... Print about printers ... (column) John J. Anderson.
Print About Printers
Well folks, this is it. A monthly column devoted solely to printers and print products for microcomputers. It has been a while in coming, but we will now present an ongoing forum to discuss the state of the microcomputer printer art, as well as other developments concerning the processes involved in obtaining hard copy.
Creating a Forum
Because the situation with printers is so fast-changing and volatile, the occasional Creative Computing hardware review does not really provide the kind of continuity of market understanding that supports an educated buyer. Dramatic new features and substantial price cuts continually combine to make choosing a printer a tricky project. Perhaps through a column such as this, a better sense can be communicated of where the market stands and where it is headed.
Silencing the Scribe
Another advantage of this format is the opportunity to get some two-way communication going. It is important that individuals and companies that take issue with judgments presented here have a chance to respond. Here is a good example:
Anadex is still rather miffed over my treatment of their Silent/Scribe DP-9620A. In June I tried to make some amends, admitting I was wrong about the printer requiring a slotted printer stand, and noting that the unit was indeed the quietest impact printer we tested.
Kevin A. Mathews of Anadex was still not happy. "Concerning noise levels, the only proper way to measure the noise level of a dot matrix printer is in a semi-anechoic chamber,' he said. An outside consulting firm came up with a figure of 55 dB, while we got a reading of 64 dB.
Well this has forced a re-evaluation of our noise level tests. I tried to be very clear in march that the numbers we indicated should be used for comparison only. And since I know of very few people who keep their printers in anechoic chambers, I do not feel too bad about our measurement standards, as they reflect real world conditions. Mr. Mathews questions whether we had the unit on a mat of acoustic foam. If he had read the piece closely, he would have learned that we did.
He also took issue with our labeling the 1.5K buffer of the unit as "surprisingly small.' Certainly if the user has an external buffer of the kind we shall examine below, this spec will be of little concern. I still feel that 1.5K is a bit skimpy, but should note that the Anadex buffer can be expanded to 3K.
This is about all that remains to be said on the evaluation revision of the Anadex DP-9620A, except perhaps to reiterate that it is, indeed, an excellent printer, which I said originally. I remain convinced, however, that its price is less than fully competitive. If it listed for $1445 instead of $1845, it would have merited more than two stars.
And about this star system: is it worth the aggravation? I have dozens of letters taking me to task for my star ratings on various machines. Perhaps star ratings and noise level tests should be jettisoned entirely. It would certainly make my job easier. Let us know how you feel on these topics--and on any others you feel merit consideration.
Another advantage of a printer column as opposed to product reviews is the possibility of casually examining printer accessories. We shall make that a regular part of our discussion, rest assured, and shall begin on that task right now.
In the Buffer
Probably the most practical and potentially useful tool to add to your printer is a buffer. This, simply stated, is a type of RAM board used to temporarily store data for eventual output to a printer. By uploading data to a buffer, your micro will not have to wait for the printer to finish its job before returning to you for further commands. It can dump data to the buffer at a very efficient rate of speed, then return to your control, while the buffer then dumps data to the printer at whatever rate the printer can handle. The slower your printer, the more dramatic the time saving, of course.
If, like me, you generate many long documents for printout, waiting around for hard copy can be a big waste of time, even at 160 cps. I swear by the 64K in-line Microbuffer I am now using. With even the longest documents, it returns the computer to me after only a few minutes, and I can get back to work while my printer pumps out hard copy for the next half hour.
Buffers come in many shapes, sizes, and configurations. The Microbuffer from Practical Peripherals is in a stand-alone box that can be attached to virtually any computer and printer. It can be expanded in increments of 64K up to 256K. I find 64K more than enough for my needs. Touch switches on the front of the unit allow the buffer to be cleared, multiple copies of documents to be printed, or to pause the upload. LEDs above the switches indicate their status.
The Microbuffer In-Line is available in parallel and serial versions and lists for $299 (configured at 32K). In addition, as Kimberly Hibler emphatically pointed out to me, Practical Peripherals offers Microbuffer II, specifically for the Apple II. It can reside in any slot but 0, and includes special command codes and graphics functions. There is also Microbuffer/E for Epson printers. It sits on the back of your Epson and supports all Graftrax commands. Both models are also available in serial or parallel versions.
For more information, contact Practical Peripherals, Inc., 31245 La Baya Dr., Westlake Village, CA 91362. (213) 991-8200.
Another, similarly priced unit is offered by Ligo Research in Illinois. The Angel Buffer not only offers all of the features of the Microbuffer, but will accept serial input for parallel output or parallel input for serial output. This handy feature would have been invaluable to us when we were testing over a dozen very varied printers last March. If you have parallel vs. serial compatibility problems with your computer and printer, this product can solve them while providing the convenience of a print buffer.
