Printers and other Comdex wonders. (IBM images) Will Fastie.
Spring COMDEX in Altanta holds the distinction of being the largest computer trade show on the East Coast. As such, it would be surprising if there were no announcements of interest to PC-land. In point of fact, COMDEX was rather dull (one clever mind dubbed it CALMDEX), but a most important product was introduced just prior to the show, and by none other than IBM. With a single stroke, IBM dropped the venerable Epson MX-80 in IBM colors (the IBM Personal Computer Graphics Printer, to be precise) and added a new printer called the IBM Proprinter. Announcing just before COMDEX, IBM effectively invited comparison with the numerous printers introduced there.
The Proprinter is no slouch and is a fitting replacement for the Graphics Printer. It is rated at 200 characters per second (cps) and costs $549. It is entirely compatible with its predecessor but has been extended to include (NLQ) modes. In NLQ mode, the Proprinter operates at 40 cps, about the same speed as better daisywheel printers. Dot-addressable graphics are supported and are Epson/IBM-compatible. The IBM extended character set (with block character graphics) is included. Up to 94 charactters can be downloaded to the printer; the downloaded characters can be used at an time (with proper control codes) and do not affect the ability of the printer to print the standard character set.
IBM wisely stayed very close to the IBM Graphics Prtiner when they designed the Proprinter. Even the control panel is smilar to Epson's, with linefeed, form feed, and online buttons and three indicator lights. I tested the Proprinter with a variety of programs, all of which expected an Epson or IBM priter; all worked flawlessly. The Proprinter is thus a safe choice.
Even as IBM walked the line, they also added a few improvements. The most obvious is the manual paper feed slot on the front of the unit. Using this slot, the operator can feed either cut sheet paper or envelopes for printing. It works well, although envelopes take some getting used to. It is also innovative, because no other printer I have seen in this price range has such a feature. The only drawback to the manual feeder it that continuous paper continues to feed when cut sheets are fed. For a lot of cut sheet printing, the continuous paper should be removed; winding the paper backwards is not reliable on the Proprinter because the page perforation catches on a paper guide under the platen.
I gave the printer a reasonable workout and generally liked it. It is noisier than the IBM Graphics Printer, reminding me of a just slightly quieter Okidata. It has a respectable throughput of 130 cps (as measured by PC magazine's speed test program). The latter quality mode is not as nice as that of the TI855 printer, but it is acceptable nonetheless. I found it a little awkward to load paper, and on this matter the otherwise superb manual failed me: the paper path diagrams are not as accurate and detailed as they should be. Ordinarily this would not be a problem, as most printers have similar paths. The Proprinter path, however, is not immediately obvious.
I was most interested to determine the Proprinter's quality of manufacture, so I promptly took it apart. I got more than I bargained for: this machine is obviously designed for robotic assembly and was really hard to disassemble. I did manage it, however, and I got a good look at everything inside. I'm impressed: it is built as well as any Japanese printer I have seen. The electronics are neatly arranged; there is plenty of space on the board, and the power supply seems ample. There are not many parts; and IBM employee at COMDEX mentioned that it contained fewer than 60 parts (excluding all the components on the cicruit board). I re-assembled the printer in about a tenth the time it took me to get it apart.
There is also innovation. Almost the who printer is made of plastic. The machine is assembled without screws (everything snaps together). Rods which traditionally would have been fastened with c-rings instead just snap into place in the chassis. There are no springs. Finally, the head positioning mechanism is strikingly different from what we have come to expect. Instead of the typical belt arrangement, IBM chose to use a screw, driven with a stepper motor, upon which the printhead rides. The "screw" is about 3/4" in diameter, about 9" long, and made of plastic.
The whole notion of a screw-driven printhead might have scared me. Instead, I'm relaxed about it because I have seen what IBM can do with cams, levers, and screws in other produces (e.g. robot arms), and I have been impressed. My only reservation stems from the fact that IBM might have chosen this mechanism because it is easier to build than a belt drive, especially if robots are doing the assembly, and not because it is inherently better or more reliable. I could not spend the time (years, maybe?) necessary to wear down the screw to see if print quality would deteriorate, but I could also find no registration problems with either text or graphics.
There is one thing that requires operator care. When the ink ribbon is removed, the cable connecting the printhead to the circuit board tends to flop about. It is quite easy to replace the ink ribbon in such a way that the cable catches. The manual calls attention to this situation, and if care is taken there will be no problem. I call this a good because IBM usually makes the ribbon-changing process very idiot-proof.
I was not able to tell which of the major sub-assemblies inside the printer were built by IBM and which were sub-contracted. However, oe part comes from a Japanese company: the printhead is made by none other than Epson.
I can recommend the IBM Proprinter. It is built well, offers good performance and functionality for the price, has a fantastic manual, carries a one-year warranty, and is IBM-compatible.
