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A laser printer useful and cheap enough to justify


The Hewlett-Packard Co.'s new Laserjet 4L personal laser printer, for DOS and Windows computers, is better and cheaper than its popular predecessor, the Laserjet IIP. At a suggested list price of $849, and a probable discounted price of $650, the 4L might be the laser that blasts dot-matrix printers into oblivion.

Hewlett-Packard plans to deliver another version of the printer, called the Laserjet 4ML (list price $1,279, with a street price of about $999), for Macintosh computers and those PC users who use the powerful Adobe Postscript Level 2 software. The 4ML will come with more than 50 extra type fonts (80 fonts in all, compared with 26 in the 4L).

For many executives the 4L and 4ML may be inexpensive enough to justify, finally, having a personal laser printer.

"These are convenience printers for people who want to attach a printer directly to their PC and be able to bring a page out whenever they need it," said Jack E. Gold, senior analyst with the Meta Group, a research company in Westport, Conn. "It really goes after the dot-matrix printers, where people aren't getting the quality they expect, especially now that they have Windows and other graphical user interfaces."

For those who think of laser printers as bulky behemoths, the 4L will open some eyes. It is about half the size of previous Laserjet models, and, at 15.5 pounds, less than half the weight of the IIP. Hewlett-Packard achieved the reduction with a new printer engine and by compressing many electronics onto an internal card.

But it is probably the slimmer price that will attract the attention of executives and people who work in small offices or at home. The difference in the price of a typical dot-matrix printer and that of a laser printer is now only a few hundred dollars, and the difference in print quality is dramatic.

The printers will be among the easiest laser printers to operate, with the exception of the Apple Laserwriters.

"The most startling feature of the 4L is the presence of only a single button on the front control panel," said Marco Boer, a printer analyst with the International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "H-P has shifted all status feedback to the users through software."

If the 4L models have a shortcoming it is printing speed, which is rated at four pages per minute, the same as the IIP. Still, the print quality of the 4L is better.The new printer has a standard resolution of 300 dots per inch (300 dpi), but it uses the Hewlett-Packard resolution enhancement technology to produce especially crisp graphics and text. The resolution enhancement technology was first used in Hewlett-Packard's more advanced Laserjet models, which offer 600 dpi.

The 4L also reflects a new level of environmental awareness. A small touch is that the manual is printed on recycled paper; of more significance is Economode, the equivalent of draft mode on dot-matrix printers. In Economode, the 4L lays down half the toner used in regular mode, thus extending the life of the print cartridge.

C. J. Meiser III, who analyzes printers for BIS Strategic Decisions of Norwell, Mass., said, "Type and images are still readable when printed in Economode, but the page looks dull and flat." But for rough drafts that may be all right, and on the environmental side, there would be fewer of the hard-to- dispose toner cartridges.

One radical change is that neither the 4L nor the 4ML has an on-off switch. Instead, the printers slip into "sleep" mode when they detect no printing requests. While sleeping, the printer draws 5 watts of power, compared with the 40 watts to 90 watts that earlier Laserjets drew even in an inactive mode.

People tend to leave laser printers turned on for long periods of time because it takes so long for the printers to warm up. In contrast, the 4L arises instantly from sleep, and is immediately ready to print.

Hewlett-Packard also has replaced the conventional corona wire, which deposits the toner particles in the right place on a printer document -- and which produces ozone -- with a nonpolluting transfer roller. The environmental advances presumably will soon find their way into other Hewlett-Packard products.

Macintosh users and PC users who embellish text documents with graphic images or fancy type fonts, will be attracted to the 4ML when it becomes available in the summer. The 4ML is a Postscript printer, which refers to the software that determines how the printer and the computer software work together to lay an image on paper.

The 4ML also has the Enhanced PCL 5 language that is standard on the 4L, and it automatically switches between the two, depending on the type of file it is asked to print.

Postscript, a powerful language, is a favorite of graphics professionals. When a Postscript file is created, or when a Postscript font is used, a Postscript printer can take over many of the computational chores from the main computer processor. It was not long ago that the Postscript option added $2,000 to the cost of a laser printer.

While Panasonic, Epson and others also offer laser printers in the $999 range, the 4ML seems to have far more features.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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