Not long ago, home printing meant lousy printing, whether it was for work, school, or play. Most printers for the home were noisy dot-matrix models that jammed frequently and turned out fuzzy print. You needed special paper that had ragged edges after you separated the sheets along the perforations and stripped off the little holes on the side.
What a difference a little technology makes. The latest crop of inexpensive ink-jet printers take advantage of precision designs and high-tech inks to let you print a business letter or a school report with quality that can rival an office laser printer. Better yet, virtually all of today's ink-jet printers produce vibrant color. You can add just a splash to brighten a letterhead or use the full palette for charts on plain paper and overhead-projector slides on plastic film.
The power of home printing these days is demonstrated by a trio of new ink-jet printers. The BJC-600e from Canon Computer Systems Inc. is a typical high-quality entry. Although you can get a color printer for less than this model's $469 street price, you would have to settle for slower, and probably poorer quality, printing. The BJC-600e can turn out up to four pages per minute in black only, though the best-quality printing is slower. A full-color draft page takes about a minute. Paper handling, much improved from earlier ink-jets, lets the Canon unit hold up to 100 sheets of paper or 15 envelopes.
Cool features extend beyond the printer itself. One is software that helps you get more out of your machine. The BJC-600e comes with two programs, Color Advisor and Stationery Store. Color Advisor takes documents from popular Windows word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation graphics programs and suggests schemes to make effective use of color. The Stationery Store program provides templates to create such things as letterheads, brochures, and greeting cards. After making your card, your printer can outline a custom-designed envelope on regular paper. You then cut along the dotted lines and paste.
The BJC-600e is getting some serious competition from Hewlett-Packard Co.'s slightly more expensive Desk Jet 660C. The Desk Jet (available for the Mac as the DeskWriter 660C) lacks the Canon machine's software touches, but it compensates with splendid color printing. Compared with what I had regarded as the ink-jet color-quality champ, the Epson Stylus Color (BW--Sept. 26), the Desk Jet is much faster, at least equal in color quality, and far superior in text printing. The best color requires special glossy paper and slows the printing to three minutes per page, but the near-photographic results are worth the wait.
TOPPLING ENVELOPES. If you want a printer that can work on your desk and on the road, consider the Canon BJC-70. It weighs only three pounds and is small enough to be stuffed into a suitcase, though the absence of battery power limits its portability a bit. The main trade-off for its compactness is in paper handling: It holds just 30 sheets. While Canon claims it can take five envelopes, I found it difficult to do more than one at a time because of the tendency for the envelopes to topple while waiting their turn. If your printing volume is fairly light, you'll probably be happy with the BJC-70 as your only printer.
While HP and Canon dominate the market for ink-jet printers, IBM spin-off Lexmark International is coming gn strong. The company will shortly announce a new model that offers many of the features of the BJC-600e and the new DeskJet and is priced below its competitors. If you need a printer now, you're sure to find all the features you need at a reasonable cost. But if you can wait a while, you will probably end up saving some money. I'll take a look at the Lexmark as soon as I can.