Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 117 / FEBRUARY 1990 / PAGE 52



Shedding Light On Laser Printers

For a number of months, I've had a Star Laserprinter 8 at my right hand, and now I wonder how I survived without it. While it has performed well as a simple text printer, it has also helped me create typeset-quality documents, camera-ready illustrations for my latest book, graphics for friends who publish magazines, and endless résumés.

It's several times faster than a dot-matrix printer, it endlessly grinds out perfect pages without complaint, and—best of all—it has banished the banshee scream of the dot-matrix printer. But, balancing against its advantages is the fact that the printer is expensive enough to give most people pause. Is it worth the expense?

The answer is a qualified Yes. Yes, if you are a desktop publisher. Yes, if you run a home office where the quality of your printed documents makes a big difference or if you produce and revise flexible instructional aids. Writers and graphic artists, too, cherish laser printers for readable, camera-ready output. In short, anyone who values output with a high-quality appearance should consider a laser printer. Computer hobbyists who primarily print program listings might be better off sticking with their trusty Gorilla Banana printer.

Printing for Dollars

Generally, you can spend $2,000 (and up) on Hewlett-Packard and compatible laser printers, and the least expensive PostScript models are about $4,000. Only a few laser printers cost more than $20,000.

The cost of home laser printing is coming down. In September, Hewlett-Packard recognized the home laser-printer market when it released the LaserJet IIP (P stands for personal). It lists at $1,695 but will probably carry a $1,200 price tag on the street, which puts it well within the range of the ink-jet and 24-pin dot-matrix printers. The drawbacks of this machine are few: It only generates four pages per minute, and it has a limited number of fonts. For home computers, though, the IIP looks like a natural winner. And, if the past is any indicator of the future, this printer will probably face stiff competition very soon.

Not very long ago, as you may recall, Apple released a printer aimed at the same market: the Apple LaserWriter IISC, Considering the $2,800 price quoted by one dealer, it's easy to see why it wasn't finding a place in homes across America.

Languages: PostScript Versus PCL

Although a few laser printers come with specialized languages like TEX and DDL, these are relatively rare. There are two basic types of plain-vanilla laser printer: the PostScript-compatible and the Hewlett-Packard–compatible. Because they were available early in the market, the most popular models are the Apple LaserWriter (with PostScript) and the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet (which uses PCL). PostScript printers are smarter and considerably more expensive than PCL printers because Adobe Systems, creator and owner of the PostScript language, charges a heavy premium for using the language on a printer.

What is PostScript? It's a computer language not very different from BASIC. The PostScript laser printer accepts instructions from the computer as ASCII symbols, interprets them (just as a computer interprets a BASIC program), and then tells the printer engine how to draw the image on the paper. A PostScript file is sent to the printer as a series of instructions: Draw a line from this point to that point, or begin text at this point and use this font. Because of its dependence on a stream of ASCII text from the computer, a PostScript printer can be very slow. PostScript may be a logical, ingenious way to tell the printer what to do, but it slows down your processing speed.

The only serious alternative to PostScript printers are Hewlett-Packard–compatible printers, which use PCL (Printer Control Language) to transmit information to the printer. These printers are much dumber than PostScript printers, which only means that your program must interpret the printing instructions.

PostScript printers are typically shipped with outline fonts in ROM. These describe an ideal font which the PostScript language then adjusts in size and density according to the information sent by the computer. PCL printers like the Star and the Hewlett-Packard typically have only two or three fonts, such as Courier (a typewriterlike font) and line printer (a smaller, less attractive font) and occasionally a Times font. Cartridges are available with additional fonts. Another way to obtain additional fonts is with font packages like Bitstream Fontware or FontPacks from VS Software. They offer wide selections of highly attractive fonts.

How Does It Work?

Inside the laser printer's engine is a laser beam and a drum (some printer drums are actually belts). The surface of the drum is coated with a compound that is ionized by light. The drum is analogous to the page you are printing. The laser scans the drum, applying an electrical charge to the scanned area.

The drum is exposed to a fine powder called toner, which clings to the scanned, charged areas of the drum. Then electrically charged paper passes by the drum. The paper is more highly charged than the drum, so the toner is transferred to the paper electrostatically. The paper is then heated. When the toner melts, it binds to the paper. The drum is then scraped clean and its residual charge is led away by tiny wires. After this process, the drum is ready to be scanned by the laser to create the next page.

Deciding Factors

Whether you opt for PostScript or not will depend on your computer, your applications, and your needs. There are ways to use a PCL printer with a Macintosh, but Mac owners would be wiser to go the PostScript path. If you use a graphics-intensive package that outputs PostScript files, you should also consider a PostScript printer. And finally, because PostScript was designed as a graphics language, you should consider a PostScript printer if your output is primarily graphics.

If you will be using your laser printer like a daisywheel printer, if you don't need many fonts, or if low price is more important to you than features, PCL printers will probably be your best

How Much Is This Monster Really Going to Cost?

