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Issue of October 2002 
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Tech Update: Network Printers
Reading the fine print

Network printers have become an indispensable component of the enterprise.Today, there are various types of office printers with different features. Here's some advice for choosing a printer that'll cater to your specific requirements. by Soutiman Das Gupta

Does your company's Head Office LAN extend over a number of floors, have several workstations, and house your server infrastructure? Do you spend valuable time, money, personnel, and other resources to deploy and maintain robust enterprise applications? Are you on your toes all the time to ensure that the network is able to support data traffic activity for ERP, SCM, CRM, and other applications? Here's a startling bit of information. The results of an independent survey of network traffic among enterprises, conducted by a printer vendor say that, in a LAN around 50 percent of the traffic is printer traffic. It's not ERP traffic, CRM information, and database queries, but printer data. Are you surprised?

Perhaps not, because a printer is not just a dumb terminal anymore. Printers have evolved from noisy, bulky, and resource-intensive devices to manageable, intelligent, and multi-function devices. They now have their own print server to manage print queues, provide document privacy, and facilitate workgroups and collaboration.

Multifunction printing systems can even photocopy, scan, fax, e-mail, page, and send SMS messages
too. Printers today are definitely efficient and user-friendly devices that contribute to workplace

Integrating different platforms

In case you have a heterogeneous environment like IBM mainframes, Solaris servers, and Windows workstations here are some issues that need to be addressed.

Host connectivity - The print server must be able to reliably connect to each of the hosts in the corporate environment. The server should support different technologies like ESCON, Bus, Ethernet, TCP/IP, and Token Ring.

Management of files and resources - The print server must be able to recognize and support all of the file types your organization uses. The server should support multiple file formats like EBCDIC, Adobe PDF, Xerox LCDS and Metacode, PCL, PostScript, and ASCII. This allows specific files to be routed to targeted printers.

Connecting to multiple printers - The server should be able to send the correct output to each system without creating too much network overhead.

The late 60s and early 70s saw the emergence of Impact Printers, one of which was the Dot Matrix Printer. These printers reproduce each character with individual dots from the impact of pins applied to an inked ribbon and struck onto the underlying sheet of paper. Dot matrix printers are fast disappearing and this printer's 30-year old signal protocol may die out soon, with increased use of USB. However, dot matrix printers continue to be used in POS (point of sale) systems and for bulk printing of address labels and (wide-format) departmental reports.

Most Network Printers available today use inkjet and laser technologies. Both these technologies have their own unique advantages and disadvantages which make them suitable them for particular organizations. Aspects like number of users, desired print quality, job volume, and cost also play a role to help you decide which one's right for your organization.

Inkjet Printers are the largest selling today and were the first to deliver full color capability. Earlier inkjets had a massive advantage over laser printers due to its ability to produce color. Although color laser printers have developed since the late 1990s, its price may be prohibitively high for many organizations.

Typical color inkjet printers use two types of cartridges, black and color. The black cartridge is economical for text-based printing. Ink technology for both cartridges has evolved substantially in the last few years. Not only do many printers include automatic 'stirring' functions to keep the ink from plugging, but many include reservoir measuring chips to let users know how much remaining ink is in the cartridge. Some printers even use capacity information to determine in advance whether enough ink remains to complete a print task before beginning it.

But the primary downside of using these printers is the operation cost. Ink cartridges are not cheap and since high-quality final copy is important, expensive paper may also be a necessity. Cartridges need to be changed more frequently and the special coated paper required to produce high-quality output is very expensive. When it comes to comparing the cost per page, inkjets work out about ten times more expensive than laser printers.

Laser printers quickly became popular due to the high quality of their print and their relatively low running costs. Laser printers have a number of advantages over the rival inkjet technology. They produce much better quality black text documents than inkjets, and they can turn out more pages per month at a lower cost per page than inkjets. So if you require an office printer a laser may be the best option.

Laser in color
Laser printing can be adapted to color by using cyan, magenta, and yellow in combination to produce the different printable colors. The printer performs four passes through its electro-photographic process by placing toners on the page one at a time or building up the four-color image on an intermediate transfer surface.

Apart from their speed, one of the main advantages of color lasers is the durability of its output. The chemically inert toner is fused onto the paper's surface rather than absorbed into it as in the case of most inkjets.

This allows color lasers to print well on a variety of media without the problems of smudging and fading.

What to look for when buying

There are a number of printers and Multi-Function Devices (MFDs) available in the market with a variety of features. It's up to you to chose the one which best fits your organization.

Print quality - The two main determinants of color print quality are resolution, measured in dots per inch (dpi), and the number of levels or graduations that can be printed per dot. Generally speaking, the higher the resolution and the more levels per dot, the better the overall print quality. Most printers make a trade-off, some opting for higher resolution and others settling for more levels per dot, the best solution depends on the printer's intended use.

The current generation of printers promise very high resolutions. HP LaserJet 900 promises 600 x 600 dpi and Canon iR 1600/2000 offers 2400 x 600 dpi.

Pages Per Minute (ppm) - This feature is important if you have to deal with very large print volumes. The ppm count may vary between 16 and 30 ppm. The issue really is how quick do you want to print and what kind of volumes are you looking at?

OS support - Many printers, particularly inexpensive ones, have key functionality as part of their software drivers. Some therefore require a variant of Windows to work properly. If you don't use Windows be sure that the printer supports your chosen OS (you need the appropriate printer drivers).

General quality - Be sure to subjectively evaluate the output from different printers by taking test prints. Remember though that these test prints rarely are set to show the best quality the printer can do. And the paper used for demonstrations is usually cheap, resulting in inferior quality output.

Cartridge size - The capacity of the cartridges dictates how frequently you will need to change cartridges. This also has an impact on cost per page for printing and is a concern for high-volume printing. Remember, cartridges of different vendors usually do not interoperate. This can be frustrating in case of printers from multiple vendors in the same office.

Host-based operation - To save cost many printers, especially cheap ones, offload some processing duties to a software driver and use the main PC's CPU. This is very similar to how 'soft modems' work. Host-based printers are usually fine but may cause server overhead.

MFD - Do you really need a device which will print, fax, e-mail, photocopy, scan, and create PDF files? These are costly and when they breakdown, they can be difficult to repair. Use a MFD only if you feel the need.

Warranty issues - Printers fail more frequently than most other components due to their moving parts and inks that can leak, dry up or clog. Be sure to get as long a warranty as you can. Resist the temptation to buy extended warranties unless they are very cheap and the printer is very expensive.

Vendor support - Don't get caught with a vendor that doesn't provide adequate local support and doesn't have helpdesk facilities.

Soutiman Das Gupta can be reached at

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