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Description: Printers transform text and graphics from your PC into hard-copy
output on paper. They have been around since the earliest days of the PC, and are used for
a wide variety of purposes ranging from letters and business correspondence, to the
printing of flyers and sales material, to the creation of photographs that in many ways
rival those created by conventional chemical processing.
Role and Subsystems: Printers are not part of any of the subsystems as I have
defined them; they are an add-on peripheral. However, they are so important to most PC
users that most individuals (and especially most businesses) consider them part of the PC.
Related Components: The printer normally connects to some interface or port on the
Key Compatibility Selection Criteria: There are only a few specific choices you
need to make in order to narrow down your selection of printers to ones that will meet
your basic requirements; most printers will work with most PCs. Here are the initial
choices you need to make:
- Interface: Most printers connect to the system through the parallel port. If your
system doesn't have a parallel port (rare on desktops, more common on notebooks) you may
be able to connect using USB. There are also some printers that don't connect to a PC at
all; they sit directly on a local network to be shared by many PCs.
- Paper Capacity And Handling: Most regular printers can handle a variety of sizes
of paper up to about legal size. They usually have sheet feeders that can accept about 25
to 100 sheets of paper at a time, depending on the printer and the paper. If you need to
be able to print wide (17") paper or have special paper handling requirements, you
will limit your choices to the larger printers that meet these requirements. These usually
cost more and have higher print speeds and better features.
- Operating System Support: Many printers, particularly inexpensive ones, have key
functionality as part of their software drivers. Some therefore require a variant of
Windows to work properly. If you are not going to use Windows, be sure the printer you
select will work with your chosen operating system.
Performance and Capacity Selection Criteria: There are many different types of
printers available for you to choose from. They differ primarily in terms of their
performance: how fast they work and the quality of output being the main issues of
interest to most buyers. Here's what you want to look for (note that I consider print
quality issues to be related to the performance of a printer; quality considerations are
related to the quality of the printer itself and follow the discussion of these
- Printer Type: There are three main types of printers sold today:
- Dot Matrix: The oldest kind of printer common in the PC world is the dot
matrix, which was used on PCs primarily in the 1980s. These units use an array of pins
and a ribbon to print text, and in some cases, graphics. Noisy, slow and low in quality,
these have been almost entirely pushed out of the market by inkjet and laser printers.
They are still sold for special needs, especially for printing multi-part continuous forms
for business purposes (lasers and inkjets can't print through multiple-sheet carbon
- Laser: These printers use technology similar to that of a photocopier to create
high-quality printout at high speed. They are expensive, however, and they are generally
limited to black and white output unless you want to spend a lot of money on a
color laser printer.
- Ink Jet: The most popular type of printer sold today, ink jet printers use a
special print head that ejects microscopic dots of colored ink onto paper to create an
output image. They are relatively inexpensive to buy and almost all will print in color.
However, they can be expensive to operate if you do a lot of printing, can be slow, and
their output is prone to fading and smudging. Quality also varies widely.
- Color Laser: These produce amazing output and are fast, but very expensive. They
are still not an option for most PC buyers.
- Black & White Or Color: This is related to the choice of printer type. Most
individual PC buyers want the flexibility that comes with having a color printer, usually
choosing an ink jet. However, if you do a lot of printing of text you may want to get a
black and white laser printer. For businesses, both are often used on a network: a
high-speed laser for high-volume printing and a color inkjet for specialty graphics
- Multi-Function Printers: If you are shopping for a printer for a business or home
office application, you may want to consider one of the multi-function office machines
that are becoming increasingly popular. These are usually based on ink jet technology and
combine a printer and scanner to create four different capabilities: printing, scanning,
faxing (which is either scanning or printing plus telecommunication) and copying (scanning
plus printing). These units cost more but they may save you the cost of several other
pieces of equipment. See the section discussing "Important Features" below for
- Resolution: The resolution of the printer refers to how many dots of ink per inch
can be put into a square of paper: the higher the resolution, the finer the quality of the
output. However, there is much more to high quality than just resolution. Also,
printing at very high resolution is often impractical: it can take many minutes to print a
single page, and printing cost is very high because a lot of ink is used. See more
discussion under "Magic Numbers".
