Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 8 / AUGUST 1985 / PAGE 50

Printers in paradise; Epson P-80 vs. Axonix ThinPrint 80 - which is better for making hardcopies in the sand? (evaluation) Corey Sandler.

If you had your choice of three things to take with you to a desert island, what would they be?

Well, I chose a brunette, a laptop computer, and a portable printer. It's not that I felt I really needed the electronic paraphernalia to entertain myself. It was just that I had a book deadline to meet, and I thought I would try to dive into the final rewrite between dives into the warm Caribbean surf.

The most difficult pre-trip preparation involved the selection of the proper portable printer--a device that had to combine light weight with heavy duty construction and easy operation under less than idea conditions.

I returned to the States with a suntan, a completed book, and some hard-earned inside knowledge about travel with the still-unusual contents of my suitcase. I ran into several minor problems that the advertising brochures and your dealer might not warn you about, but I also found that it is quite possible to bring your electronic office with you on a vacation trip, if you must.

The starting point was my trusty Epson PX-8 lap portable, which I ordinarily use as a writing tool on the daily rail commute to my office. Its principal advantages for me are its relative feather weight--I only notice its five pounds in my briefcase at the end of a long day--and its use of a version of WordStar for files. I have a null modem plugged into the IBM PC at each end of the commute, and I can readily download or upload my work from one machine to the other.

Now, all of those specifics are not of real importance, since almost any of the existing laptop portables can be used in the same way, communicating directly or through the services of an intermediary electronic mail service for transfer of files. All you need is a portable computer with a serial or parallel port, a source of electrical power for recharging, a portable printer, and for stylish travelers, a modem for telecommunications.

On my desert island, though, there were a few problems. We were headed for Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles, a speck of sand about 35 miles north of Venezuela. To begin with, I had no reasonable expectation of finding a personal computer to rent or borrow there, so I had to rely on the Epson. The electrical current was just slightly odd--110 volts at 50 cycles, rather than the U.S.-standard 60 cycles--and that caused me some concern about recharging delicate electronic devices. Neither MCI nor EasyLink could promise me a telecommunications link from my personal computer, and besides the Dutch-designed telephone system on Curacao was, to be kind, different.

I could, of course, have relied upon the microcassette and mini-floppy storage capabilities of the PX-8 computer, but I had visions of airport X-ray machines and dirty-fingered customs agents wiping out a week's work on the trip home. I am also still accustomed to performing the final edit of any piece of writing on a printout.

I solved the electrical problem with a bit of research and some advance preparation. Both the printer I selected and the Epson portable computer use a 110-volt to 6-volt stepdown transformer for recharging batteries. Acccording to electrical engineers I consulted, the slower cycle rate of the wall current might make the transformers run a bit hot and slightly slower than they would on their standard U.S. diet, but would not damage the computer or printer. However, they did not advise plugging two transformers in series if you need a reudction from a 220-volt source to 110 volts. If you face that problem, check with the manufacturer for a 220-to-6-volt device.) Just to be on the safe side, though, I brought with me a small voltage meter to test the current before I plugged the equipment into the wall.

(One other bit of advice for the high-tech traveler: bring with you copies of sales slips for major pieces of equipment and be prepared to explain to customs agents at your destiation the reason you are bringing such devices into the country. You may also have to prove to American agents when you return that you did not purchase equipment outside of the country.)

My pre-trip comparison test examined two specialized printers aimed at use with portable computers: the Epson P-80 and the Axonix ThinPrint 80.

The Epson P-80

The Epson P-80 is the "official" portable printer for the Geneva computer. It is cute as a bug, weighing in at 2.4 pounds and filling out just 2.5" x 11.75" x 4.25"--not much larger than a fat paperback bok. It has, though, accomplished its weight loss through an abundant use of plastics for the shell and almost all of its internal parts.

The P-80 connects to the computer through a serial port, using a special cable sold separately by Epson. The printer and cable should also work with other portable computers--enlist the aid of your dealer in maknig the proper fit.

The P-80 can print using either of two thermal methods. The printer head can scribe onto specially treated paper, or the device will accept a special minicassette with a thermal transfer ribbon that allows printing on standard smooth paper. The printhead yields type as it moves from left to right only. T') claimed printing speed is 45 characters per second in the standard 10 pitch pica typeface; I would estimate that the real throughput under actual use is about half that.

The print quality of the P-80 seemed very un-Epson-like, looking more like a cheap imitation than the real thing. Epson has attempted to maximize the quality of output by using type styles with overlapping dots. The basic matrix for printing is seven dots high by five dots wide. At five dots in width, though, many characters lack detail, so Epson has designed its printer to fire pins at half-steps as well, resulting in a matrix grid that is actually 11 dots wide. (See Figure 1.)

Despite the technology, the type quality ranged from faint to merely acceptable using the thermal paper option; adding the ribbon cartridge improved the quality somewhat, but don't expect even near letter quality output from this tiny printer. The output improves when the printer is shifted into condensed mode, although this drops the side of the printing by half, with each character no more than .043" in width, .096" in height, at 17 characters per inch. Other available type sizes include single-strike emphasized, double-strike, single-strike expanded, single-strike expanded compressed, single-strike emphasized expanded and bouble-strike expanded. Each of these styles can also be printeed in an italic face and underlied.

