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Printing colour fast and cheap;Shop Window;Printers

Good products are easy to find. The difficult bit is singling out one from the overwhelming number available. Roger Frost reports

Our turning point with the computer was the day they bought us a decent printer. We were chuffed - so chuffed that we printed our names in big letters on our new toy. Pretty soon, the staff clown joined in, adding the peculiar kind of humour that had the machine printing very rude words in huge black text. Oh, how we laughed that day, but it opened us up to the idea that when your work can look as good as the best, you can aspire to better.

Buying a printer is easier today because the quality is on a plateau where it's hard to be disappointed. Your choice is simply between good and half-good. What is harder is choosing from the overwhelming number of printers available.

If black text is all you need, meaning that everything you print goes into an envelope or photocopier, a laser printer could be your best choice. Like a photocopier, it melts powdered plastic on to inexpensive paper and costs about 2p a page to run. It also delivers the page faster than other types of printer at the same price.

Even with the cheapest - and prices start below the much-recommended Panasonic KX-P6300 (pound;175) - the text quality is fine. If you can do a test at a show or shop, see how it prints a photograph - at worst the printer will balk or show banding on grey areas. Other differences such as speed and durability help explain why laser printers can cost over pound;1,000. Hewlett-Packard offers a mix of price and quality - see the HP Laserjet 6L (pound;240) for a staffroom machine, or the HP Laserjet 5 (pound;680) for an office-type machine. At the top end, the HP Laserjet 4000 (pound;880) chucks out 16 high-quality pages a minute.

But if our lot were messing around today, we'd have wanted more, and the clown would be printing expletives in colour. Colour is desirable for children's work, and teachers will relish producing overhead transparencies that really are the business.

You can produce two kinds of colour: "graphics" (colouring-book or comic-strip colour); and photographic. Most machines do the former well, while the latter is a nirvana most printers struggle to reach.

Hewlett-Packard, Epson and Lexmark produce acclaimed colour graphics machines. The entry point might be the HP DeskJet 670C (pound;162), while the HP DeskJet 690C Plus (pound;200) uses a six-colour catridge to achieve near-photographic quality printing. Epson's Stylus Colour 400 (pound;205) produces good photos considering the price.

Better printers can be had. Good value models include the HP DeskJet 890C (pound;340), Lexmark's Colour Jetprinter 7200 (pound;350) and Epson's Stylus Colour 600 (pound;285). Here, better often means faster or cheaper to run - going beyond these prices might give speedier results but the improvement in quality is marginal.

You will generally get better results by using better paper. Most printers work by squirting ink dots at paper. So, for example, if the ink dries slowly or the paper is too absorbent, images can bleed or text becomes "hairy". Printer manufacturers recommend the use of special papers for "best work" and normal quality paper for everyday stuff. None of the ink-jet printers produce quality photographs on plain paper - using cheap paper may simply be a false economy.

Some people keep a choice of paper at the machine labelled with its uses and cost. And, in an effort to stop their blue ink running out before the other colours, some also warn children not to put too much sky and sea in their work.

Those aspiring to true photographic quality can now buy dedicated photo printers - the Epson Stylus Photo (pound;430) and the HP Photoprinter (pound;500) will impress. The results from these are superb provided you budget for the running costs, typically around pound;1.50 for an A4 print including the glossy card. This matches chemist developing costs, and you have the potential of image manipulation with the computer. For projects and displays, for example, these printers can genuinely change aspirations.

Epson 01442 227303

Hewlett-Packard 0990 474747

Integrex 01283 550880

Lexmark 01628 481500

RM 01235 826000

Technomatic 0181 358 8100

Xemplar 01223 724200

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