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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS / LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Printer Shopping? Don't Let In-Store Demo Fool You

May 27, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

My laser printer is starting to feel like the Maytag repairman: It hardly ever gets called into service. That's because I'm now using a Hewlett-Packard 855Cse color inkjet. The HP has print quality that's virtually as good as that of my laser printer, it's almost as fast, it uses less electricity, it's just as economical and it prints in color.

The 855Cse, which costs $499, is my favorite, but you don't have to spend that much for a good-quality printer. HP, Canon and Epson have models starting at about $200.

When shopping for a printer, consider speed and quality of both black-and-white and color printing as well as any software that comes with the machine. You'll find separate ratings for color and black printing, and the black printing is usually rated at three speeds: draft, normal and high-quality. You'll probably do most of your printing at the black normal setting, so pay special attention to that rating.

Judging quality can be tricky. Most retailers will print out sample pages for you, but they often use expensive paper designed especially for inkjet printers. You too can use this type of paper if you're willing to spend a dime or more per sheet, but be realistic. Most people I know use cheap copy paper, so that's how I test printers.

Also, demonstration pages are often printed at the slowest speeds, which translates to the highest quality. Ask to see the printer run at the "normal" speed and don't be dazzled by the graphics. Take a hard look at the text, especially normal-sized type. That's what really matters to those of us who use our printers for correspondence, reports and other boring workaday projects.

Most color inkjet printers are now being bundled with a CD that includes some type of publishing software or a home project program for the creation of calendars, banners and greeting cards. Canon, for example, bundles Hallmark Connection's Everyday Greetings, which creates great cards. Hewlett-Packard includes Microsoft Publisher on some models and Disney's Mickey and Friends Print Studio on others.

Another important consideration is whether the printer can print in both color and black and white at the same time. The lowest-priced color inkjet printers, such as the Hewlett-Packard 600c and the Epson Color Stylus IIs, require you to swap cartridges to switch between black and color. It's a hassle for anyone who plans to use color other than on rare occasions. If the color cartridge is installed, printing in black requires the printer to mix colors, which doesn't look as good as real black ink. Most midpriced to high-end printers can use black and color cartridges simultaneously.

Be sure to consider cost per page and how often you have to change ink cartridges. The cartridges for the Epson and Hewlett-Packard printers are quite large and cost about 2 cents to 3 cents per black page and about 10 cents per color page. The black ink cartridge for Canon's BJC-4100 costs $6 and runs out after about 100 pages. Your actual cost per page will vary depending on the type of documents you print.

Hewlett-Packard's newest home printers, the 680 and 682, offer better color and something not seen before on an inkjet--the ability to print banners on continuous-feed paper. This can not only be a boon for the birthday and anniversary party set, but can also be useful for shopkeepers and even office workers who create advertising banners. The new 680 series also offers better-quality color and black-and-white printing as well as generally improved paper handling.

My favorite all-around inkjet printer is the Hewlett-Packard 800 series--850, 855, 855Cse and 820Cse. They're fast (about six pages per minute for normal quality black-and-white printing) and the print quality on standard paper is very good. Like all HP printers, they're also rugged. They hold up to 150 sheets of paper, and you can print a single envelope without having to remove the paper. You can also print a stack of envelopes.

Paper is stored horizontally so it's less likely to buckle, wrinkle or jam than if it's inserted vertically, as it is on Canon printers and the Epson II and IIs printers. The 855 works with Windows, DOS and Macintosh. If you only use Windows, you can save $100 by opting for HP's new 820Cse ($399), which doesn't work with DOS or Mac.

When it comes to a near-photo-quality printer, Epson's Color Stylus Pro ($499) is the clear winner in this price range. The color is superb, especially if you use Epson's "Hi Quality Glossy Paper." The results are close to what you'll get from your local photo shop, but, at $32 for 15 sheets of paper, they're also nearly as expensive. Epson also does fine on plain paper and does excellent black printing, though at three pages per minute, it's considerably slower than the HP's 800 models.

Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com

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