- Print Speed: All printers are rated in terms of the number of pages they can
print per minute; color printers usually have a separate rating for color printing and for
black and white. With very few exceptions, these claims are beyond your typical marketing
exaggerations: they are nothing less than outright lies. Sorry, printer makers, but I've
never seen a printer yet that came close to its rating in real-world use, and I've watched
a printer that claimed to print "4 pages per minute" take almost a full minute
to print out a fairly ordinary page of text with a small amount of graphics on it. These
print speed estimates are based on the assumption that you will print pages that are
mostly empty, which is like rating a car's acceleration by testing how fast it goes from 0
to 60 driving down the side of a mountain. To check true print speed, have the salesperson
connect the printer to a PC and print real documents and graphics.
- General Quality: Be sure to subjectively evaluate the output from different
printers; this will tell you something about whether the printer is able to meet your
needs. Many computer stores have printers set up with button boxes that will let you make
a test print. Remember though that these test prints rarely are set to show the best
quality the printer can do, and the paper used for demonstrations is usually cheap,
resulting in inferior quality output. (They do this to save on the cost of consumables in
- Number Of Inkjet Cartridges: Color inkjets produce color by mixing yellow,
magenta (pink) and cyan (light blue) ink. Better ones also include a second cartridge for
black ink: you want to get one of this type if at all possible, unless you never print
text. An inkjet without a black cartridge "simulates" black by mixing all three
of its colors; this doesn't really give you black however, just a dull gray. Worse, you
waste very expensive color ink on black and white text.
- Number Of Colors: Standard color ink jets use four colors, as I just mentioned.
Some printers, however, add two additional colors, especially those designed for photo
printing. This generally produces better quality at any resolution, and can make up for a
lower raw resolution rate.
- Photo Quality: All printers can print photos but some are designed specifically
for the task while others are not. If you plan to use your printer a great deal for
printing photographs, get a printer intended for it. Check for recommendations on digital
- Cartridge Size: The capacity of the cartridges dictates how frequently you will
be changing cartridges, and also has an impact on cost per page for printing. This is more
of a concern for high-volume printing.
Quality Selection Criteria: Printers range greatly in quality. How important
quality is to you depends entirely on how much you print and what you print. Here are some
issues to look at when considering the quality of the printer itself:
- Construction: Take a look at the overall construction of the unit. See if it is
solid, and watch how it behaves when it is printing. Cheap units will tend to vibrate a
great deal while operating.
- Noise: If you are sensitive to noise, be sure to listen the unit while it is
running; some are nearly silent while others make a terrible racket.
- Cost Per Page: This is a very important consideration if you do a lot of
printing. Various publications that review printers routinely publish a comparison of
various printers, contrasting how much they cost to operate in terms of ink use and other
expenses. Even within the same type of printer cost per page can be dramatically different
from one model to the next. If you print a lot, pay more to get a printer with a lower
cost per page. If you rarely print, it probably makes more sense to get a less expensive
unit even if it costs a bit more per page to use.
Warning: Be careful when
looking at very inexpensive printers: check out the cost of their ink cartridges and how
much ink they contain. The last time I went shopping for a printer I was shocked to
discover a change made by a major printer manufacturer. They had replaced some of their
more popular models with new printers that used a new ink cartridge design. These new
cartridges cost as much as the old ones did but had half as much ink in them!
- Duty Cycle: Many printers are rated in terms of how many sheets per month they
can reliably handle. You can try to print as much as you want on any unit, but if you need
high-volume printing and try to use a printer designed for infrequent use, you greatly
increase the chances of problems.
- Host-Based Operation: To save cost, many printers (especially cheap ones) offload
some of their processing smarts onto a software driver and use the main PC's CPU. This is
very similar to how Winmodems work. However, though I recommend against Winmodems, I think
host-based printers are usually fine. The difference is that the average PC user has their
modem operating far more often than their printer. If that's not the case for you, be sure
to avoid host-based printers.
- Repair History: Printers are more prone to failure than most other PC
peripherals. Be sure to check out the history of any printer before buying it, to be sure
it isn't a model causing a lot of problems to past buyers.
Important Features: Here are a few special features to look for when shopping for a
- Envelope Printing: Many printers support printing directly onto envelopes, useful
for some applications.