The canny shopper will remember that every purchase has hidden costs. Your laser printer will incur two ongoing expenses: toner and paper. These costs will depend almost entirely on how often you use your printer.

Use photocopy paper; it's available at business outlets everywhere. You will pay between $3 and $10 per ream (a ream is 450–500 sheets of paper). You would be wise to use top-quality, name-brand paper.

Toner cartridges cost between $80 and $100. They hold up for about 3000 pages. That comes to just over 3 cents per page on top of the cost of the paper. If you print graphics with large black areas, the toner will run out faster. On the other hand, if you print mainly text, your cartridge will probably last longer.

Whether you should refill toner cartridges is a matter of dispute. Some manufacturers warn that this practice jeopardizes the printer. Having seen refilled cartridges fail, I can assure you that a streaked, smudged laser-printed page is worse than no page at all. If you want to try it, though, expect to pay about $50. Many computer publications feature advertisements from companies that offer this service.

When you replace the cartridge, you must go through a complicated cleaning ritual involving cotton swabs and specialized brushes. Everything you need is included either with the toner cartridge (if it's new) or inside the laser printer itself. If you don't observe the cleansing ritual, you'll eventually find clots of paper fibers and toner in inconvenient places.

The bottom line is that if you print a ream of paper a month, you'll pay around $72 for paper and around $200 for printer cartridges each year (this puts the cost of operation at about $22.75 per ream of paper).

The life span of the print engine brings up another hidden cost. It won't last forever. Most are rated at between 300,000 and 500,000 pages (though some manufacturers claim that their print engines live through millions of pages). At 500 pages a month, you'll wear out your print engine after 600–1000 months, a period of about 50–83 years.

To determine your annual cost of operation, multiply $272 (the yearly cost of paper and toner if you print only one ream of paper each month) by the number of reams of paper you print per month. This figure represents a rough estimate, of course.

Laser Quiz

Now that we've covered the features of laser printers, let's decide whether you need one for your home. To find out, take this quiz. Choose the best answer for you; the number in parentheses represents your score for each question.

  1. What level of text quality do you require?
    • Legible (1)
    • Legible with control over italics and boldface (2)
    • Sharp with a choice of typeface, size, and style (3)
    • Sharp enough to withstand reproduction for desktop publishing (4)
  2. What quality of graphics do you require?
    • Graphics quality is unimportant (1)
    • Simple, draft-quality graphics (2)
    • Camera-ready line drawings and bitmapped graphics (3)
    • Camera-ready photographs and other detailed graphics (4)
  3. How important is print speed?
    • Of no importance (1)
    • Not very important (2)
    • Very important, but quality is more important (3)
    • Maximum speed is essential (4)
  4. How well can you tolerate loud, unpleasant noises while you work?
    • Would you mind repeating that—a little louder this time? (1)
    • I have ear plugs; I can cope (2)
    • Noise irritates me, but it's not unbearable (3)
    • My home office must be very quiet (4)
  5. How much money can you spend initially?
    • Zilch (1)
    • I have a good income, and I'm investing most of it in my family (2)
    • I'm willing to pay for quality, even if it means going into debt (3)
    • Money is no object (4)
  6. How much can you afford to spend on upkeep and continuing costs?
    • Zilch (1)
    • Up to $20 par month (2)
    • $20-$50 per month(3)
    • The sky's the limit (4)
  7. Are you a technofreak and do you buy new technology the minute it comes out?
    • I don't trust technology (1)
    • I am if a Commodore PET is considered emerging technology (2)
    • It's all I can do to keep up, but I like new things (3)
    • I just purchased a NeXT and a second WORM drive (4)
  8. How would you describe your desire to own a personal laser printer?
    • Mild (1)
    • Tolerable (2)
    • Acute (3)
    • Desperate (4)
  9. How often and how far do you move your printer?
    • My computer, printer, and I are frequent fliers (1)
    • My printer often travels back and forth between home and office (2)
    • Occasionally, from room to room (3)
    • Only enough to dust (4)
  10. Essay Question. For extra credit, in 100 words or less, write a short essay intended to convince your spouse or significant other that your budget can easily absorb the cost and upkeep of a laser printer.

Scoring Your Quiz

If you scored 9–17 points, maybe the computer age isn't for you, let alone the laser printer. Consider the space, atomic, machine, dark, iron, bronze, or stone ages.

If you scored 18–26 points, odds are that another type of printer will better suit your needs or budget. A nine-pin dot-matrix will give you draft-quality to near-letter-quality text, plus some draft-quality graphics. Some people use these printers to compose their printed projects and then rent time at a laser-printing service for the final version. For people who print no graphics at all, a daisywheel printer offers letter-quality text for an affordable price.

If you scored 27–33 points, take a serious look at laser printers. There's probably one out there that meets your needs and fits your budget. But there are other options that are cheaper. Examine the ink-jet printers from Hewlett-Packard and the 24-pin dot-matrix printers from just about anyone. You'll sacrifice quiet and speed, but you'll save money.

