Color printer quality, price make strides


Clutching his printout and eyeing the paper critically, the young chemist was not entirely happy.

He had just entered the data from his latest lab into the Lotus Freelance Graphics program. After a couple of mouse clicks and a bit of tinkering, a set of beautiful, three-dimensional line graphs had emerged from Dad's LaserJet. Dad didn't know anything about polymorphic trichloroethane dimethyl butazolanoids, or whatever the lad was doing, but he was impressed.

"Looks pretty good," he said. "Those graphs must go over pretty well at school."

"That's the problem," the young chemist replied. "I mean, it looks OK, but it's just black and white and gray. A lot of the kids at school have color printers now. Their stuff really looks great."

Dad looked over at his reliable old laser printer. It had cost him a bundle when he bought it a few years ago, and he had, with great difficulty, hooked it up to a variety of switch boxes, buffers and cables so that junior could use it from his PC in the next room.

"I guess that means you want a color printer," Dad said.

The young chemist's reply was long and reasoned, something to the effect that he appreciated his father's efforts on his behalf, but in an age of burgeoning technology and difficult academic competition, he wouldn't want Dad to feel that he had somehow left his son graphically disadvantaged by chaining him to the colorless output of a laser printer.

Dad was equally reasonable.

"You want color? Save up your money."

The fact that Dad could say that, and that junior could have some expectation of actually doing it, says a lot about color printing today.

While high-end color printers that use laser technology, thermal wax transfer or other exotic methods remain prohibitively expensive for home and small business users, color ink jet printers have become both affordable and popular over the last few years. The quality of their output has also improved significantly.

The latest models from the two big players, Hewlett-Packard and Canon, run anywhere from $400 to $600. While they're more expensive than the black-and-white ink jet printers that have captured the low-end market, they're not out of reach of the average buyer.

If you shop carefully and understand its advantages and limitations, a color ink jet printer can be a good investment for you and your kids. But be aware that not all color printers are created equal, and for business purposes, you can get a lot better black-and-white results from an inexpensive laser printer that won't cost much more than a good color ink jet.

Ink jet printers get their name from the mechanism that delivers the ink to the paper by squirting it onto the paper through a print head with tiny nozzles. The droplets of ink form the dot patterns that create text and graphics.

Color ink jets work their magic by using three or four ink reservoirs. By making multiple passes with blue, red, and yellow ink, they can create almost any color.

How the manufacturer deals with those ink cartridges can make a big difference in the quality and cost of owning a color printer.

The best printers have separate color and black reservoirs that can be replaced independently. They'll also print black using black ink and color using color ink without any intervention on your part.

Less expensive models -- particularly some older printers still available in closeouts -- compromise on this. Some don't have a black ink cartridge and form black text or graphics by mixing all three colors. Unfortunately, this black often looks brownish or purplish, and text may not be as sharp as the output from a black-and-white printer. It may not be good enough for business correspondence.

Other printers allow you to use a black ink cartridge or a three-color cartridge. You have to change cartridges to switch from one mode to the other and make sure your printer driver software knows which cartridge is there.

These issues also affect the cost of using a color ink jet, which can be considerable. By various estimates, a color page with 40 percent ink coverage costs anywhere from 15 to 30 cents, depending on the printer. This is two to three times as much as a black and white page, and at least five times as much as a page from a laser printer.

Separate ink reservoirs for each color also are important because they let you replace only the ink you use, instead of buying ......TC whole new cartridge when one of the kids decides to use up all the blue on a 60-foot banner.

One of the early knocks on ink jet printers was that they required expensive, coated paper to produce sharp, vibrant images. The latest models work much better with regular paper, but before buying one based on the images you see in the brochures (usually done on coated paper), test one using normal copy paper first.

Whatever printer you buy will come with drivers for Windows -- if the printer is designed to be used with PC's -- or for the Apple Macintosh if you're buying a Mac-compatible printer.

Drivers are programs and data files that let your computer know what commands to send to the printer to make it work. Given the complexity of today's printers and graphical environments, these drivers are notoriously buggy. Any driver you get with a printer is likely to be out of date. Before you install the driver on your hard disk, call the manufacturer and find out if there's a new one.

Manufacturers will generally send you the latest drivers at little or no cost, and many post driver software for downloading on their own electronic bulletin boards or in the hardware forums of major on-line services such as CompuServe and America OnLine.

From the mailbag: A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Family PC magazine. Since then, I've had several requests from people who wanted to subscribe but couldn't find a copy on their newsstand. The number to call is 1-800-413-9749.

Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Sun.

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