In Living Color

The latest color inkjet printers bring your documents to life.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the October 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.

If you're looking for a low-volume, low-cost, good-quality printer that can take on brochures, newsletters, reports, proposals and even banners, then check out the newest color inkjet printers. They may only be the size and weight of a small bread box, but the magic that color inkjet printers perform on a blank sheet of paper is often remarkable.

Despite small footprints, in many cases, these printers produce close to photo-quality results. In fact, the latest word on most of the new inkjets is their ability to reproduce lifelike photographs with exceptional detail, especially on high-gloss paper. For example, Compaq's IJ700 model, an upgrade of its entry-level IJ200 (featured in our chart on page 62), has an optional photo cartridge with two additional ink colors that increases color range and enables six-color photo-quality printing that's good enough to frame. And Lexmark's 5700 offers a print resolution of 1,200 x 1,200 dpi, up to 38 per-cent higher than comparable inkjets.

While they haven't quite caught up to the speed, quality and crispness of color laser printers, inkjet manufacturers are building faster products that create vivid, crisp images. Epson's Stylus Color 850 and 850N inkjets, for instance, are 20 percent faster than their predecessors. These new inkjet printers are versatile, too; they handle envelopes, transparencies, labels, fabrics, photos, and various sizes and weights of paper.

Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.

It's A Print

Inkjets create images by squirting minuscule drops of ink onto paper or fabric. The ink is stored in cartridges and delivered through nozzles in the printhead, the main ink-delivery component.

Redesigned printheads account for this year's primary advancement in inkjet technology, as companies have created smaller and more accurate nozzles as well as electronics that control the ink flow. The Hewlett-Packard HP 2000C's printhead is a four-piece modular system with 1,216 nozzles; it allows parts of the printhead to be individually replaced when worn out, instead of the complete unit, as in the past. A memory chip indicates when to replace the 2000C's printhead entirely. Consistent drop size and placement are the two key factors that affect print quality.

Hewlett-Packard's singles cost about $40 apiece, while standard printhead replacement units can cost between $200 and $300. However, many printheads last two to four years. Okidata projects the life span of its Okijet 2500's printhead at up to three years. Epson's printheads are permanent, on the other hand, so replacement costs are not a consideration.

The two most popular methods of inkjet printing are the traditional "hot" (thermal) and the new "cold" (piezo). Thermal technology usually takes longer because it uses heat to boil the ink. The resulting bubbles push the ink through nozzles in the printhead. Piezo technology forms droplets through a vibration that squirts the ink through the nozzles.

Compaq uses a tiny heater in its thermal technology and says speed is no problem; the heat/jet cycle occurs hundreds of thousands of times per second. Speed is often relative, however, when comparing inkjet printers because density, detail and a wide variety of colors in an image can sometimes slow down production.

Other new developments in inkjet printing technology include seven-color printing processes, printheads that dramatically improve resolution, extra cartridges that can be added to increase color options, separate black and color ink cartridges, denser black inks, and specialty inks. Canon has pioneered a handful of inkjet innovations with its patented Bubble Jet system, seven-color ink system and microscopically fine ink drop system.

True Colors

Although many inkjet printers have low prices that may seduce you, be aware that their maintenance costs can run higher than those of laser printers. Inkjets gobble up ink, so if you print volumes of high-density, multicolored graphics, you'll need to replace color cartridges quite frequently. Fortunately, many of the new inkjets come with ink level indicators to warn you when ink is running low. Some models even calculate how many more pages can be printed before cartridges need to be replaced. The Lexmark 5700 and Compaq's IJ200 are two printers that have onscreen icons that report ink status.

How about computer compatibility? Some of the new inkjet printers are compatible with older PCs. Okidata's Okijet 2500, for example, can be hooked up to a 386 PC if it's loaded with Windows 3.1. Just make sure you have enough memory: Software drivers for most inkjet printers require 5MB RAM and 5MB of hard-drive space on your computer.

The type of paper you use with an inkjet has a direct effect on printed results, particularly with graphics. Some inkjet manufacturers sell special paper for photos, transparencies and other needs. Canon, for example, offers banner paper, greeting-card stock, high-gloss and water-resistant paper, fabric sheets and T-shirt transfers, as well as dozens of specialty inks.

In addition to the features explained already, here are some terms you'll encounter when shopping for an inkjet printer:

Cartridge. This replaceable tank holds the ink. Most color inkjets have dual-head or multihead cartridges with black and color chambers. Compaq's IJ200 single-head design requires the user to install either a color cartridge or black cartridge, depending on your needs. The company's more sophisticated IJ700 and IJ900 have dual-head designs, so you don't have to keep swapping cartridges. The Okijet 2500 is among the models with individually replaceable cartridges for each basic color --yellow, magenta, cyan (greenish-blue) and black--eliminating costly refills.

Paper feeder. Most models provide a feeder that holds at least 30 sheets of paper, or 10 sheets of transparencies, envelopes or card stock. Usually, the higher the printer's price, the larger the feeder. All models also allow for manual feeding; most greeting cards, T-shirt transfers and index cards require manual feed.

Printer driver. This program translates the language of a software application to that of the printer so the two can communicate data.

Resolution. Used to define clarity and sharpness, it's a measurement of an image's dpi. Although logic says that the higher the dpi, the more precise the resolution and the better the image quality, Hewlett-Packard claims that its thermal process, with a resolution of 600 x 600 dpi, is every bit as crisp as competitors' inkjets with much higher resolutions because of its control and placement of dots.

Finally, before buying, ask for a demonstration on both plain and glossy paper. While you should check for smears, poorly placed dots and dull tones, you'll probably be surprised at the high-quality color printing these small inkjets provide for just a few hundred dollars.

Most inkjet printer manufacturers sell at least two models in a series, with upgrades available for networks, higher speeds, extra printheads or cartridges. Our chart features the base model in each series. See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.

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