If you scored 34 points or more, what are you waiting for? Get out there and start shopping. Technofreaks might even seek out the color laser printers that are on the market now.

choice. Generally, however, the PCL printer can print anything a PostScript printer can print, assuming your software supports PCL printers.

If you buy a PCL printer and have second thoughts later, there is a conversion kit that adds PostScript capability, but you'll spend nearly as much installing this kit as you would on the difference between the printer types.

Just as an aside, I should tell you that it is possible to use an Apple LaserWriter with a PC without installing an AppleTalk card (an interface card that lets the PC communicate with the Apple printer). Dealers, either through ignorance or mendacity, will insist you need to buy this card, but a specially designed serial cable will accomplish the same end at a much lower cost. Check the LaserWriter manual for the cable specification. Beware, though, of the information for setting up your serial port on the PC. Laser-Writer manuals (once again, either through ignorance or mendacity) have given incorrect instructions. They specify seven bits, but you should enter the number 8 in the bits position in your MODE command. I imagine this combination of misinformation has sold quite a large number of AppleTalk cards.

Speed and Resolution

The typical laser printer prints at an advertised rate of 8 ppm (pages per minute), which usually works out to 6 ppm in real life. This rate refers to the speed at which the printer will turn out identical pages. This measure doesn't take into account the time-consuming process by which the printer or computer composes the page. If you print consecutive pages of a manuscript, for instance, the speed drops considerably. Print speed is like gas mileage; what the manufacturer lists is never what you get in the real world.

Although the printer can generate text at 8 ppm, a page of graphics can take ten minutes or more. A page of text is mostly white space; the letters take up a relatively small part of the page. With graphics, this speed has no meaning.

Much faster laser printers are available: Printronix has announced a 12-ppm PostScript model. The price: nearly $8,000. Xerox Canada has developed 50-ppm and 92-ppm models. Obviously, these are for output-intensive applications rather than for personal use.

All of the most popular brands, print at a density of 300 dpi (dots per inch), for a total of 90,000 individual dots per square inch. A few laser printers will give you 400 dpi (160,000 dots per square inch) and 600 dpi (360,000 dots per square inch). For higher resolutions, you will need a Linotronic typesetter at a print shop (minimum resolution; 1200 dpi). Don't worry, though. Most people are satisfied with 300 dpi.


If you print text exclusively, you will probably need a minimal amount of RAM, 512K in most cases. But if you print only text, you could save a considerable amount of money by purchasing a dot-matrix or daisywheel printer. If you print graphics, or if you download many fonts, you want a laser printer with a lot of additional memory. A Hewlett-Packard with 512K will manage about half a page of graphics before returning a printer error.

Like every other kind of memory, laser-printer enhancement cards are exorbitantly expensive. Slowly but surely, the price is falling. This winter, the prices ranged from $300 for one megabyte to $900 for four megabytes. All prices quoted here are rock-bottom mail-order prices. You can pay as much money as you like for the comfort of having a local dealer stand behind your equipment.

Will you need a hard drive? A few laser printers offer the option of a hard disk, primarily for the purpose of storing additional fonts. With the cost of these printers tending toward five figures, most home users will probably pass on this option.

Two Bins or Not Two Bins

Many laser printers support multiple paper bins. One bin holds plain bond paper for drafts and more casual correspondence, and another bin holds finer paper for more formal communications. You can easily remove the paper trays and insert different grades of paper. In a personal laser printer, this feature won't be very useful. If you are in law, however, a second paper tray for 14-inch paper would make sense. Most printers also support manual feed for the occasional job that requires a different paper altogether. And if you engage in a great deal of correspondence, consider an envelope tray.

Bells and Whistles

You may not believe this now, but indicator lights can make or break your laser-printing success. The Hewlett-Packard and its compatibles communicate with you through a collection of colored lights and an LCD display. The Apple LaserWriter uses a set of enigmatic lights.

The most common problem you will encounter is an empty paper tray. Many printers halt, turn on a light, and display the message PAPER OUT on the LCD display. Unless you watch the lights or check the message board, you'll probably think the printer has stopped because the print job has completed. If the printer you buy uses an audible signal to alert you to problems (as the Star does), you are more likely to quickly—and correctly—diagnose the problem and continue with your work.

One Last Consideration

If you're considering a laser printer for the home, take a cautious posture. If the LaserJet IIP wows the market, a flood of low-cost, feature-packed home laser printers will likely follow. Already, IBM is expected to announce a 512K printer with 13 fonts that will generate six pages per minute. Best of all, it will cost less than the current list price of the Hewlett-Packard IIP. IBM is also planning a midrange printer priced around $2,000 and a PostScript printer for around $3,000.

This competition from industry-leader IBM could revolutionize the price structures of laser-printer manufacturers in the next few months, making personal laser printing more feasible than ever.

Robert Bixby is an editor and award-winning writer. His latest book is Quick and Easy Guide to Ventura Publisher, from COMPUTE! Books.