Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 155 / AUGUST 1993 / PAGE 66

Laserjet 4. (Hewlett-Packard laser printer) (Evaluation)
by William Harrel

It's no wonder that Hewlett-Packard's LaserJet printers are so popular. Hewlett-Packard consistently offers great printers at incredible prices. The LaserJet 4 is no exception. In fact, it's the best LaserJet ever, and it's the best value Hewlett-Packard has offered so far. With a suggested retail price of $1,759 (if you look around, you can find one for around $1,400), the LaserJet 4 weighs in at $200 dollars cheaper than the LaserJet III. For the price, the LaserJet 4 gives you four times the resolution, 37 more fonts, much improved print quality, and over twice the speed.

Many computer pundits have hailed 1993 as the year of the 600-dpi (dots per inch) printer. Why 600 dpi? While this seems like only twice the resolution of standard 300-d printers, it's actually four times higher. Smaller, tighter dots mean crisper, cleaner text. That means type in small point sizes (such as, say, 12 points or lower) maintains its fine lines and stroke weights, and large text remains black and has smooth, sharp edges.

But where you'll really notice the difference with a 600 dpi printer is in printing gray-scale and graphical images. Since laser printers simulate shades of gray by alternating black dots with noncovered white areas, 600 dpi offers a significant improvement over 300 dpi. When you use a 600-dpi machine, what you wind up with is about four times the number of simulated shades of gray that you can get with a 300-dpi machine.

Need more fonts? The LaserJet 4 is more than obliging. It comes with 35 scalable Intellifont outlines, including Garamond, CG Omega, and Albertus; plus it has a Truetype font rasterizer and the ten Truetype fonts in Windows--families of Arial and Times New Roman, as well as Symbol and WingDings.

And, if you have a LaserJet 4, you can also download any Intellifont or TrueType outline to the printer. Postscript Type 1 fonts are supported as well, with a $499 Post-Script Level II upgrade. (Post-Script is the standard language used by graphic artists and desktop publishers. They use Postscript printers to proof their documents before taking them to service bureaus for a final, high-resolution imagesetter output.)

You can, of course, use Adobe Type Manager (ATM) to utilize Type 1 font technology on the LaserJet 4. ATM costs only $99, but before you buy it, make sure you don't already have a copy. It comes bundled with many popular word-processing, desktop publishing, and graphics applications.

Just when you thought printers couldn't get any faster, Hewlett-Packard comes through again. The company's Printer Command Language 5 (PCL 5), the language used in LaserJet Ills and 4s, is already faster than most other languages-especially the popular Postscript. But the addition of the TrueType font rasterizer and Windows TrueType fonts means that you don't have to wait for your computer to download fonts. The LaserJet 4 comes with one of the fastest processors in the business: Intel's 20-MHz 80960 RISC processor. It also has increased data compression.

What all these new enhancements mean to you is that the, LaserJet 4 is one fast printer--perhaps the fastest eight-ppm (pages per minute) printer available on the market today. Another terrific speed enhancement you'll really appreciate is Hewlett-Packard's new Bi-Tronic bidirectional port. The Bi-Tronic can handle data transfers at up to 156 kilobytes per second, which is a much faster rate than that offered by standard parallel ports. Depending on the speed of the computer it's connected to, the Bi-Tronic traditionally sends data to the printer at between 50 and 150 kilobytes per second. So the only thing that will hold back the LaserJet 4 is the speed of your computer.

The bidirectional parallel port also talks back to your computer, in a similar manner that a serial port talks with a Mac. Wouldn't it be great if you could get a message on your computer screen that tells you when your printer is out of paper or that notifies you of a paper jam, instead of your having to walk down the hall to see what's holding things up? The LaserJet 4 is capable of this kind of two-way communication with your computer. However, as of yet there is no software interface support for either DOS or Windows. In order for your computer to receive the printer's messages, support must be written into DOS applications.

Windows users, take heart. Microsoft is working on software to activate the Bi-Tronic interface under Windows. It may be available by the time you read this; check the Microsoft forum on Compuserve, or look on the Microsoft BBS.

All these wonderful frills aside, the question remains: How does the LaserJet 4 actually print? I tested speed and output against a Lexmark 4029 600-dpi printer. The Lexmark 4029 has a software option--the 4029 Windows Print Accelerator--that uses TrueType fonts to turn in record print times at 300 dpi.

In some of my field tests, especially when I was printing pages containing just TrueType text, the LaserJet 4 was a hair faster than the Lexmark 4029; however, the LaserJet ran at about the same speed as the 4029 when I was printing pages containing graphics.

The print-quality tests--in which I was comparing the smoothness of type, monotone graphics, and grayscale photographs of the prints outs--revealed that Hewlett-Packard's Resolution Enhancement Technology (RET) is slightly superior to the Lexmark's Print Quality Enhancement Technology (PQET).

On the LaserJet 4, small text (12 points and under) prints just a little crisper, and large text (14 points and higher) looks a little smoother. There is, however, a quite noticeable difference in quality when you use a magnifying glass to compare the print samples. The LaserJet 4 prints text much better.

Graphics and photographs also come out cleaner and with seemingly more shades of gray when printed on the LaserJet 4. I always thought that the Lexmark's halftone quality couldn't be beat--until I saw what came rolling out of the LaserJet 4. It's quite impressive!

Once again, Hewlett-Packard has done what it usually does better than anybody else in the printer market: It has created a fine printer at a fine price. As with the earlier LaserJets, this one sets several new standards.

First, although 600-dpi printing has been available for a while now, it has never been offered at such a reasonable price. Usually, if Hewlett-Packard has it, everybody else soon will. Second, last fall Hewlett-Packard entered into an agreement with Microsoft to develop Windows-based printing standards. The first results of this team effort are the resident TrueType fonts in the LaserJet 4 and the bidirectional parallel port. Count on the bidirectional port being the next-generation computer-printer interface, with several other printers sporting it by year's end.

With all this, there are fewer and fewer reasons for business users to shell out the cost of Postscript. PCL 5 now offers scalable-font technology, higher resolution, better handling of vector (draw-type) graphics, on-board TrueType fonts, and a low price--all of which give the LaserJet 4 a true advantage over other 600-dpi printers.

Do you need 600 dpi? Well, look at it this way: Considering all the other features and the improved print speed and quality of this printer, the higher resolution is just a bonus. If you're in the market for a new printer, unless you are a desktop publisher or graphics designer, you can't beat this one.

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