Got Kinko’s on speed dial? You need to look into today’s fast and flexible printers. A budget not far above what will buy a home-PC printer can get you photo-quality output, painless production of comps, or small press runs for clients. In this
edition, Smart[Ware] checks out the technologies and terminologies you need to know to make your best printer buy.
Detroit’s designers have world-class workstations and
3D rendering software, but what’s their final step
before signing off on next year’s sedan? They make a
clay model. As a graphic designer, you may work in
two rather than three dimensions, but the same rule
applies: There’s no substitute for seeing a tangible,
physical version of what begins as pixels on a screen.
And these days, whether you’re creating a mockup
for your own review or comps for a client, there’s no
need to pay for a print shop to do it.
For most users, monochrome laser printers are
still first choice for high-speed, high-volume printing
of black-and-white documents (slower models for
homes and small offices have fallen to under $100).
But they’re being pushed aside by business-class color
printers using both laser and inkjet technology.
If you haven’t checked prices lately, get ready
to smile: While jumbo printers for banners or signs
are into five figures, yesterday’s $3,000 workgroup
printer is today’s $1,000 bargain, and some excellent
models cost less than $500 ... if you ignore the cost
of ink and special papers (more on that later).
The number of products and features facing printer
shoppers can be overwhelming. Keep your head
straight by focusing on two questions. The first is
routine: How much do you have to spend? The second
is fundamental: What are you going to print?
The latter question involves factors such as
print volume—one printer may have a monthly duty
cycle of 3,000 pages, while another may be rated for
45,000—and media type: glossy photo paper, transparencies,
poster- or banner-ready rolls, and so on.
It also includes media size: A two-page spread
typically spans 11 x 17 inches, a full-bleed spread
with crop marks up to 13 x 19. Any of these choices
rules out the majority of office printers, which are
restricted to letter- and legal-sized media.
Then there’s the thicket of numbers and letters
in printer nomenclature: Deluxe printers often differentiate
themselves by adding letters to the model
number. N and W usually indicate wired and wireless
networking capability. D denotes duplex (doublesided)
printing, and T usually stands for additional
paper trays or other media-handling options.
The biggest part of your decision will be picking
between laser and inkjet. The technologies have different
strengths and weaknesses. At the risk of oversimplification, you can boil it down to three words:
PowerPoint or Photoshop?
Corporate CMYK: Color lasers
Like their monochrome cousins, color laser printers
excel at swift, sharp printing of text, particularly on
plain paper (e.g., copier paper). Their bright, solid
colors are ideal for charts, graphs, and headlines,
and they’re by no means bad at printing photos—as
long as you’re thinking photos in a report, flyer, or
newsletter, not borderless prints on glossy paper.
These printers excel on solid color fields and line
art. If you want to wow clients with snappy reproductions
of PowerPoint slides, laser is a wise choice.
Color laser prices have also plunged in recent
years: Models under $500–$600 are commonplace.
Samsung has just introduced a compact desktop
laser—the CLP-300—at $299. Unfortunately, just
like coach-class seats on an airliner, economy-class
lasers aren’t wide-format compatible.
Cousins of copy machines, laser printers work
by projecting a page image onto a light-sensitive,
rotating drum, whose electrostatic charge picks up
particles of dry ink (toner) that are then fused onto
paper. Xerox’s Phaser 8500 and 8550 are toner-free:
They melt waxy, crayon-like chunks of solid ink to
make vivid, glossy printouts.
Low-end color lasers are four-pass designs that
loop color pages through the printer four times to
apply cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toner. For
this reason, the aforementioned Samsung is rated
at 17 pages per minute (ppm) for black but a slow
4 ppm for color. Mid-range and deluxe lasers are
rapidly moving to single-pass or tandem technology,
with a row or carousel of rollers working together to
print color pages at roughly the same speed as black.
Full-page exposure: Color inkjets
If laser printers are titans of text, inkjet printers are
aces of images. Even inexpensive models can produce
impressive photo prints (at least in slower or
higher-quality modes; the back-and-forth movement
of an inkjet printhead often leaves ugly banding
in high-speed or draft modes). And medium- and
high-priced inkjets’ output can be simply gorgeous.
So if your intent is to produce accurate printouts
of files from applications like Photoshop or page
layout programs, inkjet is the way to go.
Output quality ultimately depends, though, on
a combination of factors ranging from the number of
nozzles in the printhead to the number and type of
ink cartridges and your choice of media.
Inkjets create images by spraying ink dots onto a
page. The trouble is that liquid ink tends to soak into
paper before it dries—especially with plain paper,
which may pass inspection at arm’s length but yields
fuzzier results than a laser printer using the same
paper. Solution? Leave the absorbent paper next to
the copier and get coated, seep-resistant inkjet paper
or glossy photo paper.
An inkjet’s resolution—the number of dots per
inch—is a specification worth noting. While most of
us can’t see much difference in laser resolution above
600 x 600 dpi, many inkjets sharpen their output to
4800 x 1200 or even 9600 x 2400 dpi.
