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Which printer do I choose?

By Tom Cumming


In this world there are three main types of printer:

1) Inkjet.

- Quite cheap;
- Fairly quiet in operation;
- Small;
- Virtually all can do colour;
- Output quality generally good, though not as good as a laser;
- Particularly good at graphics and photographic output.

- Replacement ink is expensive;
- Some require special paper to produce the best results, which is again expensive;
- As they are mainly designed with home users in mind, particularly the cheaper ones, the build quality is not always fantastic. Be prepared for a bit of tinkering, cleaning, tweaking etc 5 years down the line;
- Ink comes out wet, and so can smudge if you are not careful;
- When there are large blocks of ink on the page, the pages tend to curl as they are so saturated with ink;

Things to look out for:
- Have a look at how the ink cartridges load. If it has only one cartridge holder, like a lot of portables, then you will have to switch cartridges to change from black to colour, and when you've got the colour cartridge in, there's no black, so the "black" will be a yucky brown produced by mixing the three colours up. This is sometimes called a composite black.
- Are the three colours separate or in the same cartridge? It is better to get separate cartridges, so that when one colour runs out you do not waste the remaining ink in the other three.
- How does the paper feed out of the printer? Unless it's an HP deskjet, they often output the pages face up, so if you print a document with lots of pages they land on your desk in the wrong order. This may or may not be a problem, depending on what you want to do with it.

Designed for:
All-round, light use in the home or office.

2) Laser.

- *Excellent* quality print;
- Quiet in operation;
- Fast;
- Tough and robust: can take heavy usage without falling apart;
- Very reliable;
- Cheaper to run than an inkjet.
- Can take lots of paper - do not need to be refilled often.
- Works perfectly with ordinary copier paper: does not need fancy paper to work best;

- Expensive;
- Most are only black and white;
- The few that are colour are *very* expensive (we're talking thousands of ££s);
- If they get jammed they can be fiddly to un-jam;
- Take up a lot of space;
- Heavy;

Things to look out for:
- Does it require a regular service?;
- How much do the toner cartridges cost? (The price per page is quite cheap, but because the toners hold quite a lot, the price of each one can hit you with a ton of bricks when it does eventually run out.)

Designed for:
Businesses and other large networks, for fast high quality printouts of office documents.

3) Dot-matrix.

- Very cheap to run;
- Fairly cheap purchase price;
- Can print on continuous fanfold paper;
- Works by firing pins at a ribbon, so will work with carbonated copy-paper;
- Very reliable;
- Robust: can cope with high volume printing;
- The ribbons are on a continuous loop, the ink never "runs out", the print just gets gradually ligher and feignter in colour until eventually you cannot read it any more.

- Very, very noisy;
- Slow;
- Poor quality print;
- Most are black and white;
- The few colour models have a tendancy for the colours to smudge, so the colour is only really any use for solid block colours, eg pie charts and diagrams. They are no use at all for photographs or anything else with varying colour levels;
- Some can only feed one sheet of paper at a time;

Things to look out for:
- Where can you get the ribbons from? Most small PC shops do not sell them any more - it is normally a mail-order job;

Designed for:
Businesses requiring a cheap and reliable method of printing, where the quality is not important. For example, most of the little printers inside cash registers, printing till receipts all day long, are dot-matrix. They also are useful if you need to use copy paper, for producing a number of copies automatically, and the use of fanfold paper is useful for long listings and banners.

The second thing that you must check is the connection. There are two main ways of connecting a printer to a computer:

1) Parallel (printer) port. This is the more "traditional" way of connecting a printer to a computer, and uses the 25-pin parallel port on the back of your computer. Most printers have a parallel connector, though some newer ones only have USB (below). The main problems with this connector is that they become unreliable with long cable runs, so it is not advisable to connect a printer to a computer using a parallel lead, if your printer is more than a couple of metres away from the computer. Also to bear in mind is that parallel ports do not like having more than one device connected to them, so if you have a scanner or something else connected to your parallel port, then
**even if your scanner has a printer port on the back**, I would avoid using a parallel port printer because this can be unreliable, particularly (in my predudiced experience!) on Hewlett-Packard printers.

2) USB port. Newer computers and newer printers all have USB ports, and these are a better way to connect your printer up if both computer and printer have a suitable connector. The connection is faster, and they can be used with extention leads without introducing reliability problems. They also allow you to do fancy things like having your computer automatically turn your printer on and off. Some smaller printers can be powered from the computer via the USB lead, so you do not need an extra power socket. If you do not have any spare USB connectors on your computer, you can easily use a hub (like double-adaptor) to gain more ports.

So, in short, use USB if you can, if your computer is new enough.

Also check out paper-handling facilities: Some have "scaling" features in their driver software that allow you to shrink pages so that you can squeeze more than one "page" onto a single sheet of A4 to save ink and paper. Some allow you to print on envelopes, and on some printers this may mean removing all the paper and pulling a lot of levers and switches first, whereas some it is a lot easier. Some allow you to print on continuous fanfold paper, which is useful for banners or printing out program listings. Some may have trays for more than one size of paper. Some allow you to use A3 paper. Some (mainly lasers) have a "duplex" unit, which allows you to print on both sides of the paper automatically, without having to print one side and then feed it back into the printer again. You need to decide which of these you need, and which of these you do not need.

After you have done this, it is time for a process of elimination. Get copies of manufacturer's catalogues so you know that you have as near as possible to every model available in front of you. Cross out all the ones you cannot afford, all the ones that are not of the correct type, all the ones that do not have the features you need, and hopefully you will then have a small list of say, half a dozen models. Then it is then a question of getting word-of-mouth recommendations of good makes and models, or looking in computer magazines for group tests, to decide which one to actually go for.

