Print about printers. (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
Print About Printers
Among other things this month, we shall review three different printers, including a new low-cost color machine. Two of the machines are follow-up entries on existing models, while the third is a newcomer. We shall go on to examine the technology of color ribbons, and take a look at yet another smart buffer device. So let's get going.
In the May 1983 Creative, we offered a preview of the Canon A-1210. At first glance, it looked like just another compact dot matrix printer. Such was not the case. It printed in seven colors with under 50dB quietude characteristic only of ink-jet technology. We were somewhat excited.
Now the Canon A-1210 has managed to reincarnate itself as the Radio Shack CGP-220. Those savvy buyers in Fort Worth have done it again. At $700, the printer represents a dramatic breakthrough in ink-jet as well as color printing technology.
The graphics specifications of the machine are 40 cps speed in the text mode and 2600 dots per second in color scan mode. Resolution is 560 monochrome dot columns per line in the standard bit image mode and 640 dots per line in the multi-color made. The unit uses what the manufacturer calls a "drop-on-demand' process color ink cartride. It is available in parallel or serial versions.
An in-depth review of the printer will appear in an upcoming column.
SCM TP Take II
In our March 1983 issue, we reviewed the Smith Corona TP-I daisy wheel printer--not very favorably, I might add.
SCM recently introduced the new TP-II, which set out to redress some of the problems of the original model, and suceeds on many points. The TP-I could work optimally only on friction-fed single sheets. An optional tractor-feed mechanism on the TP-II allows use of continuous-form paper without incurring skew jams. The new unit also offers an RS-232 serial as well as Centronics parallel interface.
The quality of the hardcopy output by the TP-II is impeccable (see Figure 1). Interchangeable daisy printwheels offer a full range of typefaces. The internal fan, which was very noisy on the original unit, has been quieted down quite a bit. The printer has software programmable underscore modes, margins, and tab settings. The DIP switches on the unit are easier to reach. The documentation is now much more complete, offering technical information on cabling, handshaking protocols, and DIP selection.
The multistrike cartridge ribbon supplied with the machine is a snap to change and provides superlative print quality. Fabric (better wear, worse print impression) and mylar film (dispose after one pass, excellent print impression) ribbons are also available for the unit.
Then there is the downside. The TP-II veritably crawals along at a generous estimate of 12 cps. The printhead is still unidirectional, meaning it returns to the left margin on every linefeed, without lgoic-seeking. The result of all this is that a page of printed text takes about as much time to create on the TP-II as it would take a good typist to bang it out. That is rather slow by micro standards.
But then again, all daisywheel printers are slow. What is really torturous about the TP-II is that it is nearly as noisy as its predecessor. Though the new model cabinet has been sound-insulated with strips of foam, the clatter of the machine is still unnerving. Waiting over three minutes a page at 70dB in typical conditions might pose a problem to the sound-sensitive. As was true with the TP-I, the plexiglas cover must be open when the machine is in use. Its closed function is as a dustcover or to keep your lunch from falling into the mechanism when not in use.
The unit we tested shook its printer stand rather violently. The documentation states that the cabinet feet have a tacky surface to "prevent the machine from walking.' It's a good thing--this baby really wants to walk. If you mounted it on casters, you might be able to get it to take the dog out for you.
The print Buffer size of the TP-II remains exactly the same as the TP-I: 256 characters. This is about the smallest buffer to be found on any printer over $500. Plan on an external buffer for this machine (like the one described up ahead).
Self-testing the TP-II? Fine--go ahead. But make sure you have 13 paper--not 8 1/2 paper--loaded in. Otherwise you will end up typing on the righthand side of the platen, as we did. Definitely a no-no.
The SCM TP-II lists for $895. You can find a much better price if you shop around.
Epson FX-80 Tops Itself
We've been wanting to review the Epson FX-80 for months and months, but snags with Epson delayed a unit. Finally one surfaced with a QX-10 micro at the lab, and it met nearly all our expectations, except the ones it surpassed.
The Epson MX-80, one of the most ubiquitous micro printers around, was a tough act to follow. Epson has managed to do it by packing the FX-80 chock full of special features. It features six different print pitches, Roman and italic fonts, two types of boldface, proportional spacing, programmable horizontal and vertical tabs, skip-over-perforation, user-definable character sets, hi-res monochrome graphics capability, friction as well as pinfeed paper handling, and a typewriter simulation mode.
