Color Printers Making a Splash

At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., compliance examiners use color maps to determine whether banks are meeting state statutes to lend money in low-income neighborhoods. The examiners download data into mapping software and print out the maps on Hewlett-Packard 1600 C color laser printers. Color is important on the maps because it indicates different data, such as low-income households, and race and population density. FDIC examiners include the maps in their reports and print out copies for the banks they are investigating.

Officials at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., pass out documents containing color graphics as part of their presentations to introduce new support procedures for aircraft. They use Hewlett-Packard's Color LaserJets to print out color transparencies for the overhead projector, then print out the same color charts on paper for distribution to groups of 20 to 50 people. Officials report that color documents enable them to highlight salient points in their presentations. And at 13 cents or less per page, they aren't sabotaging their budget.

Call it a mini-revolution.

In the last year, many federal executives joined their private sector counterparts in putting color printing technology into general office use. Previously, color printing had been the domain of agencies involved in specialized tasks such as producing satellite images or printing digital photos to aid medical examinations. Then companies such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix and Xerox introduced network-ready color laser printers for $6,000 to $8,000. About the same time, the ink-jet printer market was deluged with color printers costing less than $1,000.

"What we've seen in the past year and a half is that a lot of agencies tried color lasers in small areas-they bought one or two printers," says Todd Virzer, a product manager at Hewlett-Packard. "They're seeing a benefit and so now are rolling out orders for more machines."

This doesn't mean more expensive color printing technologies are on the way out. "Right now, the best digital prints we can get are from dye-sublimation technology," says Col. William Cultice, chief of the Air Force's Visual Information and Publishing Division. The division oversees visual information centers at 100 Air Force bases and 1 combat camera squadron, where staffers photograph or videotape military activities. The combat camera personnel deployed to Bosnia, for example, photograph maneuvers such as bridge crossings. The staff digitally transmits images to the Pentagon's Joint Combat Camera Center where they are printed out on color laser printers for initial mass distribution. Subsequent requests for photographs are printed on higher quality Kodak dye-sublimation printers. "The color images help establish credibility of events for people receiving the briefings," says Lt. Col. Jon Evans, an Air Force visual information and publishing division officer. "It's a capability we did not have in the past."

Dye-sublimation uses heat to transfer dye from a printer ribbon onto paper. Another color printing technology used for specialized applications is thermal wax transfer, which uses heat to transfer wax from a printer ribbon onto paper. These technologies produce the highest-quality color images around but are too expensive ($1 to $3 a page) and too slow for mass use.

Low-cost color technology is not the only trend in the printer industry.

Jerry Bell, a Florida-based printer systems reseller, sees more people using printers as copiers as the cost of printing a monochrome page declines. Glenn Gruber, director of marketing for Kyocera Electronics Inc., says local area networks (LANs) have changed the way people use printers. "It used to be that when you were going to a meeting, you'd print out one copy of your report on a printer and then walk over to the copier machine and photocopy it ten times," says Gruber. "That's changed with electronic mail. Now you don't have to print out your report. You attach it to an e-mail message and send it around to your colleagues beforehand. They print it out for themselves locally."

A Printer Primer

There's a printer technology to suit every need, and agencies use them all.

Dot-matrix printers-machines with metal keys that strike ink ribbons and transfer ink dots onto paper-are the cheapest units on the market. But the image quality of 24 pin models (the highest resolution dot-matrix printers) is inferior to that of laser and ink-jet printers, which have become the quality standard for text documents. With the price of laser and ink-jet printers plummeting, especially when cost can be divided among many users on a network, even cash-conscious agencies are abandoning the rattle of their dot-matrixes for sharper and faster technologies that offer more features. Nevertheless, dot-matrix machines live on in accounting offices and prosper as a forms printing technology. In April, for example, Lexmark introduced its 2300 Plus series, dot-matrix forms printers which offer increased speed, seven built-in bar code fonts and a straighter paper path to reduce jams.

Ink-jet printers spray ink onto paper one line at a time. Most ink-jets are full-color units with two ink cartridges-one color, the other black-that let users print a page in both black and white and color. Monochrome ink-jets contain a single black ink cartridge which can be swapped for a color cartridge if the user wants to print color.

