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The new jet-setters

Printer prices are plummeting and ink-jets are now excellent value

Choosing a suitable printer is not a straightforward task. The market is developing rapidly with brand leaders constantly bringing out new and improved models. Similarly, ink technology is constantly undergoing development, so a prospective purchaser must at some point bite the bullet and take the plunge.

In terms of quality, running costs and convenience, ink-jet printers give a lot for your money. Monochrome (blackgreyscale) printing has always been affordable and will certainly be all that you require for most classroom printing tasks.

However, colour printing opens up a whole new dimension of computer use and, for children particularly, it can prove a particularly motivating influence in the use of art, desktop publishing and design software. Projects and coursework do take on a new dimension when reproduced in colour, but the running costs are much higher.

All modern printers can print on envelopes, labels and overhead projector transparencies as well as plain, copy paper and, in the case of ink-jets, the coated paper specially designed for the job. It is worth keeping a small supply of this expensive item for those special occasions.

Canon has justifiably become market leader with its ink-jets thanks in no small part to the "bubblejet" technology which has delivered silent, high-quality printing at affordable prices. I chose the BJ 200 (latest model BJ200ex Pounds 259) for each classroom in my school and over the past two years they have proved reliable. The latest version, the BJ230 (Pounds 299) is faster and is sold with a printer driver to suit your computer system. The only negative point is the relative high cost of cartridges as each one contains a print head.

A less robust but very useful mini-printer to complement palmtops is the BJ30 (Pounds 220), small enough to fit comfortably into a brief case, it has a liquid crystal display and an improved cartridge system, all in a small, stylish case.

The Integrex Colourjet Twin Master (Pounds 279) is a thermal inkjet which can produce true black and colours, as it is now fitted with two separate cartridges. This printer renders its colours best in big, bold areas. For coloured text and graphs, however, it is well suited.

Another low-cost printer, the Citizen ProjetII (Pounds 213), also utilises a two-cartridge system to deliver either monochrome or colour ink and, as you might expect, the printed results are, again, a bit of a compromise. Like the Integrex, the ProjetII is best with text and graphics which have areas of bold colour without subtle shades which cannot resolve very well.

The general rule is: low cost often results in compromises in quality. There are several mono printers on the market for which optional colour kits are available. Hewlett-Packard's low-cost DJ540C (Pounds 290) is a prime example. This permits the black ink cartridge to be swapped for the colour one whenever colour printing is required. Although inconvenient, the system works well and, compared with the ProjetII, its combination of colours comes out as a much better "black". The DJ540C is robust, well built and certainly the best of the low-cost, colour printers. Canon's new BJC70 (Pounds 270), a colour version of its BJ30, is a truly useful printer for when the majority of printing tasks are monochrome and only an occasional colour print is needed. This state-of-the-art portable printer can run off an optional battery pack. In a higher price bracket but unequalled in my opinion in terms of colour reproduction and quality are the Canon BJ600e (Pounds 320) and the Epson Stylus II (Pounds 299). The former keeps down printing costs by using four individual colour ink cartridges which are easy and cheap to replace. The advantage of having separate cartridges is that you simply slot in a replacement for that colour without wasting the others.

The Stylus II has a built-in printhead so ink cartridges are less expensive. It uses special inks which are bright and do not disperse over the paper. There are even specially coated papers available for printing at a remarkable 720x720 dpi. The Stylus is robust and well made and is arguably the best of all the currently available ink-jets.

Shop around for the best discounts and compare the prices of replacement cartridges: these can easily cost you more than the price of the printer over a couple of years. Running costs for colour printers are difficult to quantify. Using aproprietary ink-jet refill kit undoubtedly leads to substantial savings.

Laser printers still have the edge on print quality and speed. Today their prices continue to fall to the point where schools, office staff and teachers realistically budget for a sub-Pounds 400 laser printer to complement their Windows-based PCs.

Two models stand out: the NEC SuperScript 610plus (Pounds 380) and the Star WinType 4000 (Pounds 399). NEC has optimised its printer to work quickly and efficiently with Windows, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the time it takes to regain control of the computer.

The Star WinType 4000 is an even smaller laser printer, not much bigger than a Mac Classic. It is slow at four pages per minute, but in all other respects is very much a contemporary of the SuperScript. It is worth seeing both in action before deciding.

* Integrex Systems - stand 364


* Canon (UK), Canon House, Manor Road, Wallington, Surrey SM6 0AJ

* Citizen (Europe), Citizen House, Waterside Drive, Langley Business Park, Langley, Berks SL3 6EZ

* Epson (UK), Campus 100, Maylands Avenue, Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP2 7TJ

* Hewlett-Packard, Cain Road, Bracknell, Berkshire RG12 1HN

* NEC (UK), NEC House, 1 Victoria Road, London W3 6BL

* Star Micronics (UK), Star House, Peregrine Business Park, Gomm Road, High Wycombe, Bucks HP13 7DL

For cartridge refill kits:

* HCS Global Computer Supplies,Cartsdyke Avenue, Greenock PQ16 1 DT

* Kimberley Computer Services,Chapel Street, Leigh, Lancashire WN7 2DA

* Misco Computer Supplies, Faraday Close, Park Farm Industrial Estate, Wellingborough NN8 6XH

* Themis (UK), 11-13 Godstone Road, Caterham, Surrey CR3 6RE

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