Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 49 / JUNE 1984 / PAGE 18

From Dot Matrix To Laser Print

The Changing Face Of Printers

Selby Bateman, Features Editor

"Not too many people use horses and buggies anymore," says Jim Hafer, supervisor of product evaluations for Micro D, which markets the Abati LQ20 letter-quality printer.

Hafer thinks that changes in printer technology could challenge, and possibly even supplant, the present generation of dot matrix and daisy wheel printers.

The staccato chatter of these impact printers appears to be giving way to the quiet hum of thermal transfer, ink jet, and laser printers. Recent advances in all of these technologies make their entry into the mass market a virtual certainty.

"It's probably going to happen a lot quicker than we expect," he says. "There are additional advantages to some of the new printer technologies that are coming out."

Boiling Ink

"Take thermal transfer, which is wax-embedded ink on a ribbon. The printhead actually heats the ink up, boils it, and forces it onto the paper. The image you get on the paper is letter quality from a dot matrix printer," he adds. "And it's actually raised lettering. You can run your angers across it, and feel the letters. So it provides a really, really high quality output."

Hafer's views are shared by International Resource Development, Inc. (IRD), a market research firm in Norwalk, Conn. Based on a study the company conducted, IRD predicts that dot matrix impact printers will soon lose the dominance they've enjoyed in the printer marketplace.

"In 1983, impact matrix shipments accounted for 72 percent of all unit shipments, by 1993, the figure will be down to 20 percent," the study indicates, "It is not only under-$500, fully formed character printers that will be responsible for the transformation of the microcomputer printer industry."

Low-Cost Contenders

The report predicts that by 1985 thermal transfer printers which use ordinary paper, operate quietly at high speeds, and produce color graphics and near-letter quality text will have 12 percent of the market. By 1993, the market share will be 28 percent.

"The major advantage of impact printers, besides multiple copies, has been the ability to work with ordinary paper rather than some specially coated paper that might be difficult to get, as is the case with thermal printing," says Ken Bosomworth, IRD president. "However, the two major low-cost contenders—thermal transfer and ink jet—also use plain paper. So they have no disadvantages vis-à-vis the impact printer in terms of paper cost."

Thermal transfer printers do have a higher ribbon cost, he notes, since the ribbon can be used only once.

From Clogged Tubes To Cartridges

Although ink jet printers have been manufactured for quite a while, recent technological advances have improved them too. Traditionally, ink jet printers have drawn ink into tubes then shot the ink at high speed onto the paper. When idle for a while, the tubes tended to clog. Ink jet systems systems also suffered from a reputation for being messy.

But Hewlett-Packard recently introduced $495 ink jet printer, named the ThinkJet, which uses low-cost disposable ink cartridges. And other companies are working on improved ink jet systems as well.

"We see ink jet printers as being a definite technological competitor," says Ron Ockander, director of sales for Epson "You create a membrane of ink over a hole, then blast it onto the paper. The problem with filling a reservoir (in older ink jet models), is that it would clog eventually. This way, you don't fill a tube"

Laser Printing

On the horizon, but not yet inexpensive enough for the home, is the laser printer. It works something like a photocopying machine. Instead of using a light-reflecting mechanism to form patterns on a rotating cylindrical drum, however, the laser actually writes on the drum. Electrically charged particles form patterns on the drum where the computer has told the laser to draw.

But the least expensive laser printers cost about five or six thousand dollars. And the most expensive climb to the halt-million dollar mark.

"Even the most optimistic developers, of laser printers don't see them coming down below a $2000 selling price," says Bosomworth. "And in the home market, what people are really looking for is more like $200.

"For that sort of price it's a contest between the ultra low-cost daisy wheel type—like the one the Coleco Adam has—or various types of cheap dot matrix printers," he says.

But Micro D's Hafer has a more optimistic attitude about the future of laser printers. "I think the most promising area is laser technology. Canon, for instance, has a raster scan laser printer that will imprint the image onto the drum, and photoelectrically develop it using a chemical developer."

A Laser For The Macintosh?

"It probably won't be on the market until late '84 or '85, and it will retail for from three to five thousand dollars," Hafer says "It's rumored that Apple will be using that technology for the Macintosh. I don't see how they can effectively use any other type of technology, the reason being that the laser printer actually uses a video signal—a raster scan type of signal—to create the image on the drum. And the Macintosh is a completely video-based screen."

In addition to the Canon laser printer, it's reported that Ricoh of America, inc., and Xerox are creating similar printers.

Despite the expectations for thermal transfer, ink jet, and laser printers, many industry observers are not ready to assign the dot matrix impact printer to oblivion.

"I'll tell you who will grab the market share," says Charles Srogus of Micro Peripherals, Inc. "It's going to be the (dot matrix) printers that are encroaching on the letter-quality printers. You're going to see an increase in the number of wires and the shape of the wires in the printhead.

"And the people who are going to be the leaders in this are those who have to use that kind of technology to print their language. The Japanese have had to work on this for some time," he says. "They have some very interesting products coming out that will also work in color."