Printer shop

Introduction

Most people with a computer at home will also have a printer – and that printer will almost certainly be a colour inkjet. In offices, though, mono printing is the norm. Here, however, we take a look at the options for colour printing in an office environment – and the issues to be aware of when choosing a solution. Companies are reluctant to make the leap to colour printing in the office for many reasons – but expense is usually at the top of the list. For many, the cost of inkjet printing reinforces the belief that colour printing is prohibitively expensive. While it’s true that inkjet printing isn’t as cheap as using mono lasers, it’s also the case that, often, you can print mono on a colour printer as cheaply as on a mono printer. Another reason offices shy away from colour printers is that they’re too slow for the fast-paced world of business; people need prints and they need them fast. But these days, colour printing is getting faster all the time. Colour printers also have a reputation for being high-maintenance and messy. Five years ago, it was common to have up to 16 printer consumables per printer – and each one was a potential biohazard. Replacing the magenta toner, say, was on a par with fitting a new fan-belt on a Mini, what with the with loose toner and fuser oil. Understandably, this wasn’t something the average office worker would want to do on a regular basis. Thankfully, as colour-printing technology matures, ease of use and, in particular, maintenance has improved. Now changing the toner in a colour printer is as simple as changing it in a mono printer – if it even has toner. There are three different technologies used in the printers we tested and only two use toner. A further reason – and one likely to be quoted by art people – is that laser colour-quality isn’t good enough. It’s true that early colour lasers were bested by other printing technologies, but the lasers we tested were considerably better than these early models. They still struggle to keep up with the quality of home inkjets, but different technologies have different characteristics – and some do graphics better than others. All the printers tested are considered by research companies – such as IDC (International Data Corporation) – to be laser-class colour-page printers. In layman’s terms, this means any colour printer that can be networked and can output pages pretty much like a colour laser printer. The laser-class moniker was invented so that research companies didn’t leave out products such as the Tektronix solid-ink printers, which do an almost identical job. The laser-class also includes LED printers, a slightly different laser technology. Laser-class technologies
Laser technology For those unfamiliar with laser-printer technology, here’s a quick lowdown. As paper is passed through the printer, where a laser electrically charges the areas you want to print on. This charge then attracts the toner, which is actually finely powdered plastic. This is heated, melted and then fused with the paper. A colour laser usually repeats this process for black, cyan, magenta and yellow. This means the paper must be printed four times. Registration – or positioning – of each colour is important, so accuracy is more critical than speed, and the process is consequently much slower than that for a mono page. This is why most colour lasers print mono pages faster than colour pages. LED technology
LEDs are Light Emitting Diodes – the same things first seen in old calculators and ancient (now trendy) digital watches. Finally, somebody has found something clever to do with LEDs. An LED-based printer works in much the same way as a laser printer, but instead of a laser charging the paper, the LED does. The benefits of LED printers mostly concern size. Because the LED components can be placed in a line, single-pass printing is made possible. This means print speed is dramatically faster than with laser printers. Historically, a problem with LED colour printers has been print quality, but the most recent batch of LED machines has improved greatly. Quality is now extremely close to traditional laser printers. Solid-ink technology
This has been the exclusive domain of Tektronix printers since its conception. Solid-ink printers use a wax-based ink that is directed to a drum, in much the same way inkjet printers squirt ink out. The image is then transferred to the paper in a single pass. This is a very fast process, and capable of the fastest colour printing of any laser-class printer (in low-resolution mode). Of course, there are always cons with the pros, and solid ink has its foibles. In our office, the main gripe is that the waxy finish is hard to write on, making proofing marks on Macworld pages not straightforward. However, if you’re unlikely to be writing on your pages, this is of no concern. The choice is yours
Choosing the right printer is a minefield, with the models’ different specifications and apparent similarities causing confusion. But like many high-tech products – such as monitors, CD writers and scanners – the guts are common to more than one model. Sometimes, seemingly different models are simply rebadged versions of another company’s printer. This is true of the Tally models, which are rebadged Minolta/QMS machines. Other similarities can be a product of printer manufacturers using the same printer engine. This is common for printer construction, but doesn’t mean the printers are the same. Even rebadged printers can perform quite differently from their siblings. This is due to differences in firmware versions – the built-in code that controls the printer. With printers that use the same print engine only, differences can be greater because the electronics that drive the engine can vary greatly. So, even if you see two printers from different manufacturers that look the same, the difference in quality and performance will be noticeable.
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