The previous chapters have described the variety and features of laser printers. With so much choice and so many considerations, selecting a particular laser printer is a complex process. To simplify the task it is helpful to determine the printing requirements of the user and narrow the choice. The following chapter looks at the major purchase considerations as a reminder of the key features of laser printers, and can be used to draw up a comprehensive specification of the functionality required before contacting potential suppliers. The purchase considerations are divided into two groups, mandatory considerations and optional extras.
There are many types of computer printer on the market, this book focusses on laser printers, and it would be easy to ignore consideration of other types of printer. Laser printers have several specific qualities which make them desirable in many printing applications, but they are not necessarily an automatic choice.
Users who only require to print occasionally, and who can accept a low speed solution, should consider an ink-jet printer. Many desktop ink-jet printers provide a print quality similar to laser printers, at a much lower purchase price. Desktop ink-jet printers have similar space requirements to personal laser printers, and are almost as quiet as a personal laser printer.
Users who need to print significant amounts of text and graphics, but who are not concerned with having the ultimate in print quality, might consider dot-matrix printers. Dot-matrix printers are less expensive to purchase than laser printers offering a similar throughput, and are considerably cheaper to run, however the print quality of dot-matrix printers is poor, and they are noisy and obtrusive in an office environment.
Users who print very large volumes of text in applications where print quality is not important, such as internal reports, database printouts etc., should consider line printers. Line printers are significantly less expsnsive to purchase and run than laser printers offering the same productivity, but they are generally noisy, offer relatively poor print quality, and require continuous stationery.
If none of the printer types listed above meet the requirements, then a laser printer is probably the only remaining viable option, and the following paragraphs shoud be considered prior to purchase.
These are factors which really should be carefully considered before choosing a laser printer, and form the primary buying criteria for most laser printers. The criteria include the built-in features of the printer, and a few of the key optional features.
If a printer is intended for an ordinary individual user printing up to an average of 200 pages per week, a personal printer will normally be sufficient.
For individuals with higher printing requirements, or small groups (2 - 5 users) sharing a printer with a printing requirement up to 1000 pages per week, an ordinary office printer will usually be suitable, with either a printer sharing device or a small network for printer sharing. Small groups of heavy users may require a heavy duty office printer with long-life consumables suitable for 2,000 - 2,500 prints per week.
Larger groups of users will require a workgroup printer, these vary in capacity from around a minimum of 1000 pages per week up to many thousands of prints per week, but are primarily distinguished by the job spooling and separation features which make them effectively usable in a shared environment.
Users with a requirement for low-volume production printing may be catered for with a workgroup printer, but above 50,000 prints per week it is likely that a "proper" production printer will be required, as only production printers are constructed for sustained reliable high volume printing. The maximum throughput for a production printer is difficult to determine, but some production printers are in continual use 24 hours a day, and weekly print volumes of between 500,000 and 750,000 are possible.
The majority of applications can be met with an Escape Code language, but for complex documents a Page Description Language is preferable. Users printing ordinary word-processing documents, database printouts and other simple documents will find an Escape Code language printer satisfactory. If the need is for ordinary printing, with the occasional production of complex documents such as a monthly newsletter or presentation, an Escape Code language printer will normally suffice, with either the addition of some memory or a PDL in a plug-in cartridge. Users whose printing primarily consists of graphics, desk-top publishing (DTP) or presentations will benefit significantly from the extra expense of purchasing a PDL printer. Users who want to print output from a CAD package will normally require a plotter language such as HPGL.
The computer system to which the printer is attached will probably determine the type of communications interface required when the printer is purchased, and the earlier chapter "Connecting to Computers" outlines the most common interfaces in use. However, moving a printer to another computer system is common, and computer systems are regularly upgraded or enhanced, so thought should be given to future communications requirements, whether perhaps the printer might be required to interface to the company mainframe or a network, and the availability of options to enable this should be ascertained prior to purchase.