The Angel unit can be upgraded to a maximum of 128K, but is shipped with 64K. For $295, that is a good buy. As it is brand new, we have yet to see a unit at the lab. I cannot, therefore, make a judgment on the Angel buffer, other than to say that on paper, it sounds pretty good. Ligo Research Inc., 396 E. 159th St., Harvey, IL 60426. (312) 331-8797.
One buffer we have had a chance to play with here is the parallel Pipeline Random Access Printing Buffer, from Interactive Structures (the people who brought Apple owners the Pkaso printer interface). This is touted as the first "intelligent' microcomputer buffer device. In addition to conventional "dumb' buffering, a "random access printing' feature is offered, wherein labelled data can be stored in separate buffer compartments, then printed in any specified order any number of times.
This capability makes it easy to combine output from different programs--text with spreadsheet data, for example, perhaps augmented by graphics charts, directly from the buffer. Even Pipeline commands themselves can be stored in Pipeline "buckets' to control in turn other Pipeline operations. The unit comes with 8K, but is expandable to 128K. I should think that more than 8K would be required for any truly practical "intelligent' buffering.
"Buffer buckets' certainly constitute a unique approach to integrated output flexibility, and I suspect we will see other "intelligent' buffers springing up soon.
The Pipeline buffer with 8K lists for $195. Contact Interactive Structures Inc., 146 Montgomery Ave., Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004. (215) 667-1713.
Another unit we like very much is the Quadram MicroFazer (see complete review on page 64, March '83 issue).
Twin Stars from Micronics
The low end of the printer market is now teeming with so-called "fully-featured' machines. By "fully-featured, most manufacturers mean machines with 80- or 132-column capability, tractor or friction feed, and an acceptable dot matrix print quality, with true descenders at quite a low cost.
One of the recent entries to this arena is the Gemini-10 from Star Micronics. It is an 80-column 10 carriage machine with a pleasing Epson-like 9 X 9 dot matrix font, capable of producing proportional, expanded, and italicized characters in three pitches. It features dot-addressable graphics capability as well. The claimed speed of the unit is 100 cps, with a feed speed of 10 lines per second. In actual use, I calculated the overall speed of the printer at about 65 cps, which is not bad at all for a printer of this category. The printer provides for single sheet friction feed and is relatively quiet.
In about a week of hard use, the Gemini-10 held up very well. Its companion 15 1/2 carriage 132-column model, the Gemini-15, was in use at a sister publication for about the same length of time, and also performed quite well. The larger machine is also capable of bottom-loading, which its smaller brother is not.
Both machines come with Centronics parallel interfacing standard. Serial interfacing is available as an option.
It is really unfair to fault low-end printers for being "plasticky,' as was pointed out repeatedly to me after the March printer round-up. If not for the miracle of plastics (shades of "The Graduate'), low-end printers would not exist at such low prices. Still, it must fairly be said that the Gemini-10 falls in the category of "very plasticky' printers, not very likely to graciously survive being knocked off a desk and onto a concrete floor. I am not faulting the printer on this account; I am merely warning owners and potential owners not to drop the machine onto a concrete floor. (It shouldn't be so difficult to avoid, except on the premises of and under the conditions prevailing at Creative Computing.)
The Gemini printers are capable of all the print modes we have come to expect: super/subscript, underlining, backspacing, double strike and emphasized. Star Micronics claims a mean time between failure rate of 5 million lines, and a printhead life of 100 million characters. They offer a 90-day warranty on ribbon and printhead, along with a six-month warranty on the rest of the machine.
In addition, the machines come with a standard buffer of 2.3K, expandable to 6.3K. A buffer of that size is quite practical. Are you listening, Anadex?
These facts are especially impressive when you conside that the list price of the Gemini-10 is $399, and of the Gemini-15, $649. I have noticed substantial discounts on these prices in several computer magazines, so shop around.
Both machines qualify for another category of mine: Epson look-alikes. They look, sound, feel, and operate like Epsons, and the controls on the machines are nearly identical with those on the MX-80 and MX-100. One gets the feeling that they must be assembled down the block from the Epson plant in Osaka.
But if any printer design should be copied, it is the Epson. And Star Micronics has done a very good job, and managed to price it even lower. If you are looking for a low-end printer, have a look. Star Micronics Inc., 1120 Empire Central Pl., Suite 216, Dallas, TX 75247. (214) 631-8560.
Photo: The Microbuffer In-Line, from Practical Peripherals.
Photo: The new Angel buffer.
Photo: The Pipeline buffer.
Photo: Gemini-10 print sample.
Photo: The Genini-10 printer.