Printer enhancers; give your dot matrix printer new personality and style. (evaluation) C.J. Puotinen.
Everyone who buys a personal computer daydreams about the perfect printer. It never breaks down. It prints like lightning. It produces letter quality hard copy.
Unfortunately, the fastest letter quality printers cost more than many microcomputers, and their repair bills can be stunning. Dot matrix printers are often sturdier, less expensive, and much faster, but their output can be hard to read. Characters are boxy and half-formed, and the effect is often impersonal, mass produced, and printed-by-computer.
A growing number of inexpensive daisywheel printers compete for the lowpriced letter quality printer market, but most are snail-slow, which makes the printing of rough drafts a truly tedious experience.
If only a speedy dot matrix printer could produce letter quality printout, too. Enter a new generation of printers equipped to do both--complete with higher price tags. (See article on 24-pin printers elsewhere in this issue.)
But new hardware is only one approach. The other is software--specifically, programs that change the output of a dot matrix printer.
Reviewed here are eight printer enhancement programs, each with its own personality and talents. Their prices range from $69.95 to $180, and they work with a variety of word processing programs and printers. All run on the IBM PC and compatible machines; two offer Apple versions, and another works with most CP/M systems. As the accompanying illustrations demonstrate, their results vary dramatically. Depending on what you need in the way of improved output, one may be ideal for your situation.
Of the programs described here, NicePrint is the easiest to learn and use. It isn't the most versatile program (it doesn't include a program for designing your own fonts, for example, nor does it offer proportional spacing), but for straightforward text printing, it works very well.
NicePrint was the first memory-resident program in this category. You load it by typing the command NICE before loading your regular word processing or spreadsheet program. When you are ready to print a file, you simply use the normal print commands of your word processing or spreadsheet program. With no further instructions from you, your text will emerge exactly as you arranged it in correspondence quality Roman type.
You can control NicePrint from the keyboard, if desired, just before printing begins or at any time during printing, to change the font or character size.
Embedded commands vary type style or pitch in the middle of a document and italicize words and phrases.
For example, the code 4 begins italics
in the type style and type size in effect,
and 5 ends the italics. One additional
step is necessary when you use embedded commands: you must press Ctrl +
Alt + (the backslash key) after entering
the print command and before printing begins. This tells the computer to translate the backslash commands into Escape sequences. Print sizes include pica (10-pitch), elite (12-pitch), and either pitch in double-high, double-wide, compressed type, or any combination thereof.
The most obvious advantage of the program is that you continue to use familiar format commands for margins, headings, line spacing, etc. I tested NicePrint with WordStar, Microsoft Word, MultiMate, and the Idea Processor. With each, it printed text files flawlessly, though it does not print the alternate (high-order bit) character sets of the IBM PC, which include foreign language symbols and graphics. According to the manufacturer, NicePrint also works with PES: Write, MultiPlan, and a variety of other programs.
The IBM PC version is a close relative of the manufacturer's Super-MX Interface Card designed for the Apple, now called the NicePrint Card.
Like many of its competitors, Lettrix has gone through major changes in the past year, and it deserves an award as the most improved program. Now memory-resident, it is far more versatile, offering more than a dozen separate fonts, each of which prints in italics, boldface, underlined, double-high, double-wide, pica, elite, condensed, proportionally spaced, monospaced, and with a justified or ragged right margin. In addition, its documentation has changed from several cryptic, loose pages to a nicely organized, easy to understand manual and an excellent interactive onscreen tutorial.
The embedded commands of Lettrix begin with the backslash, and upperor lowercase letters mark the beginning and end of specific functions. For example,
P begins proportional spacing and
p ends it. Type faces are numbered
according to the sequence in which you type them when you load the program. To create the sample printout accompanying this article, I typed the following load command: A > LX COURIER GOTHIC OLDELISH BROADWAY CYRILLIC GREEK.
Lettrix then recognized 2 as the command
to change to Gothic font, 3 as the
Olde English command, and so on. Of the programs mentioned here, Lettrix is the only one that includes appropriate accent marks for its Greek font. It is also the only program that prints the complete IBM alternate character sets in every available type style.
