More print about printers. (evaluation) John Anderson.
More Print About Printers
As we have said on more than one occasion, the topic of microcomputer printers is quite a fast-changing one. It is extremely tough to cover the beat with continuing timeliness, and anything approaching consistency of expectations. Perhaps one answer would be to devote a monthly column to the subject. In any case, we last wrote about printers in the March issue of this year, and as that now somehow seems like about 10,000 years ago, we're due for at least a summary follow-up.
Stop the Cards and Letters, Folks
We have received a relative torrent of mail concerning that original piece, which included critical reviews of thirteen printers. Most of the mail was from owners of specific machines or from manufacturers criticizing us for being unfairly critical. We didn't mean to make anyone feel defensive about his choice in printers. None of the printers we evaluated received a rating of fewer than two stars, which indicates we felt none of them was substandard or unacceptable.
While the SCM TP-1 took a bit of a thrashing, we will admit, we did mention that the quality of the print for the price was impeccable. Okay, we were hard on printers with a great deal of plastic in their construction, reflecting perhaps a personal prejudice. If you are the owner or marketer of a machine that we criticized in one way or another, please realize that we respect your right to disagree with our conclusions. We stand by our factual statements, however, with very few exceptions.
Allow us to enumerate those few exceptions. One concerns the Anadex Silentscribe printer. We said in March that the printer was bottom-only loading, and therefore required a slotted printer stand. Anadex politely pointed out that this is not true, and we recently confirmed that continuous-form paper can be fed between the rubber feet on the bottom mounting of the unit and out the front or back side. The paper still must feed up through the narrow slot on the bottom of the printer, however, which is an awkward process to facilitate without a slotted stand. In all fairness, we should note that this very design feature helps the Anadex unit remain extremely quiet during use.
A couple of typographical errors also caused consternation. In the printer comparison table, the list price for the Qantex 7030 is incorrectly listed. The price should be $1995. And, contrary to its headline and the conventions of Strunk and White, the spelling of the product is Qantex. Apparently someone in typesetting couldn't abide the sight of a Q without its sidekick U, and so provided one.
The phone has been busy too. C. Itoh called (not Mr. Itoh personally, which was disappointing, since we have always wanted to ask him what the C stands for) to express dismay with the quality of the print sample in the output comparison chart. Upon reinspection of the sample, we had to concur--the print quality of the Prowriter is better than its faded sample attests. The reason? A dry ribbon on our test unit. As we mentioned in the glowing Prowriter review, the unit was a favorite of an ex-editor of ours, and saw quite a bit of trouble-free use. The sample we took came from the last gasps of an old ribbon.
Then there is the custom cable issue, upon which we have caught more than a bit of flak. Part of our overall printer ratings were based on ease of installation and interfacing. Obviously, if you are a user who has had the machine installed or a custom cable made by an outside source, this will not be an issue for you. Perhaps we did grow a bit cranky about custom interfacing. We just so wish that a uniform standard would emerge, so that the expense of outside installation would become in nearly all cases unnecessary.
Conversely, we were chastised for spendthriftiness by a reader who took offense at our criticism of spool ribbons, and rightly so. There we were extolling the convenience of cartridge ribbons, while failing to point out that they cost a good deal more than spool ribbons. We admit that we counted ease of ribbon replacement as a factor in printer ratings without an offset concerning their cost. Another reader brought up the possibility of reinking spools, and suffice to say we don't wish to "dirty our hands' in that issue right now. It is true that spools can be reinked more readily than cartridges.
Enough qualification. Onto the matter at hand, which happens to be a review of the finest black and white printer listing for under $1000 that we have seen to date.
It has been quite a while since a printer has caused as much excitement around here as the Mannesmann Tally MT-160L. The unit is compact, fast, relatively quiet, capable of friction as well as tractor feed, has a truly letter quality correspondence character set, and is a snap to program and use. Like the MPI 150G keypad model that impressed us in March, the MT-160L programs directly from a control panel on the front of the printer. The MT-160L takes programmable convenience one step further, and instead of a numeric keypad, offers buttons labelled "yes' and "no' with which the user may answer questions asked by the configuration menu (see Figure 1).
Printing parameters may be set through the host computer, or from the control panel. By pressing the yes and no keys simultaneously, the MT-160L will automatically print out the configuration menu, by which all parameters may be set. By pressing the no key alone, current parameters are printed out (shown in Figure 2). There are no recessed DIP switches to set incorrectly or in which to break pencil points, and all parameters report their status in a most civilized manner.
The self-reporting feature is one usually seen only in printers costing twice the price of the MT-160L. The singular lack of hard-to-reach DIP switches is unique, and a very refreshing approach, which we pray will be copied. It is now reasonable to expect an intelligent printer to configure itself to your desires--without calling on you to "hard switch' it at all.
