A Whole New Palette Of Low Cost Color

Color printers have been around since the early days of personal computers. But until recently, they only came in two varieties, neither of which offered much for businesspeople. Cheap units were nice for spicing up a kid's school report but didn't produce output good enough for serious business use. High-end color printers were capable of stunning output, but their finicky nature and high four-figure prices relegated them to graphic-arts shops.

Now, improvements in inkjet printing are making quality color printing available for business and even home use. The DeskJet 560C (for Windows and Macintosh) from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Canon Inc.'s BJC-600 (Windows only) put good color on your desktop for around $500. And from Epson America Inc. (800 922-8911), here comes the new Epson Stylus Color, with a street price of less than $600, to set a new standard for low-cost color.

Color can add dramatic impact to a crucial report, bring drab charts to life, and, above all, give a new dimension to the overhead-projector slides for your next presentation. But don't expect to use color on widely distributed reports or memos. Copiers remain rare, and commercial duplicating services charge 75 cents or more per page.

High-end color printers use various techniques to transfer colored waxes, microscopic particles of plastic, or dyes to paper. The Epson Stylus deposits tiny drops of ink--up to half a million per square inch. The colors are vivid, and the Epson handles subtle changes in hue without producing the distinct bands of color that have long been the hallmark of inexpensive printers. The quality isn't quite up to the standard of the near-photographic images turned out by $5,000-plus machines, but the output is astonishing for the price.

The Stylus is also easy to install and use. A single disk sets it up for Windows. Software is also included that allows the printer to work with some older DOS programs, although anyone serious about color should probably switch to Windows first. A Mac version is due later this year.

Color doesn't come without compromise, even if the price tag is low. While color output is dazzling, the Epson's black and white printing is no better than average for an inkjet, and the slight blurriness of its text compares unfavorably to a laser printer such as the comparably priced, but monochromatic, HP LaserJet 4L. Print quality can be improved by using special paper that prevents ink dots from bleeding, but it costs nearly 10 cents a sheet.

The biggest drawback, however, is speed. Like most color inkjets, the Stylus takes about a minute to print a full page of text, compared with about 15 seconds for a LaserJet 4L. If you do much printing, you'll spend a lot of time waiting. Color takes a lot longer, up to 15 minutes for a full-page printout at the top-quality setting.

For all of the Stylus' virtues, pokiness means that it may not be the best choice as your daily workhorse. One alternative would be to put a Stylus on a network, making it available to all members of a work group. Unlike top-of-the-line color units, the Epson can't be connected directly to a Novell Inc. NetWare network, but can be hooked up using a device called a print server.

B&W PDQ. A different sort of compromise is offered by Canon's new $500 BJC-4000. Although its color quality isn't as good as the Epson unit, the Canon spits out monochrome text pages at a laser-like four pages per minute.

The overwhelming bulk of your printing will continue to be black text on white paper. But used wisely, color can have tremendous impact, and when you need it, you need it bad. The new crop of printers means that you can now get it at a price that nearly every business--and many individuals--can afford.

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