The printer market is true blue

September 04, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

IF YOU WATCH YOUR MONEY carefully, you've noticed that it's been changing over the past few years.

The presidents' faces on new bills larger than a dollar are bigger than they used to be and off-center. Some of the ink changes color when viewed from different angles, and there are microscopic inscriptions in unlikely places.

These changes were expensive for the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, but there was a good reason for making them - computer printers were becoming so good and so cheap that a clever criminal with a scanner and a little larceny in his heart could print his own money and pass it as the real thing.

While this has created no end of trouble for the Secret Service, it's good news for honest consumers, because it has never been easier to look good in print. In fact, in the 17 years I've been fooling with computers, I've never seen technology improve so rapidly and prices fall so fast as they have in the printer market over the past two years.

For the cost of developing a dozen rolls of film, you can buy a printer that reproduces photos almost indistinguishable from the real thing. For business and school projects, today's printers turn out text and graphics that rival a professional print shop's output. For kids, printers have become high-tech toys - creative centers for turning out greeting cards, party invitations, banners, buttons, stickers and other goodies. At least until Mom and Dad discover how much they're spending on ink.

Although it's hard to buy a bad printer today, finding one that matches your needs still takes a little thought and research. With prices that range from $60 to $1,000 or more, the marketplace is downright confusing. So this week and next, we'll talk about how printers work and what you should look for when you buy a new one.

For home and small business use, you'll find three kinds of printers on the shelves -ink jet, laser and dot matrix. While they employ entirely different technologies, they all work by fooling the eye - laying down tiny dots of ink or toner to form text and images.

Smaller dots, spaced closer together, produce better images than larger dots spaced farther apart. This is known as the resolution of the printer, and it's measured in dots per inch (dpi). A printer with 1,440 x 720 dpi resolution produces 1,440 dots per inch horizontally and 720 dots per inch vertically. To reproduce a 4 x 5 inch photograph at this resolution, a printer will lay down more than 20 million separate dots -so we're talking about precision instruments.

Printer makers brag about resolution in their ads, and as a rule, more money buys higher resolution. But this is only important up to a point. For example, 300 dpi was the longtime standard for business-quality text. At 600 dpi, text approaches professional print shop quality. Photos and graphics make better use of higher resolutions - particularly on glossy paper. But in my experience, you can produce perfectly good snapshots on glossy photo paper at 720 dpi or less. So don't let a slightly higher resolution be your only reason for choosing one printer over another.

Ink jets, lasers and dot matrix printers go about their business in different ways, each of which has its advantages and drawbacks.

An ink jet produces dots by squirting tiny droplets of ink on your paper from a print head that moves across the page, one line at a time. Like a painter mixing colors on his palette, an ink jet combines cyan (blue-green), magenta (blue- red), yellow and black ink to produce virtually all the colors your eye can distinguish.

Laser printers work more like office copiers. They use a laser beam or light-emitting diode to write dots on a photosensitive drum and transfer the image to paper by fusing toner to the page.

Dot matrix printers use a print head with tiny needles that strike an inked ribbon to transfer the image to paper. Because ink jet and laser technologies are so much better, dot matrix printers have virtually disappeared from the consumer market. They're used mainly by buinesses that produce multi-copy carbon forms such as invoices and shipping documents.

For black-and-white text and graphics, laser printers still produce the best quality, largely because they don't run into problems with ink splattering or absorption. They're also much faster than ink jets and don't tie up your computer as long when they're working. Even a low-end laser printer can produce 4 to 6 pages per minute of high-quality text and graphics, which is about twice the true speed of a comparable ink jet at similar resolution.

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