Additional fonts include Orator, Western, Script, Engraved, OCR, ABC Block, Outline, and Science. Lettrix has recently improved its approach to scientific equations, but in truth, none of the programs mentioned here offers a simple, straightforward approach to complex equations. Users whose work involves statements as complicated as the Navier-Stokes equations should investigate programs designed specifically for such projects, all of which require graphics support.
You can modify any existing font or create new fonts. Lettrix is compatible with a variety of text editors and spread-sheet programs, but if you have 256K or less of RAM, you may encounter problems with programs that use most of the available memory. For example, I had no trouble using Lettrix with WordStar and Microsoft Word, but when I tried to load MultiMate version 3.22, the message "Insufficient System Memory' appeared.
NicePrint and Lettrix are designed for the straightforward printing of text; Fontastic shines with special effects. Its fonts include a dozen unusual and large type styles that make effective and interesting titles, plus Hebrew, Russian, Punjabi, and Japanese. In the accompanying illustration, I used Roman, Calligraphy, Stick, Dash, Litebold, Special, Block, Cursive, Reverse, Elite, Script, Gothic, Hebrew, and Russian fonts, in that order.
The program makes it possible to design and print illustrations as detailed as electrical circuits and floor plans, though not without some effort. It also includes a utility for modifying fonts and creating new ones. In addition, users of printers that accept down-loaded fonts or offer a mode-setting option have a new program called FontSet, which offers proportional printing, various printing modes, and down-loaded fonts.
What Fontastic doesn't offer is a selection of pleasing, easy to read, correspondence quality type styles that print 10 or 12 characters to the inch. The Fontastic manual is printed almost entirely in the "normal' font, which is nothing more than the default type style of your printer printed slightly darker, with an occasional phrase in italics for variety.
While Fontastic rejects control codes generated by word processing programs, it relies on its own embedded commands to load and change fonts within a document and create special effects. Control words resemble dot commands. Each begins with a colon and is followed by an abbreviation, and only one control word can appear on a line. Control characters are embedded in the text itself.
Not every printer responds to the embedded commands. For example, the manual notes that the C. Itoh printer does not print italics. Of the three methods for changing to italic type, only one works with the IBM Graphics Printer. None of the special features such as italics, subscripts, condensed type, or double-width works with any but the default or normal font on any printer. From a text-printing perspective, this is the most serious drawback of the program.
The Fontastic manual is reasonably well written, though an index would make it easier to use as would some reorganization. More important, its most attractive fonts are far too large for standard documents, and they can't be reduced. All fonts can be enlarged, though not always successfully. Last, the program's demonstration files are misleading, for they imply full compatibility with WordStar; in fact, some fonts require high-order bit characters, which WordStar (and several other programs) cannot produce. These complaints aside, Fontastic has a logical command structure and some interesting applications.
In its present version, Type Faces has a rather limited application: this program prints well designed characters in large sizes only. A serious disadvantage is its restriction of one font per line, which means that you can't change from regular to italic characters, for example, for just one or two words.
The fonts are attractive and pleasing for headlines, special announcements, slide captions, and other unusual projects, but they are of little use for typing straight text. The manufacturer suggests photoreducing the printout by 25 to 50% or more, a procedure that requires an extra step and equipment that few users have on hand.
On the positive side, Type Faces comes with the best manual for novice users, complete with cassette taped instructions, step-by-step descriptions of every procedure (both DOS and Type Faces commands), and an index.
To use Type Faces, you prepare both a program disk and a data disk. The data disk always goes in Drive Band contains, in addition to certain Type Faces files, the document file you want to print. This disk is kept busy because every file you want to print must be copied onto it, and as the disk fills up, you erase old files to make room.
Type Faces will print files generated by just about every word processing program. It responds to a wide variety of embedded commands--most of them one- or two-part dot commands.
Though the program claims 16 separate fonts, there are really six: Roman in five sizes, Roman italics in three, the Greek alphabet in three sizes, two styles of Script type, Italian Gothic, English Gothic, and a special font of small illustrations.