The FX-80 is upwardly compatible with all Graftrax Plus features. Its DIP switches are conveniently located, and it sports a 2K buffer. Sub- and superscripts are no problem nor are reverse linefeeds. Paper can be backed up as well as advanced using the platen knob, without risking a paper jam. It is relatively quiet for its kind, though it seems no quieter than its predecessor (give it a break--it is appreciably faster than its predecessor).
How fast is it? Glad you asked. The FX-80 is rated at 160 cps in its fastest font (see Figure 2). That, combined with bidirectional, logic-seeking linefeeds, adds up to speed. That same page that took the TP-II three minutes takes the FX-80 under 30 seconds. And at the same noise level as many 40 cps machines.
Want to talk about documentation? Okay. The redrawn documentation accompanying the Epson FX-80 is quite simply the finest printer documentation I have ever seen. It weights in at 323 pages, not including the laminated cardstock quick-reference card. The text is clear, complete, thoroughly indexed, and amusing without being "cutesy' (see Figure 3). It is full of actual FX-80 programming examples, and everything you need to know is easily accessible within its covers. How refreshing!
The FX-80 has a bigger "footprint' (one of Dave's favorite terms) than the MX-80, and requires more desk space than most other printers in its class. On the plus side, five inches is more than enough height clearance for the machine --an important consideration if you are stacking components on shelves.
Virtually the only complaints I have about the FX-80 concern paper feed. Loading paper in the unit is an exercise in extrasensory perception. You insert paper on the rear side of the platent, turn the knob, and hope for the best. It will appear on the near side either perfectly registered and ready to go, or badly mangled and ready to cause expletives. Backing up from this state is messy. Tear off the shreds and try again with a fresh edge. Loading paper on an FX-80 is a good measure of your grace level for the day.
The other paper peculiarity is the fact that the pin feed rollers can be moved only about an inch in either direction. To run narrow address labels, you will require the tractor feed option--about $40. And don't try backing up on labels--you'll be asking for trouble.
The Epson FX-80 lists for $700, but is also heavily discounted.
FX Meets PC
Set-FX, from Softstyle, will be of special interest on IBM PC owners who acquire Epson FX-80s. Set-FX enables the FX-80 to print the full IBM character set as it appears on the screen, including line graphics, foreign languages, and math and science symbols. It also allows menu-based selection of special print modes.
In addition, the program includes a custom font generator and FX-80 Ideas, a demo showing some of the special capabilities of the FX-80 and Set-FX.
The Set-FX disk lists for $60.
With the possible exception of the new Radio Shack CGP-220, the Transtar T-315 has got to be the most exciting low-priced dot matrix color printer around. It uses a color ribbon to achieve its seven colors. The ink ribbon cassette has individual cartridges that can be replaced as a specific color is used up. Colors can be specified in any of three ways:
This flexibility gives the T-315 very impressive capabilities. If you own an Apple computer, the T-315 is even more attractive bundled with the PICS interface card. The card allows for lo- and hires screen images to be printed at the press of a button (see Figures 4, 5, and 6).
On the top panel of the T-315 is a button labeled "copy.' After initializing the Transtar on your Apple system, you can boot any graphics program, protected or not, then print screens out in full color by pressing the button and hitting the Apple spacebar. By toggling other keys on the Apple, you can expand across horizontal or vertical axes, or both. You can center the output or keep it on the left margin. You can invert from white to black and back again. You can choose a dual-pass mode.
The Transtar 315 uses a novel approach to indicate "on-line' status. On-line is the default mode upon power up. To go off line, press the "stop' button. Now an indicator light comes on, and pushbutton line and form feeding is possible, as is manual paper advance (paper cannot be moved backward once advanced). Press the "stop' key once again to return to on-line status.
For an impact dot-matrix printer, the T-315 is quiet. For a color impact printer, it is very quite. When the cover on this machine is closed during operation, you can conduct a conversation in ordinary tones of voice.
As is a problem with most other low-priced color printers, the T-315 is perhaps not as good a black-and-white-printer as are similarly princed black-and-white-only models. The text print quality seems a bit anemic next to the output of an Epson or Mannesmann Tally machine (see Figure 7). Still, it is serviceable --and see how text can look in seven colors (Figure 8).
Another thing to bear in mind if you are using a color printer for heavy black-and-white output is that the ribbon will exhaust itself more quickly, as black represents only a quarter of the ribbon. The replaceable ink cartridges attempt a solution to this problem. It is likely that black is the color to be replaced most often. (A further discussion of color ribbons occurs just ahead.)
The Transtar 315 lists for $600, and the PICS Interface for $120, thus making the system the least expensive around for obtaining color Apple hard-copy. If you are looking for this capability, the package should be at the top of your shopping list.
