, and he was eager to try out this Internet thing.

Being a thorough fellow, he had done his research on processors, disk drives, video cards and monitors. But he was still undecided about replacing his old dot-matrix printer. Should he buy an ink jet printer or a laser?

A few years ago, that would have been an easy one - if you want to entertain the kiddies with pretty party invitations, get an ink jet; if you're serious about looking good for business, buy a laser printer.

Now it's a much tougher call. Ink jet printers are cheap and remarkably good - certainly good enough for most business correspondence. On top of that, they can produce stunning color graphics and photos that look almost as good as the real thing. Still, there are good reasons for buying a laser printer - particularly in an office environment.

If you're trying to make the same decision, it helps to know a little bit about how both kinds of printers work and what makes each good for particular applications.

Both laser and ink jet printers do their work by fooling the eye. They lay down thousands - maybe millions - of little dots on paper to form letters and images. The dots are so small that your eye can't tell them apart. The smaller the dot a printer can produce, the sharper the image. This is known as the printer's resolution, and it's measured in dots per inch (dpi).

At 300 dots per inch, ordinary business correspondence looks crisp and clear; at 600 dots per inch, it looks like the work of a professional printing house. Higher resollution also means sharper graphics and more detailed photo images.

Laser printers and ink jets get those dots on paper in entirely different ways.

An ink jet, as its name implies, squirts ink from cartridges through tiny nozzles in a print head that passes across the paper a line at a time. The problem with this approach is that ink tends to splatter and paper tends to act as a blotter, making it difficult to produce the fine edges needed for high-quality text and images. On the other hand, the physical process of laying down ink doesn't require heavy-duty hardware - just deft electronics and mechanical precision.

Laser printers (or page printers, as they're more accurately known), use technology originally developed for office copiers. They use a laser beam or light-emitting diode to form an image of an entire page on a photosensitive drum. The drum transfers that image using toner that's fused to the paper at a high temperature. The entire process is inherently more precise than ink jet technology and produces superb results. But it requires a lot more in the way of expensive hardware.

From a buyer's standpoint, the main advantages of an ink jet are color and price. Decent ink jet printers are available for as little as $150, and even these inexpensive machines can produce acceptable business-quality text and vivid color graphics. The black-and-white output from the best ink jet printers is virtually indistinguishable from a laser.

The main disadvantages are speed and cost of operation. At their highest-quality setting (the kind you'd use for business correspondence), most ink jets will produce only two pages per minute at best, and only the top end models ($400 or more) can match the 4 page-per-minute speed of the slowest laser printers. Ink is also more expensive than the toner used in laser cartridges. Figure the operating cost of an ink jet at anywhere from five to 15 cents per page, depending on coverage and color content, compared to 2.5 cents per page for laser printers.

The main advantages of a laser printer are speed and quality. Today's slowest lasers run at 4 pages-per-minute, and you'll find reasonably priced models that can produce 6 to 8 pages per minute.

The microprocessors that create images in today's laser printers are so fast that the content of a page has little effect on the printer's speed - a page full of graphics and photos will print almost as quickly as a page of standard text. If you're making multiple copies, each copy comes out as fast as the drum can turn. Ink jets, on the other hand, can take several minutes to produce a really complex page, and each copy takes just as long as the first.

While makers of ink jet printers have produced amazing improvements in quality over the last few years, lasers still have an edge in crispness - and laser pages won't smudge.

On the other hand, laser printers are more expensive to buy. They start at $300, and you can still expect to pay $400 to $600 for a model with enough horsepower for business use. Also, lasers don't do color. Actually, that's not accurate. You can buy a color laser printers for $3,500 and up, but they're hardly in the range of most home and small office buyers.

So what's the bottom line? For many home and small office users, a good ink jet is a good investment. It will produce good-looking business correspondence and beautiful charts, graphs and photos. Better yet, the kids will love all the neat things they can do with it (just remember the second mortgage you'll need to take out for ink cartridges).

On the other hand, if color isn't important and you routinely produce long documents or multiple copies, a laser printer promises superb quality, higher speed, and a substantially lower operating costs.

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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