Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 144 / SEPTEMBER 1992 / PAGE 6

Printers as hot rods. (add-ons for computer printers)(includes related articles and product listing)
by William D. Harrel

Remember the hot rods? Muscle cars like the '65 GTO and '66 Chevelle SS. In our prideful youth, we spent every penny on our cars and every spare minute with them, working on the engines to make them faster and more powerful, waxing them and detailing them to catch the eye of that certain someone at the drive-in or just to turn heads on the main strip in town. Young and image-conscious, we put all our attention into whatever we thought made us look good. I was as guilty as the next guy. I souped up my car--a fuel-injected carburetor for speed, wide tires for traction, loud pipes to announce my presence, and chrome wheels and pinstripes to look good. I read hot-rod magazines voraciously, lusting after new and improved add-ons. Enthusiastically ordering the extras I could afford, I waited impatiently for the mail carrier to deliver them.

As we age, we still want--and need--our toys, but somehow they have to be more utilitarian to be justified. Today, all grown-up, I read computer magazines, marveling at the newest technology, all the work it can help me do, and the speed it will give my computer. How much better my documents would look if only I had this add-on, that peripheral. I buy the ones I can afford. And when they don't come on time, I call the freight carriers to find out why.

Just as I tinkered with my car, I piddle with my computer. I've found that one way to tweak my computer's performance is to tune up my printer. Out of the box, few printers are fast enough, and even fewer have pretty or versatile output. Luckily, however, add-ons that enhance both speed and quality abound. The solutions range from inexpensive software to costly hardware--and include everything in between. What you can do to improve your printer's performance depends on the type of printer, your application (what you need), and, of course, your budget. The goal is to get the output right, and to get it fast.

Output quality--the look of the printed page--is improved by printing at a higher resolution (more and better paint) and by adding fonts (detailing). Again, depending on the printer, there are a number of add-ons that do one or the other. A few do both. Some products, such as soft fonts, give you professional-looking typefaces. Others, such as PostScript-emulation cartridges, make a LaserJet printer PostScript compatible. At the high end of the add-on market are resolution-enhancement boards, which boost resolution by several hundred dots per inch (dpi). Some, such as LaserMaster's WINJet 800, increase both speed and resolution.

You can speed up printing with memory boards that increase your printer's RAM (a new carburetor), allowing it to receive and process data more quickly. Another alternative is a spooler--a place on your hard disk or in your computer's memory where print data is collected and transmitted at a rate the printer can handle. Neither memory nor spoolers do much to actually make the printer faster; instead, they move printing to the background, returning control of the computer to you faster so that you can continue working. Enhancement boards, which take processing away from the printer, speed up printing.

The surest way to enhance printing is with a fast computer and a new printer (the latest RX7 or Mustang). But for most of us, this is impractical, perhaps even impossible. Besides, you can't get much on trade-ins. Instead of retiring your printer to the scrap pile, try one of these add-ons to boost its performance.

Dot-Matrix Printers

This class of printers needs the most help. Dot-Matrix printers usually have only a few built-in (resident) fonts and are slow to begin with. Unfortunately, there isn't much help available. With many laser printers now priced well below $1,000, like it or not, dot-matrix is a fading technology. Fortunately, however, dot-matrix users do have some options (not the case with my '56 Buick Special--to find parts for it, I was finally relegated to the junkyard).

Dot-matrix printers rely heavily on the computer for processing print data. Many are capable of receiving only a few lines of information at a time. So there's little you can do to speed up your dot-matrix printer unless you install a software spooler, like Windows' Print Manager or Zenographics' SuperPrint, or buy a print buffer, which is nothing more than a RAM spooler. You can, however, improve print quality with one of the following software solutions.

Type managers. If you use Windows, WordPerfect, PageMaker, Ventura Publisher, or any other major software application, you're probably familiar with type managers. The most popular is Adobe Type Manager (ATM). Also in this category are Laser-Tool's Fonts-on-the-Fly, Bitstream's FaceLift, MicroLogic's MoreFonts, Microsoft's TrueType, and many others. Type managers manage type. In other words, when you ask for a certain font in a document, such as 12-point Helvetica, the type manager creates it from a font outline on your hard disk and sends it to the printer. Although dot-matrix printers aren't capable of accepting downloadable fonts as laser printers are, with a type manager installed, they can draw graphic representations of the fonts, thereby giving your printer access to virtually hundreds of professional typefaces.