- Direct Photo Printing: There are some special photo printers that include the
ability to plug digital camera media into them and print directly, without the use of a
PC. This can be very useful in some situations, though it's not generally necessary.
- Multi-Function Features: Multi-function printers vary drastically in features, so
be sure to read all the fine print. A very good feature not found on all models is
standalone faxing: this lets you use the unit to send and receive faxes without the PC
being on, so you can receive faxes 24 hours a day without leaving the PC running. Also
look for the ability to scan, print and copy in color (some will print in color but only
copy in black and white).
- Software Package: Printers usually come with a software package of some sort.
These range in value from extremely useful to "throw-away". Check the side of
"Magic Numbers" To Watch For: There are two big magic numbers when it
comes to printers, both of which I have already mentioned: dot resolution and print speed.
Be sure not to overrate resolution claims: focus on the bottom line, how the output looks.
Be sure to find out how much it costs to actually print at the printer's maximum
resolution, and how long it takes to print a full page. Ignore print speed claims unless
independently verified (though if you print rarely, print speed is arguably not that
Performance Impact: Printers are not performance components; the only way they can
affect performance is negatively, if they are host-based. If you print large documents
using one of these printers, you may notice substantial slowdowns while printing is going
on. This becomes worse if you are using a slower PC, or if you are printing documents with
a high graphical content.
Retail, OEM and Gray Market Issues: Every printer I have ever seen was
retail-boxed; there may be OEM ones out there but I have not seen them. I always buy
printers from a local retail store, where I can evaluate them before buying, save on high
shipping charges, and return the item in the event that it fails soon after the purchase.
Importance of Manufacturer: There are only a few companies that make printers, and
most of their models fit reasonably well somewhere in the spectrum of price and
performance. Each uses slightly different technology and has a different market approach,
so be sure to compare different manufacturers' products.
Typical Component Lifetime: The life of a printer depends both on the type of
printer and on how much you use it. With infrequent use a printer will last for many years
easily; if you print 100 pages a day on a $100 ink jet you should anticipate problems long
before a year is up.
Warranty Issues: Printers fail more frequently than most other components, due to
their moving parts and inks that can leak, dry up or clog. Be sure to get as long a
warranty as you can. Resist the temptation to buy extended warranties unless they are very
cheap and the printer is very expensive. Buy from a local source with local support if
Driver Support Issues: Printers usually come with driver software and the companies
generally do a fairly good job of keeping them reasonably up to date. Sometimes
though, it takes a while for new drivers to be produced for new operating systems.
Special Specification Considerations: Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when
shopping for a printer:
- Check return policies on printers. Due to the costs involved, most vendors will charge
restocking fees on returned printers if they have been opened and the ink cartridges used
(though they should not if the item is returned for exchange due to being defective).
- Do not fall for the games vendors play with trying to sell ridiculously overpriced
super-fancy printer cables. I've seen salespeople try to sell $35 printer cables to folks
who are buying a $75 printer. They claim these cables are "IEEE approved" and
"gold plated" and "designed for modern high-speed printers" and
whatever else they can think of. For most people, these are totally unnecessary. Try the
$10 printer cable first; if it doesn't work then you can always get the super-fancy
titanium and diamond job later. ;^) I've never had a problem with any sort of printer
cable working with any sort of printer.
Tip: If your local computer
store only sells jet-powered ruby-encrusted printer cables for a small fortune, try
looking for a plain one at a local electronics store such as Radio Shack.
- Some cheap printers don't come with ink cartridges, and they are expensive, so be sure
to add them in. However...
- ... also watch for the new trick of selling printers with "economy"
cartridges. In this case "economy" is a euphemism for "half-filled".
:^) You aren't in fact getting a full cartridge with these. Once again, done solely to get
the sticker price of the printer as low as possible.
- If you are into digital photography and only want to print out pictures occasionally,
consider online photo services: you upload your shots and they print them on
professional-quality paper and mail them to you. A photo-quality printer is expensive to
buy and operate, and is therefore a worthwhile investment only if you will be printing a
lot of photographs.
- Printers can be shared; if you have two PCs in your home that are networked together,
you don't need two printers.
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