Slicing Into Ribbons
How significant will the coming of low-end color printers be? Some in the industry have drawn a parallel to the introduction of color TV and predict that someday soon color printers will be the standard of micro systems everywhere.
This may or may not be true. Certainly the quality of these machines will have a lot to do with their acceptance in the marketplace. I have yet to see a printer with all the black and white capabilities of, say, the Mannesmann MT-160, and color, too. That day will have to come before many folks make the jump to a color printer.
Certainly the technology of printer ribbons has had much to do with the advent of color printers. The Canon/Radio Shack ink-jet machine represents a new direction in ribbonless printing, and, frankly, brings with it a new set of problems. Will color ink-jet technology sound the knell for color ribbons? Probably not--at least for the foreseeable future.
The Transtar 315 ribbon represents advances in existing ribbon technology, but is nonetheleas heir, to all the problems ribbons can pose. Its advantage is that these problems are not new, and some people have been giving them a lot. of thought.
Multi-color ribbons have come a long way. The first color printers used a "primary' ribbon, or red, yellow, blue, and black, and were limited to these colors. A "process' ribbon, such as that employed in the Transtar, uses four colors: magenta, yellow, cyan, and black. Using a strikeover technique, these can be mixed and patterned to form other colors. Easy examples: magenta and yellow make red; yellow and cyan make green; and magenta and cyan make purple. With a process ribbon, a printer can approximate all the colors a color monitor can output.
The problem is creating a color ribbon that lasts. A major obstacle to producing multicolor ribbons is maintaining the integrity of each color band. It is essential that the colors not blend or run together not only during manufacturing, but for the life of the ribbon. Color ribbons sometimes seem underinked even as they come out of the box because the manufacturer is attempting to minimize the possibility of allowing inks to come together.
Until now the technique of repelling inks has been used, with varying degrees of success. Now Dataproducts, of Chatsworth, CA, has taken a new approach. They have developed flexible plastic barriers to keep the inks separate from one another. With the flexible barrier system, color ribbons can be maximally saturated with no change of bleeding.
According to Dataproducts, the flexible barrier system can withstand repeated contact with a printhead without breaking down. Nor will it cause ribbon slippage in the drive mechanism. They will market ribbons for all models of color printers. We look forward to testing these ribbons soon. We will let you know what we think.
The latest entry to the smart buffer zone is ShuffleBuffer from Interactive Structures. It is compatible with all micros having a standard serial or parallel output port.
The unit has the capability to "shuffle' text, graphics, spreadsheet information, and any other computer-generated material into any desired combination for printing, plotting, or telephone transmission. The result is software integration for even the most humble systems.
The buffer has a standard "dumb buffer' mode, wherein documents that don't need rearranging or reprinting go out FIFO (first in, first out). This frees the CPU for further use during long printouts. An additional mode is "By-pass,' allowing the interruption of a long printout to produce a separate document on an immediate basis, then return to printing the original document.
Pricing and memory capacity of the ShuffleBuffer had not been announced at press time.
Next month we will look at the proud track record of Oki printers and review the Toshiba D1350, one of the best dot matrix printers on the market today. Until then, keep your ribbons inked!
Firms Mentioned In This Column:
Radio Shack 300 One Tandy Center Ft. Worth, TX 76102 (817) 390-2842
Smith Corona 65 Locust Ave. New Canaan, CT 06840 (203) 972-1471
Epson America 3415 Kashiwa St. Torrance, CA 90505 (213) 534-0360
Softstyle Suite 200 7192 Kalanianaole Hwy. Honolulu, HI 96825 (808) 396-6368
Transtar 2100 116th Ave. N.E. Bellevue, WA 98009 (206) 454-9250
Dataproducts 9657 Mason Avenue Chatsworth, CA 91311 (213) 882-0530
Interactive Structures 146 Montgomery Ave. Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004 (215) 667-1713
Photo: SCM TP-II
Photo: Figure 1. Type sample from Smith Corona TP-II.
Photo: Figure 2. Type sample from Epson FX-80.
Photo: Epson FX-80
Photo: Figure 3.
Photo: Transtar T-315.
Photo: Figure 4.
Photo: Figure 5.
Photo: Figure 6.
Photo: Figure 7. Type sample from Transtar T-315.
Photo: Figure 8. Color type from Transtar T-315.
Photo: One of the machines developed by Dataproducts Supplies Division to make new color ribbon.
Products: Radio Shack CGP-220 (computer apparatus)
Smith Corona TP-II (computer apparatus)
Epson FX-80 (Computer printer)
Transtar T-315 (computer apparatus)