by Jon Loveless
In this article we examine seven different printers from seven different manufacturers.
TERMINOLOGYFollowing is some printer jargon you will find helpful.
CPS-CHARACTERS PER SECONDThis rating was once considered the true test of a printer. These ratings are often misleading. If a printer has three different sets of characters, it will have three different CPS ratings. Most ratings are based on conditions ideal for speed. We have developed a benchmark to compare each printer under similar conditions. This test prints 50 lines of 80 characters per line.
CPI-CHARACTERS PER INCHAll printers seem to use a 10 CPI standard type size. Most also use a condensed (16 or 17 CPI) and an enhanced (bold 5 CPI). A few of the tested printers use a correspondence quality proportional print font. Proportionally spaced characters use only as much space as they need. A capital "W" takes more space than a small "i" for example.
DOT MATRIXThis refers to how each of the tested printers forms the characters on paper. Each character is made up of a number of dots. These dots are created by pins that are forced out of the printer head to impact the ribbon and paper, causing an impression. Print heads use from seven to nine pins stacked up one on top of another. Each character is formed by a number of movements of the print head (again, usually from 7 to 9). Each movement of the head forms another column of dots comprising the character. This happens so fast that it appears as though the letter is printed all at once. A 9 x 9 dot matrix, then, would be able to print letters or characters using any combination of 81 dots. Graphics capabilities, requiring appropriate software, allow individual dots to be positioned anywhere on the paper.
BUFFERA buffer is memory within the printer that stores data from the computer until it can be printed. Buffers vary in size, with options for 1000 and 2000 characters becoming widely available. Peripheral products are appearing that will allow attachment of buffers in 8000 (8K) character increments.
FONTThis is the style or "face" of the type your printer produces. Many printers now have fonts that change with the CPI. Be sure to see a sample of the available fonts before you buy. Some inexpensive dot matrix fonts are hard to read.
FRICTION and TRACTOR FEEDThese terms describe the method by which the paper is fed through the printer. Tractor, also known as pinfeed, requires paper with holes in the margins and generally comes in "fan-fold" boxes. This is convenient and allows continuous printing. Friction feed is like a regular typewriter feed, and allows single sheet operation or roll paper. The latter is not very practical but the paper is inexpensive.
LOGIC SEEKING (short line)Actually, "short-line seeking" is a better description than "logic seeking." If a given line is less than marginto-margin, the printer will make a carriage return when the last character is printed, rather than wait until the head has moved across the page. This speeds up printing when lines are short as when doing program listings .
PARALLEL and SERIALOf the two, Parallel data transmission is faster. The 850 interface uses a parallel port to connect with your printer. Since most printers use a standard parallel connection compatibility problems are reduced.
NEC 8023A-CThe NEC printer works well with the ATARI, It is a sturdy, well-built printer and with several good features. First, it has a highquality proportional character set that is fully supported by the latest version of TEXT WIZARD(C) by DataSoft and their new companion to MICRO-PAINTER, COLOR PRINT(C). This makes it a very versatile printer which will produce quality letters as well as great graphics.
I especially like the ease of paper handling. The NEC supports both tractor and friction feed, with a minimum of difficulry. There is a lever that engages/disengages the pressure rollers, allowing a quick change from one type of paper to another. Tractor-feed paper loads easily on the NEC due to the tractor mechanism that engages the paper before it gets to the roller (platen). This means, that the tractors do not interfere with the print head at all, and allow for the paper to be torn off just above the print head. Most other printers require you to waste a full sheet of paper each time you wish to remove your printed work. I have two complaints about the NEC. First, the sound seemed to be louder and higher than others. Second, the ribbon carrridge cover has snap latches that felt as though they would break each time I removed the cover
I rate the NEC very high as an all around printer. It includes most of the desired features as standard equipment, is sturdy, and is priced right.
EPSON MX80 F/TThe top model in the EPSON line, this is a high quality printer that handles both friction and tractor feed. The standard model comes with 12 character type and size combinations and 3 boldness options, all software selectable. It produces quality type for word processing, and works with all major word processors, and lacks only a porportional print.
The tractor feed is a good one, and is removable, but sits above the print head. This wastes paper each time you tear off the current sheet. A set of user-installed ROM chips add significantly to the MX80, but cost extra in most cases. This is the second generation of add-on chips for the EPSON, so be sure you are getting the GRAFTRAX-Plus chips. These will add features such as italic print in all 12 character types, underlining, and of course great graphics. EPSON produces a solid printer that will meet most needs. If it only had a proportional character set I would place it close to the top.
