Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 2 NO. 3 / WINTER 1987


Up and printing: we'll show you how

by Frank Hayes START Senior Editor

C. Itoh Jet-SetterA laser printer? With an Atari ST? No, it's not a joke. ST users can get affordable, high-quality laser printing-and it's available now. Frank Hayes, START'S Senior Editor, takes a look at some common misconceptions about the ST and laser printers, puncturing some myths and highlighting the realities of life with a laser printer and your ST.

You can't use a laser printer with an Atari ST.

That's the myth. We've all heard it before: Using a laser printer takes buckets of money and computer hardware and software that's specially designed for it. It takes a Macintosh, or at the very least an IBM PC with special circuit boards, cables and programs. Trying to do that with an ST is crazy- isn't it?

For one thing, everyone knows that laser printers are spectacularly expensive. Why would I want a printer that costs five times what I paid for my computer? For another, the special software and hardware just isn't available on the ST. There's simply no way to use a laser printer with an ordinary, unmodified ST-you'd have to be a programming genius and an electronics whiz to get them working together.

So much for the myths. The reality is that laser printers and STs work together just fine. In fact, an ST may be the best computer to use with the newest generation of laser printers -like the ST, they're fast and powerful, with high-resolution graphics-and a surprisingly low price.


Up until about a year ago, laser printers were spectacularly expensive. Take the Apple LaserWriter, for example; it was one of the first laser printers, and it's still one of the most powerful-and one of the most expensive. The LaserWriter is really a high-powered computer masquerading as a printer- it comes equipped with a 16-bit CPU, a huge chunk of internal memory, and a computer language called PostScript. PostScript lets a computer send complex graphics commands to the LaserWriter, which then automatically converts them to pictures on paper. But all that power comes at a high price-the LaserWriter, which was designed to work with a Macintosh computer, actually costs more than a Mac-and far more than a complete ST system.

Then Hewlett-Packard introduced its LaserJet printer The LaserJet had less memory than the L.aserWriter, and a much simpler language for graphics- less powerful, but also less expensive. The LaserJet graphics codes are similar to the graphics codes for dot-matrix printers, and they became a standard for many other laser printers-and most of them are even less expensive than the LaserJet.

In fact, there are now nearly a dozen laser printers with list prices of $2,500 or less. You don't have $2,500? The actual retail prices are frequently under $1,500. These laser printers connect to almost any computer, and they offer the same very high resolution printing as the Apple LaserWriter and the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet. No, these aren't "off-brand" printers from companies you've never heard of. They're made by Epson, Okidata and C. Itoh, some of the biggest names in the printer business. They're the people who made dot-matrix printers affordable for personal computers- and now they're doing the same for laser printers.

Yes, it's true, a $1,500 printer is expensive- it's about the price of a color 1040 ST system with a hard disk. But a laser printer no longer costs more than the rest of your ST system-and for many ST users, laser power is worth the price.

To see just what the new generation of laser printers can do with an ST, we set up the Jet-Setter from C. Itoh. The Jet-Setter is pretty typical of these new printers: It can print up to five pages per minute, with a graphics resolution of 300 dots per inch, on regular paper. It's designed for ordinary computer users, for use with most computers, and it has a list price of only $1,695.

Setting up the Jet-Setter was not much more complicated than setting up a dot-matrix printer It's bigger. of course (as you can see from the photo), and it's heavier, too-about 66 pounds. That means if you've been using a small printer on one corner of your desk, a laser printer's arrival means some rearranging is required.

The Jet-Setter comes with a User's Manual that walks you through the whole process of setting up the printer-starting with figuring out where to put it. As with most printers, there are a few parts to install; the messiest is probably adding toner, and that's no worse than changing the ribbon on a dot-matrix printer (If you buy a laser printer from a dealer, the dealer can probably do that installation work for you-and all you'll have to do is take it home and plug it in.)

Once the toner and drum are installed and the power cord is connected, the Jet-Setter is ready to plug into your ST. That's right, there's no special connection required-an ordinary printer cable will connect your ST to this printer, and it works the same for most of the new laser printers.

Then it's just a matter of putting paper in the Jet-Setter's paper tray- 20-pound copier paper works best (you
can get it at any stationery store)-and turning the printer on. After a few seconds to warm up, it's ready to print.

