SJ-144. (color thermal transfer computer printer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Tim Victor
The SJ-144 printer from Star Micronics is a tough creature to categorize. Its upright configuration and the small footprint of its six-inch-deep case suggest an ink-jet of bubble-jet printer. But inside is a conventional-looking printhead and ribbon cartridge like Star's classic dotmatrix printers. The manual's "Specifications" section mentions a "heat fusion printing process," while its front page simply describes it as a laser-quality printer.
But there's no question about the quality of the SJ-144's text output. Standard characters have 48-dot-high definitions, doubling the precision of premium 24-pin printers, and the 360 dot-per-inch resolution bests most lasers. The crisp, jet black characters have a slightly glossy surface that makes them practically leap off the page.
With its unique 144-element printhead, the SJ-144 can print two and a half lines of text in a single pass. The result is very quick printing at a rate of 255 characters per second for 10 cpi pica text (equivalent to 2.3 pages per minute, according to Star). Most impressively the SJ-144 delivers its highest level of quality at this speed. It has no provision for draft-quality printing, nor does it need one.
This printer might be hard to pigeon-hole, but it's a snap to use. The Windows driver installs easily and includes 15 scalable TrueType fonts, usable from nearly all Windows programs. Under DOS, the SJ-144 supports the command sets of popular Epson and IBM printers for wide compatibility.
It's an extremely versatile printer. Overhead projection transparencies and iron-on transfer material are available from Star, as are special strip-label ribbon cartridges, containing 1/2-inch-wide pregummed label material in a variety of colors.
The $599 suggested retail price seems appropriate for its capabilities, near the top of the dot-matrix range but comfortably below most laser prices. Per-copy costs are modest. Ribbon prices are reasonable, while the built-in sheet feeder avoids the expense of continuous-form paper.
The SJ-144's biggest shortcoming involves graphics printing. Continuous-tone images like photographs are often spoiled by horizontal bands. The manual's "Optimizing Print Quality" describes an adjustiment which helped a little, but never completely cured the problem.
Its color capabilities were also somewhat disappointing. Star claims "vibrant, full-color printing," but only solid, saturated colors came out well. And skin tones showed particularly weak reproduction. Color printing is also quite expensive. No matter how much (or little) of a color a row of pixels contains, the SJ-144 makes four passes over the row, using a different-colored segment of ribbon each time. For each pass, it advances the ribbon to find the next color, limiting the color ribbon's life to a scant eight pages.
But, in general, the SJ-144 is an attractive package, well-suited for home or low-volume office use. It isn't quite as fast as a laser printer, and the ribbon costs average out a bit higher than laser printer tone. But the lower initial price and no-compromises printing quality weigh in its favor. The SJ-144 is versatile and easy to use, and it's a good little printer overall.