Ordinary text printing, draft publications from DTP packages, and most presentations are quite acceptable when printed at 300 d.p.i., and the Resolution Enhancement Technology provided by HP printers and many clones will normally satisfy the quality requirements of users who want the best quality for their business and customer correspondence. Users who perform a lot of desktop publishing and require the ability to make print masters for reproduction, or who frequently prepare documents to be photocopied, should consider using a 600 d.p.i. printer. The extra quality these printers provide means that copies taken from original prints are generally at least as good as 300 d.p.i. originals. Other users who may benefit from 600 d.p.i. include users who print complex graphics including several degrees of shading, and users whose documents include grey-scale images such as photographs.
All laser printers have a selection of fonts built-in, on some the selection is extensive, on others it is basic, even miserly. Any fonts that aren't built-in to the printer will probably have to be purchased separately as options, and may not be cheap. Fonts are regarded as software, and are sold on a licensed basis. Sometimes the price of the licence is related to the type and speed of printer the fonts are to be used on. Good quality fonts with household names often cost around 20 - 30 pounds per font for office and personal printers, and may cost several hundred pounds each for production printers.
Paper usage normally goes hand-in-hand with printer usage, and most printers are designed to provide adequate paper storage for the typical user. Some users, either because they print very long documents, or because the printer must run unattended for significant periods or is shared, will require extra paper feeders or a high capacity feeder to allow the printer to hold more paper, and may require a high capacity output stacker. Users who routinely print correspondence on headed stationery will normally require at least two paper feeders, so that one can contained the pre-printed stationery and the other holds plain paper for continuation sheets and general use. The importance of adequate paper storage cannot be overstated, the time wasted through frequent reloading of paper, and the frustration of finding that the printer has run out part-way through a job, can soon offset the cost of adding extra paper storage to the printer.
The majority of users require only simplex printing. Users who wish to minimise their paper usage may desire duplex printing, and any users involving in production printing, whether on a workgroup printer or a production printer, will require duplex. On the smaller models of printer duplex printing capabilities will probably have to be added as an optional extra.
The ease of use of a printer is primarily the ease of replacing consumables. The ease of loading of media, and the ease of control panel use are not usually as important as handling the consumables, because the media loading process is so frequent that it soon becomes second nature, and the control panel on most printers is rarely used once the printer is configured for use with the computer system.
If a printer is to be used by a user who is not "computer-literate", then ease of use, particularly the simplicity of replacing consumables, is important. There is no point in buying a printer with low-cost consumables if the office expert must be summoned every time something needs replacing, the wasted time will probably offset the cost of using more expensive "user friendly" consumables. Equally, if the user is "expert", or the printer is to be maintained by a computer systems department, there is little benefit in choosing a model of printer which features expensive, easy-to-replace consumables when low cost consumables will be just as effective.
One of the features of laser printers not discussed in earlier chapters is First Print Out Time (FPOT), or Time To First Page (TTFP). First print out time is the time taken by the printer from receiving data to emitting the first page, and is normally between 5 and 30 seconds in addition to the normal page printing time (on a 4 p.p.m. printer the page printing time is 15 seconds, on an 8 p.p.m. printer, 7.5 seconds). The first print out time is the time needed by the printer to prepare itself for a new print job, start the motors that drive the paper path etc. Normally first print out time is an academic measure of printer performance which is primarily important to the users' perception of the printer, but if a user prints many short jobs the first print out time can become a key factor in the productivity of a printer. A short first print out time, while it may be academic, is a desirable attribute in almost all personal and office laser printers, and any larger printers which may be regularly used for short print jobs.
The warm-up time is the time taken for a printer to warm-up from being switched on. The term warm-up is literally correct, as besides performing self-tests and initialisation, a laser printer must heat the fuser to operating temperature before printing. If a laser printer is expected to be switched off most of the time, and only turned on when needed, or has a power saving standby mode in which the fuser is not kept warm, the warm-up time can represent a significant delay before the printer is ready to print. On most personal and office printers the warm-up time is less than one minute, but it is common for large workgroup and production printers to need 5 - 15 minutes to warm up. A fast warm-up time is an important feature for printers which will be used intermittently and often have significant periods of inactivity.
