Not too long ago, the closest thing to desktop publishing on your home computer was using Print Shop to produce greeting cards. Turning out professional-quality documents on a PC required a desktop publishing system that cost close to $10,000. While some businesses might find this inexpensive when compared to the cost of type-setters, graphic artists, and offset printing, it's clearly beyond the reach of most individuals and small businesses. Lately, however, there have been a number of developments which indicate that the ante required to get into desktop publishing may soon drop to the $3,500 price range, or even lower.
The first two requirements for desktop publishing are a powerful microcomputer and some good software. The two large home computer manufacturers, Atari and Commodore, each have machines that fit the bill at very low prices. The Atari ST and Commodore Amiga systems offer a fast 68000 processor, a megabyte or more of memory, 640 × 400-resolution display capability, and high-capacity disk storage—all for about $1,000. The second requirement, the software, has been slower in coming, but there are promising signs. Soft Logik's Publishing Partner has been released for the ST, and Atari has announced that Ready-Set-Go, one of the first desktop publishing programs available for the Macintosh, is being ported over to the ST. On the Amiga side, three desktop publishing programs—PageSetter, Publisher 1000, and City Desk—are now available. The ST and Amiga programs clearly aren't as strong as industry leaders like PageMaker and Ventura Publisher, but they're quite good for first attempts, and no doubt will get even better.
With the hardware and software in place, the only remaining problem is how to get the output onto paper. No matter how good the hardware and software are, a document is still going to look rather primitive if it's printed with a nine-pin dot-matrix printer. The printer of choice for desktop publishing is a laser printer. Although the output from these machines looks almost as good as offset printing, they usually cost more than the computer system that drives them. Although less than half the price of the Apple LaserWriter, a typical representative of the current lot of these printers still costs about $3,000. The next generation, however, may well cut that price tag in half again.
Atari, for example, has announced an under-$1,500 laser printer for the Mega ST line of computers. Atari's approach to cost cutting has been to take most of the electronic "brains" out of the printer and to have the computer control it directly. This means, however, that the printer will work only when attached to an ST with a few megabytes of memory. Though Atari's price sounded shockingly low when the printer was announced in January, some competition is on the way. Okidata recently introduced the LaserLine 6, a 6-page-per-minute laser printer, and Panasonic has announced the Laser Partner, an 11-page-per-minute machine. Though the retail price for these machines is $2,000; the most probable street price appears to be about $1,500. In fact, deep-cut discounters have already been advertising the Okidata printer for as low as $1,300. While that may not seem inexpensive to you, it's a far cry from the LaserWriter, and in fact, it is not much more than office-quality impact printers cost.
As laser technology becomes more commonplace, prices for laser printers will undoubtedly fall still further. In the meantime, however, impact-printer technology is also moving ahead. Dot-matrix printers with 24-pin print heads have finally begun to come into their own. By using a larger number of very fine wires to print each character, these printers achieve a much higher resolution than the older nine-pin printers. This means that they can produce typewriter-quality output like a daisywheel printer, at higher speeds, and yet still be used to print out charts and other business graphics, like other dot-matrix printers. For this reason, 24-pin printers have begun to make serious inroads into the daisywheel printer market, and appear to be poised to take the home and small business markets by storm as well. At the June COMDEX show, almost every printer manufacturer had at least one 24-pin model to show.
At prices starting in the $650–$750 range, most of these printers are about $200–$300 more than their nine-pin counterparts. But NEC has recently announced a new 24-pin model, the NEC 5500, that lists for only $499. Like many of the new crop of 14-pin printers, the 5500 boasts a graphics density of 360 dots per inch, as compared to the 300-dots-per-inch density of most laser printers. So while laser output may be faster and cleaner, the quality from 24-pin printers should still compare very favorably, at a price little more than the least expensive of any current printer. When software gets around to taking advantage of these powerful new impact printers, desktop publishing may become an application that adds only $300–$400 to the price of a home computer system, with complete systems available for well under $2,000.