The prices for low-end, full-color ink-jets start at $350-10 percent of the cost of low-end color laser printers-making ink-jets the most affordable color printers available. Special paper and fast-emptying disposable ink cartridges make printing monochrome documents on an ink-jet more expensive (at about 6 cents a page) than printing on a laser (2 cents a page). But printing color on an ink-jet (6 cents a page) is cheaper than printing color on a laser (6 to 24 cents a page). Ink-jet printers now match laser printers on black-and-white quality, and the machines get top marks for vibrant color, although sometimes the ink smudges. Ink-jets print at a rate of 2 to 4 pages a minute, which is similar to the speed of color lasers but an eternity when compared to the 8 to 12 page-per-minute speed of monochrome laser printers. Ink-jets are best suited for offices that print out hundreds rather than thousands of pages a month.

Ink-jets tend to be compact and lightweight, and are becoming common companions to laptop-lugging business travelers.

Laser printers beam a laser onto a photosensitive drum to create images which then attract black ink dust. The dust is melted onto the paper by a fuser. The price of laser printers has dropped over the last five years. Monochrome laser printers with excellent print quality now commonly retail for $500. Most laser suppliers load features onto their low-end printers that were formerly available only on their high-end machines. For example, Texas Instruments is offering more functionality for the same price in the latest version of its Microlaser 600 (renamed Microlaser Pro) line of printers, says Craig Jones, a federal reseller for the company. The new machines print double the number of fonts and contain twice as much memory as before.

Laser printers are fast, high-volume, networkable machines. Unfortunately, monochrome lasers tend to be big, and color lasers tend to be gigantic.

Plotters are second cousins to ink-jet printers. They print large-format, detailed computer-aided design, engineering, architectural and geographic information systems drawings. Plotters can print in color or black and white on a variety of surfaces, from poster grade paper to matte film. Plotters from companies such as Calcomp and Xerox retail for around $5,000.

Savvy Shopping

Within each category of printers, a dizzying variety of options exist. Experts suggest agencies consider the following:

  • Cost. Printer companies make their money on their consumables-a toner cartridge can cost $325-so cost of ownership needs to be considered. The difference between printing at two cents and three cents per page may seem negligible until it is multiplied by the number of pages printed in a year. A page of graphics uses up more toner and more ink than a page of text.

Cost is driving many users to embrace environmentally responsible technology. Some companies offer larger-sized cartridges (which contain more toner) for the same price as competitors' smaller cartridges, reducing the number of cartridges users have to throw away. Recycled cartridges cost less than new ones. Kyocera's FS series printers are fitted with long-life components that only need to be refilled with toner at $77 a hit, reducing the cost of printing to 0.7 cents per page.

  • Print quality. Resolution is measured in dots-per-inch (dpi), with 1,200 dpi as good as it gets. Generally, the higher the dpi, the higher the price of the printer. "If we're talking about a pure text document, I'd buy dinner for anyone who could pick out the differences between one printed at 1,200 dpi and one printed at 600 dpi," says Kyocera's Gruber. "However, agencies that are printing out satellite pictures might require 1,200 dpi."
  • Size and weight. A printer with a small footprint (the space a unit takes up on a desktop) is important in tight offices, like the ones on board Navy submarines. Also, size and weight will determine whether a printer can be transported as excess baggage on a commercial flight. To its dismay, Air Force combat camera teams had to airlift their color printers to Sarajevo because the printers in their mobility cases exceeded the capacity for checked baggage.
  • Versatility. Networked printers may need to understand commands from users on both MacIntosh and PC computers.
  • Features. For some agencies, printers with duplexing (printing on both sides of a page) or enveloping (inserting a printed page into an envelope) capabilities will revolutionize the way employees manage their time. Two paper drawers (one loaded with letterhead, one loaded with plain paper) may also have the same effect. Agencies that take printers with them on foreign missions will want machines that can be plugged into different-sized sockets and operate at both 110 and 220 voltages.
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