The package includes a note about Fancy Font user groups. Why, I wondered, would anyone want to join a user group devoted to a printer enhancement program? Spend an afternoon trying to decipher this one and you'll know! Here is the most complicated, irritating, slow-printing program around--and it produces the most satisfying, proportionally spaced, exquisite hard copy. If your first priority is text that looks truly typeset, Fancy Font is worth the time and effort it demands.
To make a file print correctly, you must embed a few (or a few dozen, or a few hundred) Fancy Font commands in its text. Files can be generated by most word processing programs, but nearly every format condition (from headings and footings to top and bottom margins, right margin justification, page breaks, tab indents, and page length) must be defined with appropriate Fancy Font commands. Version 2.1, described here, is much easier to use than its predecessor because it offers a word wrap command; a user choosing a justified right margin is spared the frustration of defining the contents as well as the width of a line. In addition, the complete assortment of Epson fonts can be accessed using control characters.
The Fancy Font embedded control codes are easy to use, but they require concentration. So does the print command. The print command for my sample printout, for example, was: A > Pfont b:ff + fo romn 12 sans 12 scrp 20 olde 20 twst 14 cali 24 chess 18 romn 10 romnb 12 romni 12 class 12 hebr 17 frml 18 + lw 2.25i + sp 0i (RETURN).
Because the printing is excruciatingly slow (Fancy Font makes twelve passes over each line), the draft mode, which gives a lightly printed preview of the final results, is a time saving convenience.
For those who want to design their own fonts, Fancy Font provides the Hershey Character Data Base and additional programs. In general, the provided fonts are pleasing and easy to use; my one complaint is the ridiculously wide hyphen (see the printed example). I used the font editor to reduce its width in "customized' Roman and Sans Serif files, but that is an exercise I don't look forward to repeating. Design-your-own-font options are not attractive to all.
Last, a note on foreign languages. The Fancy Font Classical Symbols font includes all the lowercase Greek alphabet characters but only those uppercase characters not already supplied by a corresponding Roman font, an arrangement more convenient for the programmers than the users of Fancy Font, and there are no Greek accent marks. When it comes to typing Hebrew, which reads from right to left, there is simply no comfortable way to proceed with any program that enters text from left to right.
Printworks is a program built for speed, not glamour. It prints substantially faster than the other programs described here, but fonts print in pica, elite, double-wide, and condensed sizes only, and you can use only one font in one size per file. (There are exceptions to this rule, but they require expertise and support from the technical staff.) The program offers an assortment of type styles, but their small size limits their application. It is possible to generate a page of text using more than one typestyle, but it usually requires setting up a separate taxt file for each font and printing them consecutively. The Printworks sample accompanying this article consisted of 17 separate files.
One of the intriguing options of the program is its series of foreign language character sets. But these are standard Epson fonts; they work by redefining certain symbol keys as foreign characters. For example, the English font substitutes the English pound sign for the # symbol. The French, German, Danish, Swedish, Italian, and Spanish fonts replace other symbol keys with appropriate letters. The Japanese character set turned out to be nothing more than our familiar keyboard with the symbol for Japanese Yen replacing the backslash. These fonts print in the standard dot matrix type style only and are not compatible with the Printworks custom fonts, although individual characters can be transferred from one font to another.
SoftStyle, the company that makes Printworks, is especially proud of its pivot font, which prints letters and numbers sideways. By itself, the pivot font rotates characters individually 90 degrees, but the pivot print option rotates an entire document page or section of text, emulating the Funk Software Sideways program, condensing wide spreadsheets and similar projects.
The Printworks print menu lets you download certain fonts and settings so they remain in effect while you use your word processing program and its regular print commands. For downloaded settings to remain in effect, the printer must remain on-line and turned on.
Printworks is entirely menu driven and very easy to use. As the speed comparison chart shows, it is also very fast.
Not every program can generate the graphics characters and foreign language symbols in the IBM alternate character sets. WordStar is the most widely used program in this category. This means that WordStar users can't produce scientific equations, graphic designs, and other unusual symbols with a matrix printer.
Tech/Print was designed to correct this deficiency. Using the standard keyboard, WordStar users can enter familiar commands to change from the standard font to a special math font, italics, or either of two graphics fonts.
