Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 158 / NOVEMBER 1993 / PAGE S11

How to choose the best laser printer. (Compute's Getting Started With: Desktop Publishing)
by Bill Harrel

A few years ago, it was easier to choose a laser printer than it is today. Then, you had only two standards to pick from: a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet for PrinterCommand Language (PCL) compatibility or an Apple LaserWriter for PostScript. The others in the market did their best to make comparable products, competing by offering more features at lower prices. Even today, you don't have to be confused about buying a laser printer for desktop publishing. The considerations are: price, printer language, speed, print quality, paper handling, and upgrade options.


Depending primarily on features (and, of course, the manufacturer), 300-dpi laser prices can differ dramatically. This year, the range is probably wider than ever--from $500 to upwards of $3,000. However, the economy minded also should inquire about the cost of using the printer, often referred to as the cost per page or operation cost. In other words, how much do consumables--toner and the developer--cost, and how many prints do you get out of them? A Lexmark 4029, for example, uses a combination toner and developer cartridge rated at 10,000 copies. The cartridge costs about $200 dollars. To figure cost per page, divide the number of copies into the price of consumables. Then add one cent for paper. The cost of operating the Lexmark 4029 is 3] per page.

When printers don't use one-cartridge consumables, figuring operation costs is trickier. Most manufacturers give their printers a cost-per-page rating. But unlike other features, such as the amount of RAM, printer language, and paper handling options, operation cost usually isn't included in advertising material. You'll have to ask. You also should remember that a manufacturer's operation cost rating is based on optimal conditions--usually a page of double-spaced text with no graphics--a format which hardly anyone (except perhaps college students) uses anymore. What you print greatly affects the cost per page for your printer.


Off the bat, professional desktop publishing requires a PostScript printer. However, if you don't plan to take your documents to a service bureau for high-resolution output, you don't need PostScript. Professionals use their PostScript printers for printing proofs.

Today's standard printer languages are still primarily PCL and PostScript, but deciding between them isn't simply a matter of picking one or the other. Nowadays, you have your choice of PCL 4 or PCL 5 and PostScript Level 1 or Level 2. Of course, the higher the number, the newer the technology--which generally means it costs more. For printing text with Windows' TrueType fonts, any of the four will work fine. For higher speed and better graphics quality, choose one of the newer versions. If Windows supports a printer, most Windows applications should be able to use it. You also should keep in mind that as a rule you need a PostScript printer to print PostScript (EPS) graphics, the standard for desktop publishing.

Almost every manufacturer provides some way to move up to PostScript. If you buy a printer that cannot be upgraded, the only real alternative is buying a new printer. There are a few software fixes, but they're slow and clumsy enough to drive you to drink.


Desktop lasers aren't known for breaking the sound barrier--especially when printing graphics. Nowadays, the fastest printers use Intel's RISC processors, which require fewer instructions than other types. This makes them better at calculation-intensive tasks, such as printing graphics. Another popular processor is the Motorola 68000. Like CPUs, printer processor clocks measure speed in megahertz, ranging from about 10 to 40 MHz. Also as with CPUs, clock speed affects processing time, but it's certainly not the only consideration. Other important factors are the engine speed, RAM, and accelerating options.

Printer engines are rated at pages per minute (ppm), usually at intervals of 4, 6, 8, and 10ppm. The most common printer engines are the Canon 4ppm and 8ppm, which are used by HP, Apple, Brother, and several other manufacturers (and are about the most reliable you can buy). However, all the pages-per-minute rating really measures is how fast the engine churns sheets of paper through the machine, which says nothing about how quickly the printer's processor rasterizes them.

As with your computer, the amount of RAM in the printer you buy also can affect speed. Some printers support dual-page processing. This allows a second page to be created in memory while the first is printing.

