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COMPUTER FILE / Richard O'Reilly

Quality Printing Is Getting Cheaper

November 12, 1987|RICHARD O'REILLY | Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Typical prices for laser printers finally have fallen below $2,000, putting the equipment within range of people and small businesses that lack big budgets but need very high quality printing.

It is even possible to link a new laser printer with an old-fashioned computer that uses the CP/M operating system software and still get the same high quality.

Laser printers are close relatives of the office copier machine. Instead of ink, the characters are formed with black toner powder fused to the page with heat. Copiers work basically the same way. The difference is that where a copier uses a camera lens to transfer an image, a laser printer uses a laser beam guided by instructions from your computer.

The result is fast, usually quiet printing, plus the ability to mix sharply detailed graphics and letter-quality type in various sizes, shapes and styles on a page. The disadvantage is that the computer software required to make a laser printer work is considerably more complex than that needed to drive a simple dot matrix printer or letter-quality daisywheel printer.

Shopping for laser printers can be confusing because they vary widely. One major--and very expensive--distinction concerns whether the laser printer comes equipped with internal memory and programming equipped with PostScript, a language that determines how printed pages look that has become a standard for the highest-quality desktop publishing.

HP Dominates Market

Because printers equipped with PostScript are complex machines and because manufacturers must pay an expensive licensing fee to offer PostScript, such printers are in the $4,000 and up range.

The Apple Macintosh needs PostScript to do its best work, and Apple sells a PostScript printer, the LaserWriter, which carries a suggested retail price of $4,400.

But for other computers, including IBM and compatible machines, less expensive non-PostScript printers are fine for typical business reports and correspondence.

Hewlett-Packard dominates the non-PostScript market, having set the standard in that arena with its successive models of the LaserJet printer. The latest is the LaserJet II.

Software publishers therefore are careful to make sure that their programs work with Hewlett-Packard laser printers, while sometimes ignoring laser printers from other manufacturers. It is therefore important that you buy a laser printer that can imitate the Hewlett-Packard models to be sure that you have the widest possible software compatibility. (Many programs written before the advent of laser printers do not work properly with them, so buying a new printer may also mean buying new software.)

With the HP LaserJet II selling for $1,800 or less, despite its $2,595 suggested retail price, printers from competing manufacturers need to sell for even less than the HP and offer more features to make it worth your while to consider them.

Two that are vying for your attention are Epson, the dominant dot matrix printer maker, and C. Itoh, which has offered a series of respectable printers over the years.

Epson's GQ 3500, which can be found for under $1,400 ($2,199 suggested retail), is smaller and lighter than the LaserJet II.

It comes with an accessory that lets it behave like an HP laser printer, or you can use it in its standard mode that allows it to work with software designed to drive Epson dot matrix LQ-series printers. The Epson also can be set to work well with old software that offers no sophisticated printing features.

I found the printer easy to use and quiet, with attractive built-in type styles. Additional type fonts are available with installation of plug-in cartridges. The basic 640,000 characters (640 kilobytes) of operating memory can be expanded to 1.5 million characters (1.5 megabytes) to accommodate large images on a page.

The C. Itoh Jet-Setter has a suggested retail price of $1,795 and has been in such short supply that it has been discounted only about $100. It is a larger and heavier printer than the Epson, or the latest HP. It is also noisy. You know that a lot of things are turning inside when it is printing.

But it is designed to behave like an HP LaserJet, so you simply plug it in and print using any software designed to drive an HP. You also can use the Jet-Setter with older software that doesn't run laser printers, although it will take some experimentation and you will probably have trouble controlling the top and bottom margins and number of lines printed on the page.

Little Difference

Built-in font selections are more limited than those with the Epson, but additional font cartridges can be added. For printing large graphics, the Jet-Setter can be expanded to a full two megabytes of internal memory. It comes standard with 512K of memory.

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