The cost of consumables is usually inversely related to their ease of use. If several printers are being purchased, or if a printer is expected to have a high usage, the consumables cost becomes very significant. Many corporations waste thousands of pounds per annum on expensive consumables, when printers using cheap consumables would function just as well, but were not considered because most buyers neglect to consider the running cost as part of the purchase process.
Once the mandatory requirements of a laser printer have been determined, the optional extras should be considered. Some of the optional extras, such as printer languages, paper trays and communications ports have already been considered in selecting the basic specification of the printer, however many personal, office and workgroup printers offer a range of add-on extras which are not obviously necessary, but may increase the productivity or versatility of a printer beyond their additional cost.
If several different types or sizes of paper are regularly used, extra paper trays are an important accessory. Extra trays reduce the requirement to empty and reload trays to use different types of paper, and provide effective protection and storage for types of paper which are only occasionally required. If several types of paper are used, the time saved by having a few extra trays will usually outweigh their cost.
Where a printer is regularly used for mailshots in a marketing department, or a significant amount of correspondence is generated, an envelope feeder is a useful accessory. Personally addressed envelopes present a much better impression than window envelopes or address labels, and printing envelopes is significantly faster than writing by hand, typing, or using adhesive labels.
The need for an output stacker or collator largely depends on the application the printer is used for, on workgroup printers they are essential, on office printers a collator may be useful for separating different copies of a print for different departments, or for separating individual jobs in a mailshot.
The majority of Escape Code laser printers do not come supplied with sufficient memory to process a whole page of graphics. If the printer will occasionally be used for graphics, expansion memory may be essential. In general, all memory is beneficial. The more memory there is in a printer, the faster it is likely to accept a job from the computer, freeing the computer up for more work. More memory also allows a greater selection of downloaded fonts, and thus greater versatility in creating the page.
If the printer being purchased is a PDL printer, and will be used for graphic design, typesetting or other applications which may require a large selection of fonts, consider whether a hard disk would be viable. Hard disks are normally expensive accessories in the context of office laser printers, but if the alternative is to spend half an hour each morning downloading the extra fonts required in the printer, a hard disk will soon repay its cost. Most workgroup printers and all production printers have a hard disk built in, and personal printers don't normally offer the ability to add a hard disk.
Any fonts which aren't built into the printer will have to be bought separately, so the essential fonts required for the company "house-style", or a particular application such as bar-code printing fall under mandatory considerations. Additional fonts provide extra versatility when designing a page, and thus are a "nice to have" option which may help improve the image conveyed by a page.
If a laser printer is required, perhaps for the quality of graphics output, but is likely to be under-used, a facsimile option can make economic sense and help justify the existence of the printer. A printer with a facsimile option can be used as a plain-paper facsimile receiver, and may also be used for transmitting faxes electronically from the computer. As most plain-paper fax machines incorporate a laser printing mechanism, and are just as expensive as an office laser printer, the facsimile option can save a significant amount over the purchase of a dedicated plain-paper fax machine.
When all the mandatory factors and optional extras have been considered, and selected or rejected, the printer specification is complete. The range of possible features and options is so complex that it may be impossible for one model of printer to satisfy all the requirements. Hopefully several printers will come close, offering the majority of features needed, so the features required should be prioritised to determine which are necessary and which are merely desirable. Approach printer manufacturers and specialist printer suppliers, who will probably come up with a few alternatives.
Purchasing multiple units of a printer should also be considered, it may be when purchasing a workgroup or production printer that two or more smaller printers would perform the same role, and provide some insurance against failure. If the mandatory requirements are particularly complex it may be worth considering the purchase of two different printers which between them meet all the requirements. This approach may require the stocking of two different types of consumables, which is undesirable, but it may also allow access to features which are simply not available on one printer.