The printer comes with a built-in set of four NiCad batteries and an external recharging transformer. Epson claims a set of fully charged batteries can produce 60,000 characters, or about 30 single-spaced pages of type. The battery recharges in six to seven hours, or the printer can be used with the AC adapter connected as a battery replacement. The optional ribbon cassette has a claimed life of 40,000 characters, or 20 single-spaced pages. A built-in buffer has a memory of 240 bytes, or about two lines--more than sufficient to keep the printer chugging along but not enough to free up the computer for other tasks while the printer is working.

The P-80 is designed to accept single sheets of paper only, with no provision for a roll holder or a convenient way to spool up output. Sliding plastic guides will accommodate paper from 5.5 to 8.5" in width.

A pair of DIP switches are located on the rear panel of the printer, and the manual includes simple instructions to select international character sets, auto linefeed setting, and the RS-232C serial protocol. As delivered, the printer is set up for use with the Geneva com puter, at 8-bit data length, no parity check, odd parity, 2-bit stop bit code, and 4800 baud. The simple control panel on the front consists of an on/off switch, on line button, and paper feed switch. On the side of the printer is a "density" switch, a rotary adjustment that had a minor effect on print darkness. The dial has to be set with the power off. A self-test can be run by holding down the paper feed button while the power is switched on.

The P-80 can reproduce 126 characters. The printer can also be directly programmed with dot-addressable graphics in single- or double-dot density.

As you might expect, the Epson printer works well as a team with the Epson computer. P-80 control codes can be accessed from within the Portable WordStar program of the PX-8. Other computer/word processing combinations can use ESC commands, patches, or Basic programming to address the printer.

In summary, the P-80 is a capable printer, one of the smallest and lightest on the market, and preconfigured to work with the PX-8 and Portable WordStar. The output quality, though, is merely acceptance. Although my Geneva computer has stood up well to six months of commuting and business trvael, I wonder if a PX-8 could do the same. As I tested the printer, I had some serious doubts about its long-term ability to survive in a briefcase.

The Axonix ThinPrint

My description of the perfect portable printer was met almost exactly by a silent, solid device manufactured in the far-off land of salt Lake City, UT, U.S.A. The Axonix ThinPrint 80 does not win the contest for size or weight--it has almost twice the weight and volume of the Epson model, at nearly five pounds with batteries, and 2.5" x 7.5" x 11.5" in size. But the case is made of shaped metal, and the back end of the unit includes a compartment that can hold a full 80' long, 8.5" wide roll of thermal paper.

In operaion, the ThinPrint is all but silent, the only sound a slight rustle as the paper is advanced at the end of each line. The thermal printhead puts down characters in both directions, in a sharp, black image. There was an occasional smudging of characters, but overall the printing was quite readable.

The ThinPrint offers a 95-character ASCII set, produced with a seven-dot printhead in a 5-by-7 dot matrix box. Normal print pitch is 9.6 cpi; compressed is 16.5 for 136-column printouts. As with the Epson P-80, there is no way to confuse the output of the ThinPrint with that of a fine letter quality printer or even most full-sized dot matrix devices. However, the text is quite readable and will certainly meet the needs of most portable office users.

With any thermal printer, it is important to obtain the right paper. All of the papers I used tended to curl noticeably--I had to press some printed sheets overnight under a heavy book to flatten them. Axonix specifies 3M Type 459 or Apple Silentype paper. I also tried the IBM PCjr printer paper with acceptable results. Usig the wrong paper can yield poor image because of differences in image development temperature.

The claimed printing speed is 40 cps, and I would estimate the ThinPrint is fairly close to that number in real use. Axonix offers two models, the 80S with serial interface and the 80P with Centronics parallel. I tested the serial model with the Epson portable. The serial interface receives data at any of four rates selectable by internal slide switch: 300, 1200, 2400 or 9600 baud. Other swtiches select Xon/Xoff or DTR Handshaking, and between RS-232C or inverted TTL signal levels. Axonix offers a number of special cables for IBM, Apple, and Commodore devices, as well as a null modem cable and an unterminated ribbon cable for wiring your own. The standard Epson serial cable plugged into the Axonix without problem; if you use the Epson RS-232C cable, the two devices will not communicate property.

Axonix will provide on request a microscassette tape with a small program to adapt the Epson's Portable WordStar to provide the proper linefeed coding. The program is copied from the Geneva's microscassette drive into RAM and is used to load WordStar.

ThinPrint controls include an on-ff switch, lighted on-line button, and contrast adjustment. A slide switch on the system board can set compressed or standard type as default setting. That option can be altered by commands from software or with an ESC code. The on-line pushbutton can also be used to wipe out the contents of the 2K 2048-character) input buffer, and initiates the self-test when depressed as power switch is turned on.

And the Winner Is . . .

I took the Axonix printer with me on an all-expenses-paid trip to Curacao. It settled in nicely in my briefcase, along with the Epson PX-80 computer, a few extra rolls of thermal paper, and various battery recharging devices. Over the course of the week, the ThinPrint proved its worth, cranking out chapters on a beachside table. Its extra weight and bulk paid their way in sturdiness.

Were Epson to add a few ounces in a stronger shell to its P-80 printer, make the device bidirectional to pick up a bit of speed, improve the density of printing, and offer some kind of bracket to mount a roll of paper, Axonix would have a tough lightweight challenger.

Products: Epson P-80 (computer printer)
Axonix ThinPrint 80 (computer printer)