The Olympia Electronic Compact Printer. (evaluation) Will Fastie.
Every day, great strides are made in dot-matrix printer technology.
The capabilities of such machines are constantly on the rise, while the quality of their printing gets ever better. Nonetheless, the print quality of fully formed impact printers is still superior to the majority of dot-matrix machines. The boom in small computer sales has created a new market for low-cost, letter-quality printers. The Olympia Electronic Compact is one such product.
What makes the Electronic Compact most interest ing is its keyboard. To the naked eye, the device looks an electronic typewriter. That is an accurate assessment, because the only difference between it and a typewriter is the provision it makes for either a serial or parallel computer interface.
This "combination" printer must be examined in both its roles to undertand fully its capabilities and limitations. However, the basic characteristics of the unit are the same in either case and will be examined first. General Characteristics
Specifications for the Electronic Compact are given in the Hardware profile.
A quick glance at the machine shows it to have all of the standard typewriter features. The keyboard layout is reasonable, with the keys for tab and margin settings on the right, out of the way of the QWERTY key area. The left side of the keyboard includes a margin release key and switches to set pitch (10, 12, and 15), line spacing (1, 1-1/2, and 2), and print density (i.e., how hard the paper gets hit, three settings). Also included is a correction key.
Directly above the keyboard is the margin scale. Each of the three pitches has its own independent scale. Plastic slides can be moved to indicate the actual margin settings, although their position does not actually affect the setting. The margin scale is transparent; behind it is a position indicator that lights when the power is turned on. The indicator on the tested machine seemed to be offset a little from the actual position of the typing element, but in practice it can be adjusted by loosening a screw and sliding the lamp to the right or left.
The cover, which includes the margin scales, snaps off to reveal the carriage mechanism. This gives access to the ribbon, the correcting ribbon, and the printwheel, all of which are relatively easy to install and remove. Installation of the cartridge ribbon is especially easy, as the ribbon guide rises and moves slightly forward, thus releasing the tension and allowing the ribbon to slip easily away from the carriage.
On the top of the machine is a cover which, when lifted, becomes a paper support and guide. I assume that the primary reason for allowing the guide to fold down is to allow the entire machine to be protected with the supplied vinyl cover, although some measure of dust protection is provided by the guide.
The power cord plugs into the left side of the printer. The power switch is located just forward of the plug. Although the placement of the switch is convenient, the power cord tends to get in the way. A better location would have been on the rear. Just above the power switch, also on the left side, is the platen knob; there is no knob on the right.
On the top right of the machine are two levers. One moves the paper bail and other retracts the friction rollers and displaces the paper bail by about 3mm.
The machine comes with one printwheel which can be used at either 10 or 12 pitch. It looks best at 12, and can even be pushed to 15 pitch without too much character overlap. The printwheels are Olympia (as opposed to Qume or Diablo) and were not listed in any of the catalogs I checked. They can be ordered direct from the manufacturer. The Typewriter
It is hard to decide whether or not the Electronic Compact is a satisfactory typewriter. The test machine was used extensively for this purpose by a variety of typists. While all preferred it to a manual typewriter, none preferred it to an IBM Selectric or other standard office machine.
The keyboard has a nice feel and is easy to use. Placement of the keys is standard except for the correcting key, which is appropriately placed next to the backspace key. It is not difficult to figure out how to work the machine.
There are two major irritations with the typewriter that all typists were quick to spot and complain about. First, it does not remember the margin and tab settings when it is turned off. When turned on, it assumes margins of 20 and 85 (set for 10 pitch) with no tabs. We used it mostly in 12 pitch, so this setting was particularly irksome. One of the secretaries who tried the machine to do a complicated table was infuriated when she innocently turned the machine off over lunch, only to lose 21 tab settings.
The second problem is more psychological. Every one of the typists who tried the machine felt that it lagged behind their keystrokes. There is a noticeable delay (most of us felt it was a half-step) between the striking of a key and the impression of the character. The result is strike-print-strike-print-strike in a steady rhythm. The effect is to create the illusion that you are typing too fast, and the tendency is to slow a bit. None of us could get over this problem and none of us reached our normal typing speeds on the machine.
We were also intreviewing secretarial applicants and giving typing tests; after comparing the same applicant's results on both the Olympia and a Selectirc, we were forced to make a speed allowance for the former. The Printer
As a computer peripheral, the machine again has its problems. Most irritating is that there does not appear to be a way to set up the machine under computer control. Margins, spacing, and tabs must be set manually.
Registration is another problem, although here I may be too severe with my criticism. I am used to the very high precision of the Diablo 6 30 and have not had an opportunity to compare the registration of the Olympia with other printers in its price range. Overall, the precision of the machine is good, but periodically its line spacing varies.
The tested machine was equipped with a parallel interface so it could be used with an IBM PC. The standard unit comes with a serial interface. I do not know how the serial cable is connected, but the parallel cable (a ribbon cable) was threaded through the air vents on the rear of the machine. To do this, two posts were broken from the vent to make enough room to allow the passage of the cable. This seemed somewhat inelegant. The Documentation
The manual that came with the machine is the European version written in English, French, and German. It was bad enough that the English instructins were interspersed amongst the others instead of being separated. What was worse was the picture of the keyboard with a chart explaining the functions of all the keys. The keyboard pictured is the European version with symbolic legends instead of the English legends that actually appear on the keyboard.
The documentation could be improved by printing a photograph of the U.S. keyboard and by organizing the book so that all the instructions in a particular language are together. Summary
If I had to make a recommendation for a printer, I would not recommend the Electronic Compact. If I had to make a recommendation for a typewriter, I would pass again. But if the requirement was for both on a limited budget, I would give the Olympia a serious look.
Products: Olympia Electronic Compact Printer (computer apparatus)