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Now in Reach: Quality Color Printing

July 01, 1993|RICHARD O'REILLY | RICHARD O'REILLY is director of computer analysis for The Times

Color monitors have virtually replaced monochrome screens on desktop computers, but color printing has been slow to develop. Typically, if it is affordable the quality is mediocre. Quality color printers have been expensive to operate as well as to buy.

Now Hewlett-Packard has introduced a printer capable of producing high-quality color suitable for business graphics. It also prints in black as cheaply and effectively as a laser printer. The HP DeskJet 1200C, at a suggested $1,699, is also priced like a laser printer.

Meanwhile, Lexmark, the IBM spinoff printer company, has brought down the cost of fast, high-quality, 600-dots-an-inch PostScript printing in black only, which is ideal for desktop publishing with the new IBM 4039 10R LaserPrintter, priced at $1,599.

And for light-duty personal printing, HP has introduced a stripped-down laser printer, the LaserJet 4L, which matches excellent print quality with compact size. At $829 retail, it is the least expensive of HP's laser printers.

Among this trio of machines, the first choice for an office workhorse would be the Lexmark IBM printer. It can be connected directly to a network with an optional plug-in card. It can also serve both personal computers and Macintoshes with optional configurations.

Rated at 10 pages a minute in 300-dots-an-inch mode or eight pages a minute at 600 dots an inch, the IBM 4039 comes with 39 PostScript fonts and 27 non-PostScript fonts for use with DOS and Windows programs. It automatically senses whether a file requires PostScript. A special printing mode reproduces photographs in excellent halftone. (PostScript, known as a page description language, allows the highest-quality printing, especially on pages with both graphics and text.)

The IBM printer's control panel has a menu screen with push buttons that is particularly easy to use. A wide variety of options allows you to add larger-capacity paper trays (200 is standard), double-sided printing and an envelope feeder. Two faster models, offering 12 or 16 pages a minute at 300 dots an inch, are also available. Both slow to eight pages a minute in 600-dots-an-inch mode.

To use HP's color DeskJet 1200C as your only printer, you have to give up a little speed. It will print black-only text and graphics at six pages a minute at 300 dots an inch, or four pages a minute at a higher resolution of 600 by 300 dots an inch. To achieve black printing comparable to laser printing, the 1200C uses a pigmented black ink instead of the black dye typically used in ink jet printers. It looks the same as laser printing to the unaided eye.

Colors are printed with cartridges of cyan, magenta and yellow inks, which, when combined with black, can produce a full spectrum.

I tested the $2,399 PostScript version of the printer, the DeskJet 1200C/PS. A color photograph scanned at 300 dots an inch and printed on special glossy paper was just as colorful as the original and retained a nearly photo-like quality. Printed on copier paper, the colors were muted.

If you use the glossy paper, you have to be careful that the printer is properly set, with the ink-drying heater turned off.

The printer is excellent for graphics and transparencies for overhead presentations.

HP estimates that a typical plain-paper page with some color, such as a logo or a small chart, costs 12 to 15 cents a page to print. (Transparencies and special coated paper boost the cost.)

The HP 1200C produces much better color than HP's popular DeskJet 500C color printer and is also much larger. It expands to about 19 inches wide and 17 inches deep, including paper trays, and is just over 11 inches tall. You might have trouble squeezing that onto the corner of a desk.

Perhaps HP's most unusual new printer is the LaserJet 4L, which replaces the LaserJet IIP. For instance, it has no on-off switch. Designed to be plugged in and left on, it draws just five watts of power when it isn't printing. The idea is that you never have to wait for the printer to warm up when you're ready to print. While printing, it still draws less power than other laser printers.

Another unusual feature is EconoMode, which saves money by printing in a draft-like mode that uses only about half the usual amount of toner on the page. The system doesn't print all dots that make up a typical text character. Prints are just as legible as those made in the normal mode, but the type looks gray instead of black.

A no-frills printer in more ways than one, the LaserJet 4L holds only 100 pages and has no control panel. Software that is loaded onto your computer controls the printer.

A Macintosh version with PostScript, to be available soon at $1,279, will be HP's cheapest PostScript printer.

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