OKIDATA-Microline 84This top-of-the-line printer put us at a disadvantage very quickly. Our intention was to review printers costing $1,000 or less. This model retails for $1495. We were tempted to eliminate it, but reconsidered after working with it for a while. First, it is a wide printer, but not large considering its 16" paper-width handling capability. It's main benefit is speed. Rated at 200cps by the manufacturer, it really seems to go that fast. During a program listing session, it actually kept up with the computer! Also, it produced excellent quality characters, and has full graphics built in. The tractor mechanism is standard and worked well throughout our testing. It is easily removable, but like the EPSON wastes a sheet of paper in order to tear off the current sheet.
This printer is the fastest of those tested, and that's important when you do a lot of printing. Otherwise, you might want to consider one of the other OKIDATA printers such as the Microline 82A. This is a standard size printer with most of the other features of its big brother, except the speed and graphics.
C. ITOH 8510AThis printer looked like a carbon copy of the NEC 8023A-C reviewed earlier. In fact, the paper handling, print mechanism, cover and switches are virtually identical. Print type even seemed similar until the propor tional type was examined closely. A few of the proportional letters are not complete looking, the serifs are missing. The serif is the little tail found at the ends of letters. In all other respects this printer performed like the NEC.
AXIOM-IMP MiniPrinterThis printer has no features that make it stand out, but it is a solid, average machine. The character formation is good, and the print quality clean It has a wide variety of font / size types, but no proportional font. The built- in graphics are standard, and appeared to be accept- able, but not great. The printer came with a disk of soft- ware (the only printer that did). The disk included several sample pictures that could be printed and I assume this will continue to be a standard part of the package.
I have three complaints about this printer First, the paper is difficult to load. You have to turn the printer upside down and feed the paper through a slot in the bottom. Second, you have to turn the printer "on" to feed paper because there is no knob for manual paper i advance. You have to use the line-feed function to set the top-of-form, and that can be difficult. The third annoyance is that the fan runs whenever the printer switch is on.
Micro Peripherals-MPI 99GWhen I first saw this printer at last year's Computer Faire in San Francisco s I was impressed by its ability to produce high quality graphics. But the mechanism, I found, was nearly identical to the AXTOM Imp. The paper was difficult to load the first time through, and I began to think that my first impression was wrong. Well, the bottom line is that some of the problems with O the Imp still exist, but others have been overcome. i Noise is less of a problem because there is no fan, and it t comes with a cover that shields out much of the racket. b There is a document quality font created by an 11 x 7 ,9 matrix giving very good quality, though not proporb tional. The nicest feature of the MPI is the single sheet tray that fits on the under-side of the body. Once in place, you can feed a single sheet in perfectly from the t front of the printer. Finally, MPI gets an A + for providw ing a cable WITH the printer. This is a nicely packaged t printer with a few minor deficiencies.
ATARI 825This printer is the Centronics 727 with an ATARI label. The ATARI 825 proportional print is excellent and produces a fine looking right hand justified document if used with any of the 3 major word processors. It has pin-feed as well as friction feed, and forward and reverse paper feed. This is a solid quality printer, but not without its problems. The inked ribbon is the dirtiest and by far the most difficult to change. I have spewed ribbon throughout my computer room on several occasions. The ribbon is loose and not in a cartridge, which makes handling difficult. Next, it doesn't have adjustable pin feeds. This means you have to find really wide label sheets or use the friction feed option for label printing. If you have ever tried that, you will not consider label printing to be one of the ATARI 825 strengths. Finally, paper feed is poor which causes many jams when doing larger print jobs.
INTEGRAL DATA SYSTEMS-Prism 132Another new entrant to the printer market is the IDS Prism. Makers of the Paper Tiger series have now produced the Prism in 2 models that have 80 or 132 column paper capability. Due to our inability to get a cable in time to do a working test, we can only list some of the specifications. First, it is the largest printer we looked at (9 x 22 x 12 ") and the heaviest (29 Ibs). It also has some impressive options available at an extra cost. True color printing, for example, using a multi-colored ribbon; a high speed feature alowing over 200 CPS; a semiautomatic single sheet paper feed tray, and one or 2 others. The printer came with a test sheet that indicated very impressive graphics capabilities also, so-this one is deserving of more in-depth test. Watch the next issue of Antic for an update.
COMPATIBILITYPeripheral devices not made by or specifically for ATARI raise the question of incompatability.