Nowadays, most type managers run under Windows. ATM, Fonts-on-the-Fly, and a few others can be used with WordPerfect 5.1 and other popular DOS applications.

PostScript emulators. PostScript is the output of choice for desktop publishers and graphics designers--the people who really need quality printing. With PostScript you get fonts that are scalable from two to several hundred points (there are 72 points to an inch). And PostScript improves graphics capabilities. For dot-matrix printers, emulators such as LaserGo's GoScript are the only way to get PostScript. The output is a little shy of laser quality, and emulation software requires a lot of computer horsepower--as much as a 386 with 4MB of RAM and a math coprocessor. Even then, don't expect exceptional performance. Another advantage of PostScript is that it's high-resolution imagesetter compatible (see the sidebar "Renting a Limo"). If you need typesetter output occasionally, an emulator is one way to proof documents before taking them to a service bureau.

Ink-Jet Printers

The Hewlett-Packard (HP) DeskJet and other ink-jet printers can use most type managers. Memory can be upgraded (but not by much) with memory cartridges. But so far, emulators are the only way to get Postscript. Ink-jet printers can also use bitmapped soft fonts and font cartridges.

Like dot-matrix printers, bitmapped soft fonts are being supplanted by newer technology--in this case, scalable soft fonts and type managers. However, some top-selling DOS applications (Lotus 1-2-3, Harvard Graphics, and WordPerfect) currently still use them. A drawback is that bitmapped fonts come in fixed sizes and require a lot of disk space. To use soft fonts with an ink-jet printer, you must upgrade printer memory.

Bitmapped font cartridges. Bitmapped font cartridges offer a limited number of typefaces in fixed sizes. Many printer manufacturers offer optional cartridges for their ink-jets (HP has a whole line). Also available are some third-party products, such as CPI's DeskSet, which has 68 fonts, and Pacific Data Products' DeskJet, which has 25. Ink-jet font cartridges vary widely. Be sure that the one you buy works with your printer.

Laser Printers

Although laser printers come in all shapes and sizes, they can be separated into two basic types: HP compatibles, which use HP's Printer Command Language (PCL), and PostScript. There are other printer languages, but these two are the most widely used.

Laser printers differ from other printers in that they process entire pages at once rather than a few lines at a time. To do so, they have processors built in. As data is received from the computer, it's held in RAM and rasterized (processed). When an end-of-page code is encountered, the printed page rolls out.

Memory upgrades can increase printing speed greatly. And often additional RAM is required to run many output-enhancement add-ons, such as soft fonts and font- and PostScript-emulation cartridges. Laser printers can use all of the products mentioned so far (type managers, bitmapped soft fonts, and font cartridges), and they can use emulation software as well.

The following discussion of add-ons pertains mostly to PCL printers. In fact, most printer add-ons are designed to bring non-PostScript devices closer to PostScript standards. If you own a PostScript printer, you have almost everything you need for state-of-the art font and graphics printing.

Scalable soft fonts. Another term for scalable fonts is outline fonts. Type managers, such as ATM, FaceLift, and so on, use outline fonts to do their magic. The beauty of outlines is that one size fits all. One relatively small font file on your hard disk for Times Bold, for example, will give you emboldened Times in sizes ranging from 2 points up to and (depending on the font and application) beyond 200 or 300 points.

Without a type manager, however, not all laser printers (such as the HP LaserJet Series II, IID, IIP, IIP Plus, and compatibles) can use outlines. There are all kinds of scalable fonts available. Be sure you buy the ones supported by your printer.

Scalable font cartridges. In most cases, your printer must support outline fonts to use scalable font cartridges. Exceptions are cartridges that give printers scaling capabilities, such as CPI's JetType IIP, which brings scalable TrueType fonts to the LaserJet IIP and IIP Plus. Scalable cartridges are similar to bitmapped cartridges in that all you do is plug them into the printer, However, depending on the number of fonts in the cartridge, you have a lot more size and weight choices.

