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Paper shuffling for professionals

Weaning designers off paper is obviously going to take a while. In the meantime, how do you choose a new printer?

New generations of computer-based designers are showing little sign of learning to love reading and editing solely on the screen. That's not to say that it won't happen, but for the moment people still like the idea of printing out and working with hard copy. (Sometimes they have to: because drawings and specifications and job correspondence can have the status of legal documents, normally you have to print and archive them.) So it's no surprise that printer manufacturers are still confidently wheeling out new models as if paper has a long time to go.

The big three are Hewlett Packard, Epson and Canon. Lexmark, Xerox, OKI, Kyocera and Brother are other respected names. Because they are all in a rat race of having to bring out several new models each year, they occasionally produce turkeys, but, as the relentless magazine comparison reviews show, most of their products are quite good.

A variety of technologies produce high-resolution print images. They range from deploying large numbers of tiny dots to make up an image to using a range of dot sizes calculated to fill in between larger dots. The end result is much the same - and as good as the output of a laser printer. Most manufacturers also make mid-range monochrome laser printers, but the majority of printers sold, including large-format CAD output plotters, are colour ink-jet printers. Then there are multi-function machines which print, scan, photocopy, fax, answer your phone, download stuff from the Internet and send and receive e-mail, all more or less at the same time.

Because in the old days laser printers used to produce astoundingly high-quality results - and were incredibly expensive - there's an assumption that lasers are inherently better than ink-jet. The acid test is whether you can tell from a printed page. Mostly you can't. But now that manufacturers have all but eliminated mere black-and-white printers from their lists in favour of colour, the old cost differential has reasserted itself.

Although there are monochrome lasers in the £300-plus range, colour laser printers start at about a grand and a half. The cheapest ink-jets, which still produce laser-like quality, are less than a hundred pounds.

One school of thought says that you buy really cheap and maybe give everyone in the office a colour printer such as the £54 Canon BJC1000 or the £70 Hewlett Packard 610c, plus some more robust inkjets for heavy printing loads - this rather than having a shared laser or lasers on the network. When an individual printer goes wrong, you buy another because calling out a service specialist costs more. There is also the apparent advantage that where you only need to plug in a couple of ink cartridges on inkjets, for lasers you have to get all that extra kit, such as toner cartridges, belts and drums, fusing oil, etc. Against that argument are the maintenance figures:

£20 ink cartridges have to be replaced every 600 or so monochrome pages, £100 laser toner cartridges every 10,000 pages.

It would be nice to be able to suggest that decisions on office printers involve horses for courses: a versatile mid-range £250 colour ink-jet such as the Hewlett Packard Deskjet 2000c for a small office;

heavy-duty network colour lasers such as the £1900 Hewlett Packard LaserJet 4500 or the £1700 Brother HL2400C for big offices generating lots of paperwork.

You could probably work it out on a spreadsheet, invoking the cost of ink cartridges versus toner and other stuff, the cost of expensive ink-jet paper against the cheap copier paper with which lasers perform very well. Then you have to factor in sustainability issues and the likelihood that ink-jets will be slower than lasers. It's not that easy because the published performance of ink cartridges is frequently on the creative side. If you are printing a lot of colour, the cost of a page from a laser printer can actually be quite a lot less than from an ink-jet. If you run a small office outputting only a few specifications each year, you should buy a printer which uses the same ink cartridges as the one you are currently using.

Of course architects' offices need to print out drawings as well as text, and the field here is dominated by Hewlett Packard. Flatbed plotters take up far too much space and the pens in pen-based plotters clog up at some time. Now ink-jet technology has taken over simply because it is more reliable.

Hewlett Packard plotters range from A0 Designjet 430s at £1900 up to the £5900 A0 Designjet 755CM whose full colour printing capability is more geared to graphic-design studio output than to production drawings. Other names include the recent entrant Epson which offers a desktop A2 plotter, the Stylus Color 3000, which deploys the Perfect Picture Imaging System with Super MicroDot and gives 1440 dots per inch (dpi) PhotoReal output.

The long-established CalComp Technology, manufacturer of, among several plotters, the TechJET 5500, has shut down all of its operations, transferring the rump of its large-format printers to several US distribution companies. ENCAD makes the CADJet 2, which is designed specifically for computer-aided drafting and the Dutch company Oce claims a speed of two A0 sheets per minute for its entry-level 9300 with a total of 100 similar sheets per day.

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