printer & scanner roundup (1998

Reviewed by Roger Frost TES 1998

Printers

Our turning point with the computer was the day they bought us a decent printer. We were chuffed – so chuffed as we printed our names in big letters on our new toy. Pretty soon, the staff clown joined in – adding the peculiar kind of humour that had the machine printing very rude words in huge black text.

Oh how we laughed that day, but it opened us up to the idea that when your work can look as good as the best, you can aspire to better. I often suppose that less grown-up children think so too.

Buying a printer is easier today because the quality of printed text is on a plateau where it’s hard to be disappointed. Your choice is simply between good and half-good. What has got harder is choosing from the overwhelming number of printers available.

If black text is all you need – meaning that everything you print goes into an envelope or photocopier, a laser printer could be your best choice. Like a photocopier it melts powdered plastic onto inexpensive paper and costs about 2p a page to run. It also delivers the page faster than other types of printer at the same price. Even with the cheapest, and prices start even below the much-recommended Panasonic KX-P6300 (£175), the text quality is fine. If you can do a test at a show or shop, see how it prints a photograph – at worst the printer will balk or show banding on grey areas of the page.

There are other differences, mostly to do with speed and durability, which explain why laser printers can cost £1000 or more. Hewlett-Packard tend to get a good mix of price and quality – see the HP LaserJet 6L (£240) for a fast enough staffroom machine, or the HP LaserJet 5 (£680) for an office-type machine that should outlive a few computers. At the top end the HP LaserJet 4000 (£880) really chucks out the pages (at 16 a minute) and at best possible quality too.

But if our lot were messing around today, as we did with that laser printer, we’d have wanted more – and the clown would be printing expletives in colour. For children’s work colour is highly desirable, while teacher’s will relish turning out say, brilliant overhead transparencies that really are the business. The colour you produce can be of two different kinds – one is ‘graphics’ meaning colouring book or comic strip colour and most machines do this well. The other is photographic colour, a nirvana which most colour printers struggle to reach.

Three companies Hewlett-Packard, Epson and Lexmark produce the most praised colour graphics machines around. The entry point might be the HP DeskJet 670C (£162) or for a bit more there’s the HP DeskJet 690C Plus (£200) which with a special Photo cartridge uses six-colours to achieve near photograph quality printing. Epson’s Stylus Colour 400 (£205) does good photos too considering the price.

Most colour printers work by squirting ink dots at paper and as the manuals tell it’s the paper that affects the final quality. For example, if the ink dries slowly, or the paper is too absorbent the image tends to bleed and text looks ‘hairy’. Printer manufacturers therefore recommend special papers for ‘best work’ and less good paper for everyday work – prices vary from £1 a sheet down to 1.5p a sheet. This is important as none of the ink-jet printers do quality photographs on plain paper. You could use ordinary photocopy paper at say, 0.5p a sheet but since the ink can cost 10p to print a side of solid colour, using cheap paper may be a false economy. Some people keep a choice of paper by the machine, labelled with its uses and cost too! And in an effort to stop their blue ink running out before the other colours, some also warn children not to put too much sky and sea in their work.

Better printers can be had. Good value models include the HP DeskJet 890C (£340), Lexmark’s Colour Jetprinter 7000 (£350) and Epson’s Stylus Colour 600 (£285). Here better often means faster or a bit cheaper to run – going beyond these price points might give speedier results but the improvement in quality is marginal. You will get better results by buying better paper.

Those aspiring to true photographic quality can now buy dedicated photo printers to sit beside a general-purpose printer. While the last month has seen a few new computers with built-in snapshot printers – photo printers such as the Epson’s Stylus Photo (£430), and the HP Photoprinter (£500) will impress. The results from these are superb – provided that you budget for the running costs, typically around £1.50 for an A4 print including the glossy card. This matches chemist developing costs well, and you have the fantastic potential of images manipulation with the computer. For projects and displays, for example, here is a genuine something that can really change aspirations. Do shop around for better prices.

Scanners

Whether you use the computer for typing, or aspire to illustrating worksheets, making multimedia or pages for the Internet – you will find a scanner useful. It’s a gadget that turns real world stuff, such as documents and photos, into ‘digital stuff’ that you can use on the computer screen. Even though you might use one occasionally, when you do they seem indispensable.

Using a scanner – the reading device found in fax machines and photocopiers, you can turn a printed page into text you can edit. You might have an article, work-scheme, or document where the file has been lost, and software can ‘read’ the text and make it useful. In this way you can not only recycle the paper, you can recycle the ideas on it too.

If that seems handy, the really important bit is to have a scanner on your computer – if it’s on a machine next door, there’s a serious chance you’ll not use it. You can find models that conveniently fit between the keyboard and screen – they have a slot to drop a page into and this kicks them into action. As examples – see the Paperport MX (£120), Microtek Colour PageWiz (£150) and the Logitech Colour PageScan (£140). Incidentally, you don’t actually need colour to scan text, it’s just that monochrome scanners, like televisions are scarce.

More commonly you find ‘flat-bed scanners, which are more versatile in that they can scan fabric patterns, 3D objects and pictures from books. Some have accessories which can scan a stack of documents or scan images from slides and negatives. There are legions to choose from but the Epson GT5500 (£250) and HP ScanJet 5P colour scanner (£199) manage quality at a reasonable cost. Those who want speed and the last speck of detail for professional printing could justify spending more. Appreciate that most scanners let you capture images at a quality or resolution that exceeds what the best printers can handle. The advice in the manual is to let the machine do the thinking or else you may use lots of disk space and waiting time on the computer and printer.

As with all things ‘technology’, the more versatile your scanner, the more hassle you may have using it. Some say that when you try to address everyone’s needs, you can end up addressing nobodies and this has led to a proliferation of specialised scanners. For example, Kodak does a Snapshot Photo Scanner (£199) that can scan jumbo size prints and does these very well. A few computer brands have similar built-in devices where you pop the picture into a slot – these are good too. Then there are hand held scanners like the Logitech Scanman 2000 (£90) – appropriate technology for taking an image off a page without fuss and without wasting desk space. And if you’ve a legacy of slides and negatives, you’ll be tempted by film scanners which, at around £400 produce images that are awesome and maybe too-good. Any of these are worth opting for if your needs are that well focussed.

On the other hand, if you’re taking fresh photos with a camera there are easier and cheaper ways to do some of this. One is to get your films developed onto a Photo CD disc and this costs little more that normal developing. The other is to use a digital camera, which on current form, will increasingly find uses in schools (see ).

New breeds of scanners, called ‘all-in-ones’, have been brought out by Xerox, Canon and Hewlett-Packard amongst others. More than just scan an image, they can copy it, fax it and they work as printers in their own right. If you’re short of space, power outlets and rejoice in having a tidy desk these are very attractive at a starting price of £400. Do definitely shop around for better prices.

Contacts:
www.kodak.com

www.mteklab.com

www.hp.com

www.logitech.com

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