COMDEX: The Printer Show
I was astounded at the number of new printers I saw at COMDEX this spring. In the past 18 months the printer market has been busy, to be sure, but I was not prepared for this new onslaught.
IBM steadfastly maintains that they do not use trade shows to announce products. I suppose that is true, because they never have, but an announcement a week in advance probably qualifies. At any rate, the IBM booth at COMDEX was replete with the new Propriter, even on PCs where it was not the item being demostrated. Along with the Proprinter IBM also announced a new color ink-jet printer; it, too, was being demonstrated. I do not review the ink-jet here because I have not had any hands-on experience with it. Although introduced before COMDEX, it was not immediately available. It offers many nice features (including the ability to print on transparencies), so I suggest a look if you are interested in color printng.
Other firms do use trade shows to their advantage. My attention was drawn to just two companies in the new printer fray: Okidata and Mannesman-Tally.
Okidata announced their new models 192 and 193, the latter a wide-carriage version of the 192. There are three new features of particular note in this printer series. First, the printer is much quieter than older Okidata models. This is welcome relief, as most Okidata owners I have spoken with call out the noise as the characteristic of the printer they like least. Second, Okidata has come up with a much improved ribbon system, foregoing their traditional (and cheap) spools for a compact cartridge. The new ribbon mounts directly on the head and travels with it; it installs easily and does not smear ink on the hands. Finally, the printer can be ordered as IBM-compatible, which in this case means that the extended character set is available.
The new Okidatas are smaller and more stylish than the older 80-an 90-series machines. Options include a tractor feed mechanism and a sheet feeder. I hope to get a chance to examine these new printers more closely because Okidata has achieved what may be the most important factor in the printer business: a reputation for quality and reliability, the very thing that put Epson on top.
I had no chance to look at the new Mannesman-Tally printer. What caught my eye was the very thing that made me buy my own TI 855: font cartridges. M-T's new machine offers a single slot for one plug-in font. Not as verstile as the TI, perhaps, but the printer comes in at a lower price. That makes the new printer worth a look.
While I'm still on the subject of printers, let me air a newly acquired peeve. I have been fuming about how slow Texas Instruments and Hewlett Packard have been in getting new fonts for the 855 and LaserJet, respectively, to the market. Somebody mentioned in passing that TI should have published specs for the design of cartridges. That's it! Those two printers are closed systems! We'd all benefit if they were opened up: third party vendors would bring us many fonts, nifty features that the original vendors never thought of, and lower prices ($225 per LaserJet module is absolutely, positively, ridiculous ). By the way, I love both of these printers. Understand that my objection is with the companies' current strategy about fonts.
And now for Speed . . .
One thing I went looking for at COMDEX was accelerator boards for the PC. These are boards that, in effect, contain a complete computer system. The processor is usually an 8086 or 80186 running at a clock rate of greater than 8MHz (fastest seen: 9.54MHz). The board plugs into the PC (in different wasy, depending on vendor) and subsumes the function of the original 8088. The result: your PC suddenly runs much, much faster tha it used to.
There are several vendors of these boards. Orchid and Kamerman Labs seem to have gotten the jump on the market, but the number of other vendors just announcing or planning such a product indicates that a substantial market is perceived for a performance upgrade of the venerable PC. The question is thus: "Is increased performance a desirable PC upgrade?"
There are about four million 8088-based PCs and XTs out there. Lotus has sold one million copies of 1-2-3. All the other spreadsheet vendors have probably sold 500,000 copies combined. Therefore, let's assume that about three million PCs run spreadsheets. Now the first performance problem everyone runs into is induced by very large spreadsheets.
First, more memory is added to the system, but then the sheets are too big for diskette. Hard disk solves the size problem (at least to the limits of memory) and also improves the load/save time. And then the use hits the brick wall: recalculation time. For big spreadsheets, recalc is s-l-o-w. Solution? A faster macine, of course. But wat: I've already invested X thousand bucks in this thing and don't look forward to the loss I'll incur selling this a less than book value and then the hit I'll take buying one of them fancy new AT thingies. What to do? Why, how about a measly grand or so for a new, faster processor?
In fact, it is a compelling argument. If the accelerator board proerly done, is should be very compatible with the PC and run just about any software you might have, short of games. That means it will also speed up your word processor and data management software, or make Turbo Pascal compile with AT-like speed. And depending on the type of hard disk activity you usually have, a caching scheme on top of the enhanced processor can bring up total throughput, even if the process is I/O bound. In experiments at PC Tech Journal, the Kamerman and Orchid boards both ran a 1-2-3 recalc in less than half the time taken by a standard PC.
Personally, I crave an AT for my house (I've got one at work). But it is not the AT itself I crave: I just want its blinding (well, pretty peppy, anyway) speed. With an accelerator card, I can have that speed for about one-fifth the cost of a trade-in for the AT. That's worth considering.
This is an emerging area, and it is one that will bear watching.