Once you have chosen a few models, something that is worth checking is whether they are GDI printers or not. GDI printers are a recent development to reduce the cost of printers, by dispensing with the need for a processor and memory in the printer, and just relying on the ones in the PC. Generally speaking this is not a problem, however, there are a few drawbacks:

1. Older PCs may struggle with such printers, so check the system requirements;
2. They require quite a specialist driver, and these are generally only released for recent versions of Windows. Don't buy a GDI printer if you use Linux or any other more unusual operating system - it probably will not work. With conventional printers, if you cannot find a driver for your specific model, you can probably use something similar, or a "standard" driver such as a postscript driver for Lasers and Epson FX-80 for a 9-pin dot-matrix. This simply will not work with GDI printers - no specific driver = no printing!
3. You cannot print from the DOS prompt outside of Windows.

This said though, if none of these three points are a problem to you, do not be put off buying a GDI printer, as you will save money, and more money will be spent other parts of the printer that has been saved by not needing a processor and RAM.

Buying second-hand

So, you want a printer but do not want to spend over £100, but neither do you want to buy a very cheap-and-nasty £50 new one? Well, you could always buy a second-hand printer. Buying second-hand has a number of advantages:

- You can get good quality printers for less cash. You do not have to suffer poor build quality by buying a very cheap new printer.
- Older printers often suit older computers better. Today's printers are mostly GDI printers, meaning that they do not contain a processor or RAM, but delegate a lot of their processing requirements to the PC. This is fine if you have a newish PC, making printers cheaper, but if your PC is getting on a bit, GDI printers often take ages to print because the PC struggles to run the software in the backgroud that it requires. However, older printers, older than about 1997, are not GDI printers, because the PCs of this time did not have the power for it.
- For the same reason as above, many modern printers will not work from DOS. Not a problem with printers older than about 1997. Similarly, if you have an unusual PC platform, such as perhaps an Acorn Risc OS machine, or a non-Microsoft operating system, then you are less likely to have trouble getting a non-GDI printer to work.
- Older printers do not look as attactive to theives.

However, of course, just like buying a second-hand car, you have to have your wits about you and do your research. Some printers do seem to have recurring problems that appear a few years down the line that can turn what appears a good second-hand buy, to an absolute nightmare. It is very often *not* the same printers that get a good writeup when they are new, that go on to last forever. For example, I have HP Deskjet 670C, and I know a number of friends that also have 600-series HP deskjets, dating from 1997-1998. This printer got a great writeup when it was new. However, *Every one* of the people I know who have had one of these printers, has had problems with the paper feeder, streaky lines on printout, loud banging noises and other nasties, and seem to spend longer fixing these printers than I do using them. However, my old Canon BJ-200ex, bought in January 1995, still works just as well as it the day I bought it, and I have never had to perform any maintenence on it at all.

So, if you want to buy a second-hand printer, find someone that owns the same model already, and ask them what like about it, and what they hate about it. Ask them if they have ever contemplated throwing it out of the window. This way, you can know whether to expect certain problems, and how to fix them or get around them.

Other things to check with a second-hand printer, that you would not have to with a new printer:

- Does it have any ink in it?!! Don't forget a full set of colour and black ink cartridges for an inkjet printer, or a toner for a laser printer, can easily cost £50 or more. If you buy a second hand printer for £20, and then spend £50 on ink, it will probably no longer seem quite the same bargain!

- Have you got the instruction books? If not, some manufacturers let you download them in .pdf format from their website, *but do not assume this*. Check! You may also be able to buy a manual from the manufacturers, but again, you are increasing the cost, and your second-hand printer may not seem quite such a good buy. Even if you think you can manage without the instructions, still make sure that you have a list of the DIP switches and what they do, if the printer has any DIP switches.

- Drivers? Does the printer have drivers for your operating system? Can you download them from the manufacturer's website? Do *not* assume you will get a driver disc with the printer. If you get a CD-ROM with drivers for say, Windows 95, do not assume that they will work with, say, Windows 98. They probably will, but check. Email the manufaturer and ask, or ask someone who already owns one of these models. In fact, don't assume that these drivers even work! CD-ROMs can get scratched, and floppy disks can very easily become corrupted. So make sure the manufacturer of the printer has downloadable drivers for your operating system, on their website.

- Do you have a suitable printer cable and mains cable? A parallel cable costs about £5, A USB cable about £12, a mains cable about £5, or a mains lead with a tranformer "brick" in the wire may cost £10 or you may not be able to buy them any more. Again, if you need to buy these as well as a printer, this will increase the cost.

- If the person you are buying it from does not mind, print a few test pages before you buy. Do not just use the built-in Windows test pages, make up some of your own. Try and include:
- Small text, using Truetype fonts;
- Large text, using Truetype fonts;
- Bold text, underlining, italics, fancy fonts etc;
- Some block colour diagrams, such as pie-charts and diagrams;
- Black and white photographs;
- Colour photographs;
- Line diagrams;
- White text on black backgrounds;
- Text that goes right to the top, bottom, left and right of the page;
- An HTML document;
- An Adobe Acrobat document.

Look out for any of the following:
- Paper feeders that "stick";
- Crashing, clattering, or banging noises;
- Output that is lopsided;
- Streaky lines or otherwise poor quality output;
- Speed. Some older printers are *very* slow compared with what we are used to today.
- Text chopped off the top, bottom, left or right of the page.
- Whether the HTML and/or Acrobat documents actually print. I've found that some old dot-matrix machines go absolutely bonkers when trying to print either of these.


Copyright © 2001-2006 © Copyright Karl Davis.

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