So you blew a couple of grand on a computer system and a couple of hundred more for a fancy word processor.
You sit down and knock out a drop-dead gorgeous business letter, complete with an embedded company logo, four bar charts, three tables and 47 different typefaces. A triumph of technology. Now all you have to do is address the envelope.
If you have a laser printer, you can get up, open up the back of the machine, stick the envelope in the slot, figure out how to change the orientation of your paper, type the address and hope the envelope gets through without jamming or getting sealed shut by the heat.
You have a dot matrix printer? No problem. Just take your fanfold paper out (or if you're lucky, hit the "paper park" switch), stick an envelope in the slot (if it has one) or wrap it around the platen, figure out how much spacing to give it, and hope it gets through without jamming or getting so far out of line that the address marches diagonally down the face.
Maybe you sneak out where someone can't see you, pull that battered typewriter out of the closet, and address the envelope that way. Or horror of horrors, maybe you scrawl the address with a pen. Yeah, technology is wonderful.
But where there's a problem, the marketplace will provide a solution. Enter the Seiko Smart Label Printer Pro, a $300 gadget that will address individual mailing labels -- or small batches -- with no fuss, no muss and no sticky mess. You can do it right from your word processing program, or whatever software you're using.
You say labels are tacky? Maybe so. But as labels go, these look good, and you can make them as pretty as you want, with logos, multiple fonts and all the other silly stuff you wasted your time on in that fancy business letter you're trying to mail.
The Smart Label Printer Pro is a wedge-shaped thing about six inches long, with a spindle for a roll of labels at the top and, thankfully, only two controls -- a power switch and a label feed button. Both IBM and Macintosh printers are available. I tested the IBM-compatible version.
Unlike most printers, which connect to your computer's parallel port, the Smart Label Printer connects to a serial port. This isn't surprising, since you probably have another printer hooked up already. Most computers today come with two serial ports, one of which is used by the mouse. If you're using the other for a modem, you'll have to swap cables or get a little "A-B" switch box.
The package includes a roll of 1-by-3.5-inch mailing labels and a roll of 2-by-4-inch shipping labels. Labels in the Euro format and 3.5-inch diskette labels are also available. A word of caution here. These are special labels made of thermal paper. They're a lot more expensive than standard labels, which is one reason why the machine is best suited for individual mailings or small batch jobs.
Setup takes about two minutes if you read the well-illustrated manual, or about 10 minutes if you decide to be a real man and figure it out yourself. Read the manual.
The printer comes with two programs, one for use in the DOS environment and the other for use under Microsoft Windows. Both were easy to install and use out of the box but give you enough options to keep you happily tweaking for hours if you want to become the Rembrandt of mailing labels.
The DOS software consists of a memory-resident program that mercifully occupies only 9K of RAM. If you're using any standard DOS software, such as WordPerfect, all you have to do is hit ALT-S (or choose some other hot key) and a little frame pops up on your screen. Most of the time, it will automatically pick out the address of your correspondent from the top of your letter.
An excellent example of intelligent programming, the software scans your screen for the first thing that looks like a ZIP code and works backward from there. If you usually type in your own return address, you can configure your program to look for the second ZIP code. You can also set it to search for Canadian, Australian, British and European postal codes.
Even if the program misses, you can move and resize the selection frame to highlight any text you choose. Hit the ENTER key, and up pops the full Smart Label Software, a graphic-based program that puts your highlighted text in the label address field.
If everything is set up to your satisfaction, you can print the label then and there and go back to your word processor. Or you can change the label size and format, choose a return address (for shipping labels), or save the address if it's someone you frequently correspond with. You can also copy a name and address from the program's stored list back to your word processor.
The SLP Pro software comes with a variety of scalable typefaces from Atech Software, including decorative dingbats. The Windows version of the software adds the ability to insert bitmapped graphics in a variety of formats, as well as access to any True Type or other scalable typeface available to the rest of your Windows programs.
Neither program will pull addresses from standard data base or word processor merge files, but they will print batches of labels from a list of addresses set up in a standard text file on your disk.
The SLP Pro is virtually silent and takes about six seconds to print a standard mailing label -- a little longer for a shipping label. The print quality is excellent -- not quite up to laser printer standards but still crisp, sharp and professional. I was particularly surprised by the quality of a scanned photo I placed on a label as a lark.
The SLP Pro will put Postnet bar codes on your mailing labels. In addition, it will print commercial bar code labels in four popular formats, making the printer ideal for quick inventory labeling. The manufacturer warns, however, that infrared bar code readers probably won't work with its labels. Readers that use visible light will work.
The major drawback to the SLP Pro is the price and availability of Seiko's proprietary labels. The thermal stock is expensive. Seiko charges $8.40 for 260 standard mailing labels, about 3 cents each. Third-party labels may be available in some outlets, but you'll have to test them to make sure they work.
As a result, I wouldn't use it for mass mailings. But if you frequently type individual letters, ship small batches of parcels, or need its special bar-coding capabilities, the Smart Label Printer Pro could easily earn back its cost in productivity and peace of mind.
For information, contact Seiko Instruments USA, 1130 Ringwood Court, San Jose, Calif., 95131.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)