I have recently received a number of letters commenting on my review of the Cardco CARD/? printer interface (COMPUTE!'s Gazette, September 1983). These letters seem to indicate there is a strong need for more information about printers and printer interfaces. Perhaps this topic is worth a second look.
Unfortunately, when reviewing printers and printer interfaces, the reviewer has a special problem because this area is one of the most competitive and fastest changing in the computer industry. All printers these days have one or more microprocessors. This means that the manufacturer can add features in many cases simply by modifying or adding software in the printer.
Realistically, there are always limits, so each manufacturer must choose what features will be incorporated based on what current technology will allow. But with technology improving rapidly, printers have also been improved rapidly. This makes it tough for the reviewer to keep his comments up-to-date.
The rapidly changing world of printers also makes it tough on those trying to buy one. However, some basic information on printers always applies regardless. For microcomputers, there are two basic types of printers: The first is the dot-matrix printer, which prints each character as an array of dots; the second is the letter-quality printer, which prints fully formed characters like a typewriter. For the 64, you would typically want to go with a dot-matrix printer. Most newer dot-matrix printers can also print graphics images in addition to printing text. However, if you really needed your output to look as if it were typed, you might want to purchase a letter-quality (or daisy wheel) printer. However, many dot-matrix printers have a print mode which produces a very readable "correspondence" quality output. You will need to judge for yourself if the print quality is sufficient for your needs.
As I see it, printers are competing in three main areas: price, performance (primarily printing speed), and number of features. Today there are many printers available, ranging from low-priced units with slow speed and a few basic features to more expensive units with higher speed and added features.
What's Right For You?
To help decide what printer to buy, you need to form some idea of what your needs are. If you primarily need a printer for printing an occasional BASIC listing, you could certainly settle for a less expensive printer with simple features.
Perhaps a 40-column unit, which is typically less expensive than 80- or 132-column units, would meet your needs. If you plan to use your 64 for word processing, you might want to consider a printer with more features. You will also need to make sure the printer is compatible with the word processor you use. If you plan to do a lot of program development, speed and ruggedness are important features.
Deciding On Price
Once you have some idea of your needs, you should determine a price range. This will help narrow your choices a little further, and you can begin investigating specific printers. I recommend giving a little more consideration to the printers at the upper end of your price range since greater performance is more likely.
One of the most fundamental considerations you'll have is whether or not to buy a Commodore printer. There are several advantages to doing so. First, the printer is designed to work with the 64. Second, you can be pretty certain that any 64 software package that uses a printer will be compatible with a Commodore printer. And third, the printer can be serviced at the same place as your 64 and other Commodore peripherals.
The disadvantage of buying a Commodore printer is that since Commodore doesn't specialize in printers, other manufacturers may offer printers with more features or better prices. However, if you do choose a non-Commodore printer, there will be some compatibility problems, the extent of which depends on the printer. You must also consider that a printer interface will likely be needed to connect the printer to the 64 (more about this later). Fortunately, the popularity of the 64 provides strong encouragement to competing manufacturers to make printers compatible with the 64 and VIC-20.
How much importance should you place on special features? Typically, the more features the better, though there may be some features you'll never use. Ultimately, you may have to determine how much the extra features will actually cost you and whether a less expensive printer with fewer features is more appropriate.
One of the most difficult yet most important considerations is the printer's reliability. In some cases, the printer might have problems with overheating or even breaking down if used for an extended period. The latter problem is much more common since it can be caused by minor imperfections in a couple of important components — imperfections hard to detect before purchase. But if you don't plan on generating that much output, this won't be of great concern.
Newer printers will likely offer advantages in price, performance, and features. The disadvantage is that they may not have a proven track record. One feature you will typically find only on newer printers is the ability to print different colors, but don't expect the colors you see on the 64 screen to appear automatically on the printer. It will take software to make that happen. If you want to be really daring, you could consider some of the relatively inexpensive (that is, under $1000) ink-jet printers that are starting to appear. These form a dot-matrix character by guiding little dots of ink to the proper location on the paper.
If you decide to buy a non-Commodore printer, you will probably need a printer interface to connect the printer to the 64. With printer interfaces, you will mostly be comparing price versus number of features. The units with more features will have more ROM to hold extra software, hence a higher cost. When deciding on one, determine which has at least enough features to meet your needs.
When you are thorough with your investigation of printers, you should be able to make a wise choice. Finding a printer which serves your needs well will keep the grass from looking too much greener on the other side when new printers come along.