PostScript-emulation cartridges. If you have a LaserJet or compatible printer and need PostScript, this is the way to go. You get complete PostScript capabilities--scalable fonts, enhanced graphics printing, and typesetter compatibility--for a fraction of the cost of a PostScript printer. Several vendors, including Adobe, HP, CPI, and Pacific Data, sell emulation cartridges. Among them, you should find one for your HP compatible, whether it's a Series IIx or IIIx. However, not all vendors make cartridges for every printer.

Most PostScript cartridges require at least 2.5MB of printer RAM, which, if you don't have it, is an extra expense. CPI's JetPage will print limited fonts and graphics with 1.5MB, and Pacific Data bundles a memory board, 2MB of printer RAM, and its PostScript cartridge, PacificPage, for $499.

Resolution- or image-enhancement boards. Enhancement boards occupy a slot in your computer, and most of them take processing away from the printer. There are several boards around, but the most common is LaserMaster's WINJet 800. Prices, features, and the number of fonts included vary with each board. LaserMaster claims that depending on the complexity of the page, WINJet 800 prints 3-100 times faster than an unenhanced printer. It comes with 50 PostScript and 50 TrueType fonts for less than $1,000. Like PostScript cartridges, enhancement boards are usually printer specific. Be sure you buy the right one for your printer.

Before You Buy

Whether your printer needs minor tuning with a type manager or the supercharged positraction of an enhancement board, be sure to analyze your future application before buying. If, for example, you'll be moving to Windows or upgrading to Windows 3.1 soon, you may not need an add-on (see the sidebar "Revving Up Windows"). Some popular desktop publishing (Ventura and PageMaker), graphics (Designer and Freehand), and presentation packages (Persuasion) come bundled with ATM and other type managers, making purchasing one of them pointless. In other words, look before you leap--you may get chrome wheels free.



Almost everyone raves about Microsoft Windows. But no one lauds the program's printing performance. That's because Windows printer drivers are notoriously slow. And version 3.0 limps away from the starting line when it comes to font handling. There are, however, ways to supercharge your printing in Windows.

Upgrade to Windows 3.1. Before buying a third-party printer add-on, run down to the software store and pick up Windows 3.1. It's like trading in your two-year-old Ford on a brand-new Lincoln. Version 3.1 runs faster; handles memory better; stalls less, and, yes, prints more quickly--much more quickly. And it comes with its own type manager, TrueType.

TrueType runs in the background with no fuss, is compatible with other type managers (you can run them concurrently), prints on almost any printer--and it's free! Fifty TrueType fonts and four weights of Helvetica, Courier, Times, and Symbol equivalents come with the upgrade, and you can buy others from Microsoft. For many applications, the original 50 are the only fonts you'll ever need.

Turn on Print Manager. Windows' Print Manager is a built-in spooler that processes print jobs in the background, quickly freeing up your computer so you can get back to work. To use it, click on the Control Panel icon in the Main program group; then click on the Printers icon. In the lower left corner of the Printers dialog box, select Use Print Manager. Close the dialog box and Control Panel. Windows will now spool your print jobs.

Install a RAM drive. If you have plenty of memory in your computer (at least 4MB), you might want to install a RAM drive with RAM-DRIVES.SYS, which is included with both DOS and Windows. A RAM drive is a portion of memory that emulates a physical drive; it's much faster than a hard disk, Once you've installed the RAM drive, you can direct spooler and other temporary files to it with a SET TEMP= statement in your AUTOEXEC.BAT file. There are complete instructions for setting up and using RAM drives in the DOS and Windows manuals.

Install a third-party printer driver. If you still aren't satisfied with the printing speed even after upgrading to 3.1 and turning on the spooler, try adding an enhanced printer driver, such as Zenographics' SuperPrint. One of these products will replace Windows' printer drivers and spooler files. It can often speed up printing. Be sure, however, that a driver for your particular printer is included.