Yes, the Jet-Setter is ready to print, but your ST's software may not be ready for all the advantages a laser printer has to offer. And there are some things you may expect from a printer that a laser printer can't do.

For many jobs, the Jet-Setter is ready to go. Suppose you're a programmer, and you only need a printer for program listings. The Jet-Setter works just like any other printer-except that it's faster and quieter, and the print looks much better. But many programs need to use more of a printer's capabilities than just printing program listings-and that's where things become more complex.

Take word processing, for example. Like all printers, the Jet-Setter can print out text from a word processing program such as ST Writer or 1st Word. But unlike many dot-matrix printers, the Jet-Setter only comes with three type fonts: regular, bold, and compressed. There're no italics, no superscripts or subscripts, no double-wide printing. (You can get additional fonts in cartridges that just plug into the Jet-Setter, but they're not part of the basic printer.)

Suppose you'd like to use the Jet-Setter with ST Writer. That makes sense-after all, one of the big advantages to a laser printer is the high quality of the print. It's just about the best print you can get, short of professional typesetting, which makes it perfect for business letters, memos, reports and presentations.

But to use a printer's special capabilities, ST Writer requires a special file called a printer driver. It's different for each kind of printer, and unless someone has already created an ST Writer printer driver for your printer, you have to look in the back of your printer manual and put the control codes in yourself.

The Jet-Setter is no exception. Creating a printer driver doesn't take long- it's just a matter of typing the codes into a printer driver file and running a short program. But most dot-matrix printers let you print in bold, italics, and bold italics, and that's what ST Writer expects. Since the Jet-Setter doesn't have italics or bold italics, you may have to use ST Writer differently with this printer.

(If you have a technical bent-or know someone who does-you may want to try creating your own fonts and downloading them to the Jet-Setter It's not difficult for an experienced hacker, but it's more complicated than most people would want to try.)

Or say you'd like to use your laser printer with a graphics program, or even just for screen dumps from the Desktop. A laser printer should be perfect for that-with sharp, high-resolution printing, it's sure to create the sharpest graphics you can get from an ST, right?

Some of the new laser printers emulate Epson graphics. If that's the case, you're in luck- the ST is designed to work with Epson printers, so you can do a normal screen dump from the Desktop, and any Epson printer driver for a program such as DEGAS will work fine. But the Jet-Setter requires an extra cartridge to work like an Epson- normally. it emulates a Hewlett-Packard LasetJet printer.

Unfortunately. most ST programs don't have a LaserJet printer driver, which makes using the Jet-Setter with a program like DEGAS very difficult. Fortunately, ST software publishers are very responsive to what their customers want, and as more ST owners get laser printers, more printer drivers will become available.

There's another problem, though. The Jet-Setter comes with only 512K of RAM. That's a lot of memory. but it's not enough to keep track of a full page of graphics at 300 dots per inch. As a result, screen dumps have to be printed small, and full-page graphics simply aren't possible without additional memory-and, like font cartridges and Epson emulation, that's available for the Jet-Setter, but it costs extra.

Clearly, life with a laser printer isn't all peaches and cream. Is it worth the problems?

That depends on you, of course, and which of a printer's features you value most. Laser printers excel in three areas: print quality speed, and noise level. The print quality is the best you'll find from any computer printer, of course- and for desktop publishing or presentation graphics, a laser printer is often essential.

A laser printer's speed is pretty astonishing, too-churning out a page every twelve seconds, the Jet-Setter can run at 400 characters per second or more, and it's not even one of the faster laser printers available! That can make a big difference for a programmer who's working on a big project, and needs a printer that's fast and reliable for long printouts-even hundreds of pages long.

Finally, there's noise-with most laser printers, there just isn't any. Instead of the screech of a dot-matrix printer or the clacketty-clack of a daisy wheel, all you hear most of the time is the quiet whir of a fan.

ls it worth the price? If you really value print quality, speed, and quiet- or even if you just use your printer a lot-a laser printer may well be worth the time, trouble, and cost.

Jet-Setter. C. Itoh Digital Products, Inc., 1011 Francisco Street, Torrance, CA 90502. (213) 327-593. S1695.