At this time, the WordStar boldface and doublestrike commands work only with the default font; they are not supported by italic type, either of the graphics fonts, or the math font.
Tech/Print is easy to use, especially for those already familiar with WordStar. Its manual is well designed, showing the letter key equivalent of every alternative font character, and the disk supplies an interesting sample file which makes extensive use of the Math font. In fact, I borrowed two equations from this file for use in the illustration accompanying this article, then drew a border around the print sample with the Tech/Print IBMGRAF1 font.
Despite its limitations, Tech/Print greatly expands the capabilities of certain word processing programs, filling the needs of a specialized audience.
LePrint is another program designed for use with WordStar, and while it doesn't generate equations, its effects are dramatic in another way. LePrint offers typesetting fonts and fonts that mimic electric typewriters, all of which print in microscopically adjusted sizes between 1/12 and 10 . In fact, LePrint is the only program described here that lets you define font size so precisely; it accepts measurement commands in centimeters, didot points, em-quads, en-quads, inches, millimeters, picas, and points. While some characters become less attractive as they grow larger, the letters I generated with LePrint in the 1 to 2 range were very well executed.
The manual was printed with LePrint on a Toshiba P1350 printer, and it is very attractive. But leafing through it, I wondered why it wasn't printed with a justified right margin, which would make it look more professionally typeset. After spending a day with the program and the accompanying illustration, I understood why. At the beginning of every new paragraph and whenever you change fonts within a line, LePrint redefines the right margin. LePrint doesn't let you enter a specific line width to be maintained throughout the document; instead, it defines the line width by the contents of the line. If there are no unnecessary spaces in the line, LePrint assumes the paragraph does not have a justified right margin. Regardless of the character size specified, LePrint defines the width of the paragraph in inches by the width of the first line, and it follows the formula 10 characters = 1 inch. Last, imbedded WordStar commands count as characters; the program includes these non-printing codes in its definition of the first line of a paragraph.
I wanted the illustration to measure 2.25 wide by 3 deep. The only way to approach these dimensions was to create a first line that measured 23 characters wide, these characters including at least one unnecessary blank space and any embedded command codes. LePrint worked fine, setting the line width at 2.3 and setting a justified right margin. The printed text was arranged very differently from the screen text, but that was fine--until LePrint encountered the command for changing from Times Roman to Times Italic. At that point, it redefined the right margin, and that is why the illustration shows a less-than-straight edge. No matter how I rearranged the affected lines, the program revised the right margin. A user who wants professional looking results will find this a frustrating problem.
But for projects that use a ragged right margin and correspondence that should look typed rather than computerized, LePrint does an excellent job.
In fairness to this interesting and potentially powerful program, I should point out that my copy is a Beta test version and that the final edition promises improved performance.
A Final Word
Programs change rapidly in the printer enhancement field, so write to the manufacturers for font samples, specifications, and the latest improvements. Define your printer-related needs carefully so you can judge the relative importance of price, speed, versatility, and quality.
When you buy a printer enhancement program, make your backup copy and then, before you do anything else, display and print the disk directory. In most of the programs described here, this is the only way to determine the names of the available fonts. The printed screen directory can be an important reference.
Next, print whatever sample or demonstration files come with the program. These files will show very graphically what your printer is able to produce. Use your word processing program to inspect the embedded commands that produce the hard copy you have just printed.
Make your own demonstration files, one for each available font. My standard test file shows the font name, then the entire keyboard, upper- and lowercase, one line at a time. Such a printout may be essential if you are using a foreign alphabet or other special font. In some cases, it is necessary to prepare a file using two fonts, one showing the screen symbol in a "normal' type style, the other its printed equivalent.
Then experiment. If experience doesn't answer your questions, the manufacturer will. I found all of the technical support staffs helpful, friendly, and informative.
And don't forget to write. We look forward to seeing your correspondence quality correspondence.
Table: Printer Enhancement Software
Products: NicePrint (computer program)
Lettrix (computer program)
Fontastic (computer program)
Type Faces (computer program)
Fancy Font (computer program)
PrintWorks (computer program)
Tech-Print (computer program)
LePrint (computer program)