Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 3 / MARCH 1985 / PAGE 88

IBM Quietwriter Printer. (evaluation) Corey Sandler.

With an intriguing state-of-the-art electronic technology, the IBM Quietwriter Printer lives up to its name: It is quiet beyind expectation, and it is a printer, producing type that requires a second or third glance to distinguish it from the output of a fine carbon ribbon typewriter.

The Quietwriter is a speedy electronic paintbrush for the office, combining handsome user-changeable text characters with the full IBM PC graphics set. The printer is based on a new thermal transfer technology that uses a 40-electrode printhead and a single-use four-layer resistive ribbon. IBM claims a burst speed of 40 to 60 cps, depending upon selected character pitch; in tests for this review, the printer turned in speeds of 23 to 26 cps at 10 pitch for a typical page of business correspondence.

Although designed to work with the IBM PC family of computers (the PC, PC XT, Portable PC, 3270-PC, PCjr, and PC AT) the printer should work quite well with any computer that has a standard Centronics parallel interface. The unit is priced at $1395 at IBM Product Centers and is also available through dealers.

The noise of the printer is barely noticeable as it tracks from left to right; the return of the unidirectional head to the left margin sounds like the whispered call of an asthmatic duck. According to IBM, the sound output of the unit is 53 dBA: by comparison, the Qume Sprint 11/55 Plus Daisywheel printer is 10 times louder, at 63 dBA: the NEC Spinwriter 3550 roughly five times as loud at 60 dBA.

Using a Shannon Text printing speed test developed by Tom Badgett of Computers & Electronics magazine, I found output in the range from 21 characters per second (for 25 short, varied-length text lines) to 26 characters per second (for 10 fixed-length 80-character text lines). The average over several tests of differing types was i3 cps. The tests were conducted using the standard 10 pitch Courier font; using a more-dense 12 pitch font should increase speeds by about 20%.

Those speeds, of course, do not compare to the fabulous ratings turned in by some of the latest dot matrix printers; however, if print quality is the primary concern, the IBM unit offers a tremendous price/efficiency combination for letter quality output.

The printer includes two cartridge slots for plug-in font modules. The printer can switch back and forth from either set while printing, and can also pause for manual change of cartridges. (A companion device, the $1295 Quietwriter 7 typewriter, can also be linked to a computer, although it will not produce the extended graphics set.) New Technology

The resistive ribbon technology differs significantly from other thermal transfer printers now on the market in that the heat is generated in the ribbon rather than in the printhead. The head passes a small amount of current to a polymer layer through any or all of 40 tiny electrodes mounted one above the other. The polymer is electrically resistive and in conjunction with an aluminum conductive layer generates heat. That heat migrates to the third element, called a "release" layer. The heat causes carbon ink on the fourth layer to be painted onto the paper.

The density of the carbon ribbon printing is said by IBM to be equivalent to that of its standard impact printers. The 40-electrode head can produce character sets or graphics as fine as 240 points per inch in the vertical measure and 360 points per inch horizontally.

Since the printer is not dependent upon heating and cooling of the printhead to generate characters, the Quietwriter can run at a faster speed than that of many other thermal printers. (In the typewriter version of the printer, the same technology can be used to erase errors. A smaller amount of current is generated, making the ink layer sticky and lifting off the offending letter or letters. And since the printing process does not require pins in a printhead to strike the ribbon physically, there is no physical impresion made on the paper. Corrections are nearly impossible to discern.)

The printhead is mounted inside the printer at about a 45-degree angle to the paper. According to Frank Hamilton, IBM senior product planner for the Quietwriter, the angle was chosen to compensate for the expected normal wear on the electrodes. In a standard impact dot matrix printer, he explained, wear on the pins dealt with by the hammer action that drives the pin into the ribbon. With the stationary head used in the IBM machine, the pins wear evenly and the angle serves to allow the electrodes to "paint" characters onto the paper. It is because of the angle of the head that the printer works from left to right only; if it were to print in the other direction, the head would be going against the direction of the moving ribbon. Hamilton hinted, though, that greater speeds may be realized in future devices using the technology.

Taking the covers off the printer reveals a spare and simple design with two small circuit boards--one mounted flat at the front, and the second mounted vertically at the rear alongside the power supply. There is no fan, with the heat from the power board conducted away by convection. The entire shell of the unit is constructed out of high-quality plastics and finished in traditional IBM typewriter gray/beige.

The packaging of the unit is a testament to traditional IBM conservatism: there were more rubber rods, foam pads, carboard collars, temporary bolts, and fiberboard protectors on the Quickwriter than I have seen in any two typical printers that have journeyed all the way from Japan.

The IBM Guide to Operations instruction manual was clear and useful, including a troubleshooting section. Options and Accessories

IBM has released four electronic fonts for the printer, with more expected. The matchbook-sized cartridges sell for $50. Available styles are Courier 10 (included with the printer); Prestige Elite 12, Prestige 15, and Boldface. IBM has released 19 fonts for the typewriter version. Cartridges for the typewriter will work in the printer, although they will not produce the graphics characters; cartridges for the printer cannot be used in the typewriter.

The special ribbon for the printer is estimated to be able to produce about 160,000 characters (approximately 30,000 words), depending upon pitch. Replacements sell for $12 at IBM Product Centers. The printhead itself is rated at about 4 million characters, and is designed to be easily replaced by the user at a cost of about $20.

IBM has gone to great lengths to make the printer as electronic as possible, including the disappearance of the platen knob. Single sheets are merely rested in a holding position and the Form Feed button is used to load a sheet into position automatically. The five flat panel buttons on the face of the printer have a total of eight functions when used in conjunction with a "Code" key. Paper can be moved up or down in the printer continuously or in increments as fine as 1/96th of an inch.

A set of five switches on a DIP just inside the cover allows the user to set form and line length, choose linefeed and skip perforation protocols, and select one of two code tables. There is also a three-position switch to select low, medium, or high contrast printing. According to IBM, the quality of printing can vary slightly with the type of paper or ribbon used and the office climate. The company recommends smooth paper for best results.

A full set of built-in diagnostic tests is engaged each time the printer is powered up. In addition, a full print sample test can be called for. The first line of the print test includes a listing of the DIP switch settings and the contrast selection, as well as a report for use by an IBM technician in servicing the device.

IBM will offer an electronic single sheet feeder, priced at $350, in the second quarter of 1985. Unlike many sheet feeders that are mechanically driven by friction or gearing from the printer, the new device will have its on motor and microprocessor for control. A pinfeed for continuous forms is available now for $75.

Purchasers of the Quietwriter 7 typewriter can convert it to use as a standard parallel interface printer by purchasing a $60 adapter box and a $150 printer interface card. The typewriter can also accept a $150 card that provides an on-line 50,000-word dictionary that beeps as soon as a possible misspelling is entered from the keyboard.

The printer is clearly derived from IBM's thriving typewriter division, a product line that according to analysts holds a first-place tie with Xerox, each with about 17 percent of the American market. The new products, together with advanced models of the hugely successful Selectric typewriter and a newly introduced Wheelprinter line, are expected to increase IBM's penetration in the typewriter market.

The Quietwriter modes are made by IBM at its new automated factory in Lexington, KY. Most of the components of the devices are made on site, and the production line uses IBM robotic systems for manufacturing and assembly.

Products: IBM Quietwriter Printer(Computer printer) - Evaluation