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What to look for when shopping for a printer

By Gregg Pearlman and Frank Hayes

If you own a computer, you won't get far without a printer. But what kind of printer should you buy for your ST? That depends largely on what you want to use the printer for.


Dot-matrix printers print lots of little dots, much the way your computer screen does. The dots can form either letters and numbers, like a typewriter, or pictures. A dot-matrix printer is typically loud and comparatively fast. A dot-matrix printer with near-letter quality print will make better looking letters than one with ordinary (or draft quality) print. A dot-matrix printer may also be able to rearrange those dots into several type faces and sizes, including bold, pica, elite, condensed, expanded, underlined and italics. Lots of word processing software has these capabilities nowadays, but it won't show up in your final versions unless your printer has these capabilities. Dot-matrix printers have some of the lowest prices around--but of course, a bargain-priced printer may be lacking some features you need.

Daisy wheel printers work like a typewriter. Each letter the printer can create is already in the printer as a fully formed character, on a circular "daisy wheel." To print a character, the printer just slaps that part of the daisy wheel against the ribbon. You can't usually create graphics with a daisy wheel printer, just the preformed characters on the wheel. However, the print is very high quality--it's indistinguishable from something typed on a typewriter. You can usually get different typefaces and sizes for a daisy wheel printer, but changing faces requires physically changing the daisy wheel.

Okimate 20

Laser printers offer the best of both worlds. Like a dot-matrix printer, a laser printer creates its images out of dots--but it uses so many dots (typically 90,000 per square inch!) that the characters are as sharp as those from a daisy wheel printer. Laser printers are fast, and usually offer graphics and multiple typefaces and sizes. However, laser printers are also much more expensive than most other printers, with prices, running from about $1,500 to $5,000 or more.

What kind of printer should you get? That depends on what you'll use it for, and how much money you want to spend. If you'll just be printing out listings of your BASIC programs, a fast dot-matrix printer may be the best choice. If you'll be sending out business letters, a daisy wheel printer is probably worth the investment. And for desktop publishing, it's hard to beat a laser printer.


Some printers can only handle one sheet of paper at a time. That's great if you're only printing out a few pages at a time, and it means you can use pre-printed forms or letterhead. On the other hand, it makes printing long documents a pain. Other printers can only handle continuous-form paper--which is great for long program listings, but may not look good for your business letters.

Fortunately, most printers come with both friction feed (for single sheets) and tractor feed (for continuous paper). But make sure that your printer will do what you want it to.

What about speed? Some printers are much faster than others--in general, daisy wheel printers are the slowest, and dot-matrix printers can be fastest, but it depends very much on the printer. Almost every printer will be rated for speed (for example, 60 characters per second), but be sure you see a demonstration of how fast the printer really is.

There are other things to think about, too. Do you need a printer that prints in color? How many different type styles or sizes are available? How about graphics?

Before you go out shopping for a printer, make a list of the features you need. It'll save all sorts of time--and help guarantee that you'll get all the features you need in your new printer. In fact, make two lists: the features you need, and the features you'd like (but don't really need).


Once you know the features you want, where can you buy an Atari ST-compatible printer? At any store that sells "IBM-compatible" printers, that's where--because any printer that plugs into the IBM PC will also work with the ST.

That makes it much easier to shop for an ST printer. Since almost every printer company makes printers for the IBM PC--and because those printers are very widely available--you have lots of printer choices. Just go into your local computer store and ask to see the printers for IBM computers.

An IBM printer has a couple specific characteristics: First, it has a parallel printer port (sometimes called a "Centronics port"). Don't be afraid to look at printers that aren't advertised as IBM-compatible--but make sure the printer has a parallel port.

An ST- (or IBM-) compatible printer that can print graphics is also likely to be Epson-compatible. That means that the printer's graphics commands match those on an Epson printer. The ST is designed to use Epson-compatible graphics, so if your printer will be printing out pictures, be sure it's Epson-compatible. Fortunately, many printers (and most software) are designed to use the Epson graphics commands--including, naturally enough, the printers made by Epson.


Once you've found a printer with the features you need and the price you can afford, you're still not done. Don't forget--your ST and printer will still need a printer cable to communicate. Fortunately, that's the same kind an IBM uses, too.

Don't forget that you'll need ribbons and paper. Buy your continuous-form printer paper in big boxes, not small ones--one box of 2,500 sheets is much less expensive than five 500-sheet boxes, and it's more convenient, too.

And don't forget accessories, either. A printer buffer, for example, can save you lots of time if you print many documents, because your ST can send information to your printer much faster than the printer can print it out. That means your ST must sit waiting until the printer catches up--and when your ST waits, you have to wait, too. A printer buffer is an electronic box that sits between the ST and the printer, collecting what the ST sends and feeding it to the printer. The buffer does the waiting so you don't have to.

There's one other thing that can make your life with a printer easier--that's a printer stand. It's a platform that lets you store your continuous-form paper right under the printer on your desk. That makes it less likely to jam, and you can always see how much paper you have left.

With a printer, cable, ribbons and paper (and maybe a buffer and printer stand, too), you can head for home. The printer will simply plug into your ST--and you'll be ready to print!