By pressing the "test' key, the self-test mode is initiated (See Figure 3). The mode can be cycled through pin graphics tests, and the resident character set will be used to display a sliding ASCII pattern.
Okay, so the MT-160L is one smart printer, and scores well on ease of use. What about its performance?
In a word, remarkable. Figure 4 lists the specifications of the unit, which rival, and in many cases exceed, the specs of high-end units such as the Qantex 7030, which so impressed us in March. At less than half the price and less than half the size, that's quite an accomplishment.
Some specifics: The MT-160L offers four pitches, over a range of 10 to 20 cpi, and in the 20 cpi mode, can squeeze 160 columns onto its maximum paper width of 10 inches. Double width capability adds another four character spacing options. The default 10 cpi character set is dark, clear and fast, at a claimed speed of up to 160 cps. Because linefeeds are fast and sure and logic-seeking bidirectionality guides the printhead, the MT-160L is among the fastest small printers you'll find.
Figure 5 gives a sample of the default font at 12 cpi. The L in the MT-160L model number stands for "letter quality'. Look back at Figures 1, 2, and 3 for samples of the 40 cps dual-pass character set--the word that comes to mind is superb. Though it is much slower than the default, the letter quality font is still a good deal faster than a daisy wheel, and in our opinion, of comparable quality. It is really hard to believe that its print was created by a dot-matrix machine. Tally-ho, indeed.
Both serial and parallel interfacing is possible, using the most popular (and most nearly standard) connector cables. These are the 25-pin male DB-25 for serial connection, and 36-pin male Centronics style for parallel connection. The two female connectors sit side by side on the rear panel of the printer, and make installation of the unit as painless as possible.
As the Mannesmann Tally MT-160L is of European origin, allowance has been made for seven foreign character sets and easy selection of them. And though it may be a stereotyped cultural generalization, the term "German precision' came to mind more than once. The unit is superbly engineered and very reliable. In two months of heavy use, the only problem we had was a bit of printhead lock-up, which was caused by a dustball on a drive axle. The end of the dustball signified the end of the problem. So much for maintenance.
The Buzz of the Fly in the Ointment
Our sole complaint about the unit is a nitpicky one, but it is well known that really nitpicky things drive folks like us up the wall. The stepper motor on the MT-160L idles noisily, and it does so even when the unit is off-line. Hence, users will quickly learn that the MT-160L is not a machine to be left on when not printing. That is a shame, since it practically abrogates the need for the on-line switch.
It is hard to describe the sound of the off-line Mannesmann Tally machine, which is not loud at all, merely very grating. The closest description we can give is something along the lines of a noisy refrigerator, heard through an empty beer can. It gets to you.
During actual printing, the unit is of about average noisiness; we measured it at 64 dB. The reading was made from one meter in front of the printer, while it rested on a foam printer mat, printing in correspondence mode. The noise was quite tolerable.
The operator's manual is clearly laid out, profusely illustrated, and refreshingly free of typographical errors. Although it is unindexed, its table of contents is quite thorough and should suffice in most cases. In it you'll find pin-outs for cabling and tables documenting all escape codes. If, as we suspect, the manual was translated from German, a splendid job was done.
As for the graphics capability of the machine, Figure 6 is worth a thousand words. The printer can output at 50 or 100 DPI (dots per inch), and a minimum line feed increment of 1/8 inch produces smooth, bold graphics in the same manner as it produces dual-pass letter quality print. The documentation points out that the printhead duty cycle limits the firing of any hammer to an average of 40 per cent of its maximum allowable positions over the area of a page (11 inches). We doubt that this structure will interfere with many graphics applications, save those of users who wish to produce runs of totally black paper.
The Mannesmann Tally MT-160L is a fine machine, and if you are in the market for a new printer now, you owe it to yourself to get a look at it. Although we enjoy reviewing products that we are enthusiastic about, we rarely write a review that can be paraphrased in the simple words "loved it.' This review is an exception. The MT-160L printer is another stride in quality and features in the under $1000 market. If only it printed in color, too!
Table: Figure 1. Configuration menu.
Table: Figure 2. Status report.
Table: Figure 4. Technical Specifications.
Photo: Under the hood of the MT-160L.
Photo: The Keypad on the unit makes configuring the printer a very simple process.
Photo: The MT-160L has a totally unconventional, but pleasing external design.
Photo: Figure 3. Cycling through a self-test. Reproduced at actual size.
Photo: Figure 5. Draft quality at 12 cpi. Reproduced at actual size.
Photo: Figure 6. Serviceable graphics capability.
Products: Mannesmann Tally MT-160L (computer apparatus)