Ultra-high resolution slows printing to a crawl,
and often makes photo images look no better than
a mix of lower resolution with finer dot or droplet
placement. HP has championed this concept with its
PhotoRET (Resolution Enhancement Technology),
but other manufacturers achieve comparable precision
via a high number of printhead nozzles—
Canon’s FINE (Full-photolithography Inkjet Nozzle
Engineering) printers boast up to 6,144—meaning a
tiny droplet size. The latter has shrunk from 15 or 20
picoliters (still common for printing text), and now
for some inkjets a microscopic 1 picoliter.
Space forbids us from going into detail about
super-wide (usually 24, 36, 42, or 60 inches), roll-
fed inkjets used by print shops or specialized offices
for technical printing and signage. These printers
are often called plotters, though they no longer use
a pen-maneuvering apparatus. Their speeds are measured
in square feet per hour, and their print media
range from paper to canvas and laminated vinyl.
Two, four, or more?
Your kids’ home printer probably has two ink
cartridges—one black and one tricolor with cyan,
magenta, and yellow. The color cartridge must be
replaced as soon as one of its reservoirs is empty,
even if the other two still contain ink.
Professionals will want an inkjet with at least
four cartridges—the classic CMYK quartet—but
will be tempted by models with five or more cartridges
for a wider color gamut. Light cyan and light
magenta are popular additions, as is a gray, “photo
black,” or pigment black cartridge—the last using
pigment-based instead of the usual dye-based ink.
Dye has more vivid colors, but pigment-based
ink sticks to a page better, making it more resistant
to smudges. It also rsists fading longer.
Epson’s eight-color UltraChrome K3 system
boasts pigment-based ink in black, light black, and
very light black cartridges; cyan, light cyan, magenta,
light magenta, and yellow round out the palette.
Canon’s ChromaPlus teams CMYK with what is
called “photo cyan” and “photo magenta” plus red
and green. HP’s Photosmart 8750 packs regular and
light cyan and magenta, yellow, blue, light gray, dark
gray, and black for a total of nine inks.
A few grains of salt
Today’s printers are so capable there’s no need for
manufacturers to exaggerate ... but they do. You’ll
never match advertised speeds in real-world printing.
Laser printers come close, but inkjets’ claimed
speeds are as accurate as EPA mileage estimates—
the old rule of thumb was to divide by two, but now
you only need to multiply by two-thirds or so.
A worse fault is printer makers’ greed for fat
profits on replacement ink and toner cartridges. A
British magazine study in 2003 found that, ounce
for ounce, inkjet ink costs seven times as much as
Dom Perignon. Both inkjets and laser printers will
warn you too early that they’re running out of ink
or toner—you can finish the job you’re printing and
then some before replacing. Both inkjets and lasers
come with half-full starter cartridges, too.
This has led to something printer makers are
fighting tooth and nail: a booming aftermarket for
refilled or cloned cartridges. Should you use them?
Firms like Lexmark and HP put considerable effort
into formulating inks with colors that pop and color
gamuts that stretch, so house-brand cartridges do
produce better results. But the difference is often
small enough that you can use cheaper cartridges
for in-house work and save the good stuff for color
matching and client views.
Think color management
Color-management-ready features are well worth
seeking. Only a fifth of the price difference between
Epson’s Stylus Pro 4800 ($1,995) and Stylus Pro
4800 Professional Edition ($2,495) is due to its
built-in Ethernet; the rest is for its PostScript 3 RIP
(Raster Image Processor) from ColorBurst.
Some HP inkjets come with driver software
that supports Adobe RGB as well as ColorSmart/
sRGB color space, or lets you disable the printer’s
color management to apply ICC profiles. The HP
Designjet 30 can print and then scan its own colortarget
sheet to automatically adjust its output, or use
optional PostScript 3 RIPs for Pantone calibration or
offset lithography emulation for a CMYK workflow.
If your printer’s driver and Photoshop
aren’t enough, consider investing in a RIP such
as ErgoSoft’s StudioPrint, ColorByte Software’s
ImagePrint, or the full version of ColorBurst.
SIDEBAR: Very Versatile
Many printers do more than print. Multifunctional
printers (MFPs)—also known as all-in-ones
(AIOs)—offer scanning, copying, and often fax
capabilities as well as printing. They’re no match
for dedicated scanners or copiers, but they can
be appealing space savers, not to mention costing
less than a set of discrete devices.
Most MFPs combine an inkjet or laser printer
with a flatbed scanner, which turns photos or
pages into image files and imports documents
into an optical character recognition program
for editing or archiving. The scanner also serves
as a fair photocopier, often with a choice of
black-and-white or color copies with various
resolution, zoom, and scale-to-fit options.
From there, it’s a short hop to sending faxes,
using either a built-in fax machine or, less capably,
a PC fax modem. (So-called walk-up fax
and copier models can do their thing even when
there’s no computer.) Inkjet models are usually
desktop size, while many laser MFPs have features
such as multiple public or passwordprotected
mailboxes, output bins for different
job types, and finishing options such as automatic
collating and stapling.
Again, you shouldn’t expect scan or fax
quality equal to the best stand-alone products
(and, except for some Brother AIO models, you
shouldn’t expect a phone handset with the fax).
But you can be pleasantly surprised.
Printer and spec chart on page 2