Install a type manager. If your application requires many different fonts and imagesetter compatibility, you may still need ATM or some other type manager. Even if TrueType catches on (which it probably will), it could be some time before there are many typefaces available for it.

Install an enhancement board. The ultimate solution, other than buying a new computer or printer, is installing a resolution-enhancement board. LaserMaster's WINJet 800, designed especially for Windows, speeds up printing, has 50 fonts, and is PostScript compatible. The bad news is that you'll need a 386 with 8MB RAM to use it.


The quality of printer output is determined primarily by resolution, or dots per inch (dpi). Dot-matrix printers, for example, print between 75 and 150 dpi, which is the reason graphics, straight lines, and large type come out jagged. There aren't enough dots to fill in the gaps. Most laser printers print at 300 dpi, which is passable for many applications, such as printing text and simple graphics. Recently, 400-, 600-, 800-, 1000-, and even 1200-dpi laser printers have appeared. Although their output is markedly better than that printed at 300 dpi, they still don't match the clean, crisp quality of high-resolution imagesetters, such as the 1270- and 2540-dpi Linotronic 330.

If your documents contain complex graphics, halftone screens, or scanned photographs, they really should be printed on an imagesetter. Laser printers--no matter how high the resolution--just can't measure up. The only place to get imagesetter output is at a desktop publishing service bureau. If you live in a city, there's probably one around the corner. If not, there are several throughout the country that accept files by modem or on disk by mail or courier.

If you use a type manager with PostScript fonts (such as ATM), you can easily print your documents on an imagesetter. Because of the diversity of IBM-compatible applications, however, most service bureaus prefer that you provide them with a PostScript file. Some require it. Many programs let you print to a file; in Windows, since printing is handled by the environment, almost all applications do this.

The following is the procedure for printing to a PostScript file from WordPerfect for Windows. It's similar in all other Windows programs. 1. Call the service bureau and ask what model its imagesetter is. Be sure to get the full name and number, since some companies make more than one model. 2. Define a new printer in Windows using the service bureau's imagesetter as the device and File as the connection. 3. In WordPerfect for Windows, select the new printer Use the Windows printer driver, rather than the WordPerfect one. (If your document was originally composed for a non-Postscript printer, look it over to make sure line and page breaks haven't changed. You might have to make a few minor adjustments.) 4. Print the document. Windows will ask you to name the file. You can name it anything you want, but print files generally have a PRN or EPS extension. 5.Send the file by modem or mail to the service bureau. You'll be asked at what screen frequency (lines per inch) the file should be printed. If you plan to have the document reproduced, ask your print shop for the proper screen settings. Be sure to tell the service bureau what kind of paper the final document is to be printed on; this is important to the print quality.

It doesn't take much--a photograph or two, several fonts, and graphics--for a print file to get too big to fit on a disk. If your print file is too large, usE a file-compression utility, such as PKZIP, to compress it. Make it a self-executing file, or make sure the service bureau has a copy of the decompression utility. I usually include the utility on the disk.

Another option for multipage documents is to print one page at a time to several smaller EPS files. This works only when the pages aren't complex.

If you aren't using Windows, check your program's documentation for instructions on printing to a PostScript file. If you use a Laser Jet-compatible printer, this isn't the same as creating a PCL print file. Imagesetters require Postscript, and nothing else will do.


Adobe Type Manager $99.00 Adobe Systems (800) 833-6687 FaceLift $99.00 Bitstream (800) 522 3668 DeskSet $149.00 JetPage $349.00 JetType IIP $249.00 Computer Peripherals (800) 854-7600 GoScript $149.00 (13 fonts) $299.00 (35 fonts) LaserGo (619) 450-4600 WINJet 800 $795.00 LaserMaster (800) 365-4646 Fonts-on-the-Fly $149.00 LaserTools (800) 767-8004 MoreFonts $149.95 MicroLogic (800) 888-9078 PacificPage and memory board $499.00 and up 25 in One! $399.00 Pacific Data Products (619) 552-0880 SuperPrint $195.00 and up Zenographics (714) 851-6352