Newer versions of printer languages also can put some zip into a printer. PCL 5 is inherently faster than PCL 4; PostScript Level 2 beats out Level 1. Again, if all you print is text and an occasional graphic, printer speed isn't critical--unless you're printing high volume, such as a few hundred pages per week. Then you should certainly consider spending a few hundred dollars more for an 8 or 10ppm model. Personal 4 and 6ppm printers aren't really designed to churn out hundreds of pages a week. At that rate you could wear out your new printer before its time.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

Output quality varies widely from printer to printer. About the only way to judge is to see it for yourself. Printer manufacturers distribute output samples, but they're invariably printed under optimal conditions and do not include objects, such as half-tones, that really test a printer.

Whenever possible, print one of your own documents. On the print sample, check the edges of large text for jaggies, or a stair-stepping effect. While 300-dpi can't eliminate jaggies altogether, jaggies shouldn't be readily noticeable. Small text--10 points and under--should be crisp and easily read. Screens, or percentages of black, should spread evenly. Too many laser printers, such as some based on the Canon 4ppm engine, print bands in screens (known as banding), which makes your document look as though it was reproduced on a low-quality copier.

A drawback of laser printers, no matter how high the resolution, is that photographs always look grainy and don't contain enough shades of gray. This is especially true of PCL 4 and PostScript Level 1 devices. The newer versions produce much better graphics and halftones. If you plan to print graphics and photographs, look for a printer with enhanced halftone capabilities, such as Apple, Acer, and Samsung products.

A printer's ability to print shades of gray is important in printing halftones. Sixteen shades of gray is the minimum you should accept. Since a printer's gray scale capability greatly depends on resolution, thirty-two is about the best you can hope for from a 300-dpi printer. To eliminate jagged text and line art, some manufacturers have developed methods, such as Hewlett-Packard's Resolution Enhancement Technology (RET), to tweak 300-dpi machines into simulating higher resolution. RET accomplishes this illusion by actually filling in jagged objects.

If you plan to use your laser pages for camera ready art for the print shop, you should consider a high-resolution device, such as the 600-dpi LaserJet 4. The higher the resolution the better the output. Laser printers also come in much higher resolutions, up to and beyond 1200 dpi, but they tend to be expensive.

Paper Handling Options

Most people print almost exclusively on letter-sized (8" x 11") pages. However, buying a printer limited to that size can be a mistake. When looking at paper handling options, consider not only what you do most, but what you're likely to do. How about legal-sized (8" x 14") sheets? Or tabloid-sized (11" x 17") documents?

If some of your documents are double-sided, such as training manuals and books, you may want to spend an extra thousand dollars or so on a duplex printer, which automatically prints on both sides of the paper. The most popular duplex printer is the HP LaserJet 4D. The Kyocera Ecosys FS-1500A has a duplex option, but most duplex printers are now 600-dpi or higher. The 300-dpi duplex printers are probably a dying breed, except as high-speed network printers.


As with PCs, many people buy economy printers and upgrade gradually, as needs increase and finances allow. When buying your new 300-dpi printer, inquire about upgrade options such as RAM, resolution, and language. You never know where your desktop publishing may take you.

The amount of RAM in a printer not only affects speed, but also can limit capabilities. For example, a printer with too little RAM can't print complex pages containing a lot of intricate graphics and several different fonts in various sizes. RAM requirements differ for each printer, and, except for high-end desktop publishing proof printers, most 300-dpi printers probably will never need more than 4 or 5 megabytes.

But buying a printer with too low a RAM capacity could limit your abilities to tackle memory-intensive print jobs. It also could limit your language and resolution upgrade options. It's safe to buy a printer with slots for additional RAM--at least an additional 4 or 5 megabytes. You also should determine whether RAM upgrades require standard or proprietary memory. Proprietary memory tends to cost much more than standard SIMM modules.

Many printers, such as Lexmark's 4029 line, allow you to upgrade from 300 to 600 dpi. Others, such as the LaserJet IIP Plus and IIIP as well as some Canon units, are upgradable through third-party I/O cards that not only increase resolution but also accelerate printing. One of the more popular third-party options is LaserMaster's WinJet 800, which kicks resolution on a LaserJet IIP plus or IIIP (among others) up to 800 dpi and uses your computer's RAM to greatly enhance printing speeds. Not all printers have I/O slots. The ones that do provide much greater upgrade options.