CABLESThere is no standard printer cable, but the Centronics parallel connection is a wiring protocol that comes close. This has little to do with the plug type, however. The most common cable connection for printers is a 36-wire plug at the printer. This is connected to a cable, and at the other end is a 15-pin connector to plug into the ATARI 850. Of the printers tested here, only 3 did not use this type of connection, and 2 of those come with a cable. The MPI has an internal cable connection and comes fully equipped, ready to go. The same is true of the Atari 825 printer. The AXIOM Imp we tested also came with a cable, available at extra cost. The IDS Prism uses a different connector than all three, and unfortunately we were not able to locate one in time to do a true test on the machine. All of the other printers worked fine using the cable I made up for the NEC printer. These printers are noted by a "C" in the cable column in our chart, but if that column does not also show an "I" for "included", then you are on your own for a cable.
CONTROL CHARACTERSYou have heard the term "under software control" before. The major of parameters, such as type size, line spacing, and character emphasis, are controlled by sending the printer code from the computer. There is no discernible standard as to what these codes should be, and as a result, each printer is unique. Be very aware of the following: Word Processors are designed for specific printers. In some cases they may allow modification (LJK's top of the line) and in some cases they can handle more than one printer (TEXT WIZARD). Some printers allow you to modify the control codes to suit a particular application (EPSON-with GRAFTRAX), but most printers and word processors do not. Check the printer specifications and the word processor specifications before you make a purchase. The word processors are being updated to allow a wider selection, so check version numbers carefully. The ATARI Word Processor will work with most printers if you understand the control codes. A unique feature allows you to insert special control characters and it will right justify the margins if you use 10 CPI. I understand that the newest versions of both TEXT WIZARD and LETTER PERFECT also allow special control codes to be used, but ASK to be sure. I)on't be afraid to call the manufacturers of both products. If they can't answer the question of compatibility you shouldn't purchase the product.
OK, SO WHICH PRINTER IS FOR ME??That is a question that can be answered only by a careful review of your current and future needs. If you are a programmer and need little more than good quality but high speed printouts, then you have a very wide selection. All of the printers seemed to fit that bill, with the OKIDATA providing the fastest by a good margin. If you are likely to do a lot of word processing, then you will have to look more carefully at several features. First, compatibility with the word processors. The ATARI word processor, for example, has the ability to send printer control codes from within the body of your text. This simply means that you can address most features of a given printer without expecting too many problems. TEXT WIZARD has added the NEC 8023A-C to its compatibility list which allows an alternative to ATARI 825 for proportional print. I now use this combination more than any other because I really like the NEC printer, and TEXT WIZARD allows right margin justification. LJK claims that their new version of LETTER PERFECT can accommodate any printer. We have not tested this product yet, so cannot verify the claim.
Graphics are more commonly standard equipment and the only thing lacking is good software. Macrotronics produces a cable and software combination that allows graphics on a few other machines, but seems overpriced. The graphics capabilities are there, but the software is not yet abundant, so keep your eyes open for new entries.
Printer choice is a tough one because most of the printers are substantially better than was available as little as a year ago. Your best bet is to review your needs, list your favorite programs that require a printer, consult the comparison chart accompanying this article, and narrow down your choices. Then if you can get some hands-on exposure to a couple of the remaining contenders, you may find that the decision is made for you.
PRINTERS COMPARISON CHART
|FEATURES||NEC 8023A-C||EPSON MX80||ATARI 825||MPI-99G||AXIOM GP100||C.ITOH 8510||OKIDATA 84a||IDS Prism|
|Reverse feed||Y||X NOTE 1||Y1||N||N||Y||N||NOTE 2|
|Skip over perf||N||X NOTE 1||N||Y||Y||N||Y||Y|
|Lines per inch||V||V||V||V||V||V||V||V|
|Max paper width||9 1/2"||9 1/2"||9 1/2"||9 1/2"||9 1/2"||9 1/2"||16"||15"|
|Min paper width||4"||2 1/2"||9 1/2"||1/2"||1/2"||4"||2"||2"|
|Chars per second||100||100||80||100||100||100||200||200|
|Benchmark speed||81||92||73||79||77||83||161||NOTE 2|
|Chars per inch--|
|12 (medium)||Y||N||N||N||N||Y||Y||NOTE 2|
|Proportional||Y||N||Y||N||N||Y||Y NOTE 3||Y|
|Top of form||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Short line logic||Y||Y||N||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Underline||Y||X NOTE 1||Y||Y||N||Y||Y||Y|
Y = Yes, included as part of the package
N = No, not included as part of the package
X = Extra cost option
U = Unavailable from manufacturer
F = Future availability expected
V = wide or unlimited selection
C = Cartridge
0 = 0pen
S = Spool
1 = excellent
2 = good
3 = fair
4 = poor
NOTE 1: MX80 F/T with GRAFTRAX-Plus|
NOTE 2: Not Tested
NOTE 3: Requires 2 passess of the print head