[IMGCAP(1)]My first exposure to computer printers came in the late ’60s, with the IBM 1403 chain printer. This was a freestanding behemoth that used a long chain, somewhat like a bicycle or motorcycle chain onto which were mounted character slugs, like those used in old-fashioned typesetting.

[IMGCAP(2)]The print job was received by the printer’s controller, which decided when the right character was in the right place over the paper, and electromagnetically fired a small hammer, pushing the type character against a ribbon and onto the paper. The 1403 sounded a lot like a high-pitched chain saw (which it was kind of similar to) and programmers like me learned about timing loops by programming the printer to play “Popeye the Sailor Man” and “Anchors Away”.

Impact printers (which the chain printer was an early model of) were de rigueur in various models for the next several decades. Over the years I had a “golf ball” printer based on IBM’s Selectric typewriter, a NEC SpinWriter (which was similar to a daisy wheel printer except with the “petals” bent upward so that the print wheel resembled a thimble), and various dot-matrix and dye sublimation printers.

HP introduced the ThinkJet monochrome inkjet printer in 1984, but the big news that year was the first LaserJet printer. It cost about $3,500, and accountants loved it since you could buy software tax fonts and print complete tax returns that were file-able right off the printer. The Series II LaserJet, introduced in 1987, was even more popular—it had a slot for a font cartridge, and Centerpiece Software and other vendors were quick to offer tax font cartridges.

Since its introduction, the laser printer has been a mainstay in most accountants’ offices. Inkjets may have been okay for casual or draft printing, but the laser printer was the go-to when the best quality and fastest output were needed.

The Pendulum Swings

While the popularity of laser printers is not apt to wane much in the next few years, especially in the area of office machines in the $5,000-plus segment, if it’s been awhile since you considered an inkjet as your main production printer, it may be time for a new look. Today’s inkjet printers are, in many cases, as fast as laser, produce equally sharp output, and, with the right printer, cost considerably less than a laser to operate. In fact, both Hewlett Packard and Epson claim that their inkjets provide up to 50 percent lower ink costs than a laser printer.

You might expect that claim from Epson, they don’t sell laser printers in the U.S. But HP does, and they still claim their inkjets cost up to 50 percent less to operate.

I’ve tested inkjets from both vendors targeted towards the SMB user, and have been very impressed with just how far inkjet printers have come. For the past several years, I’ve had an HP color laser, an HP color MFP and an Epson B-510 inkjet on my network. The B-510 is sold through CDW and the reseller channel, and you can get a high capacity black ink cartridge with an amazing 8,000 page yield.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to test a number of Epson’s Workforce series MFPs and HP’s new Officejet Pro X MFP. The Officejet Pro X uses what HP calls PageWide technology, a set of staggered printheads that stretch a full 8 ½ inches, so the printheads don’t move, only the paper does. HP claims a blazingly fast 70ppm in draft mode. When I tested one using only the MS Word portion of the ISO (International Standards Organization) Performance test, the Officejet Pro shot out an amazing 74ppm in draft mode, and while I wouldn’t send the output out to someone else, it was very adequate for in-house use. Not bad for an MFP that costs $800 and has available $120 high capacity cartridges rated at 9,600 pages for the black ink and 6,900 pages for each color.

On my network, the two color lasers and the Epson B-510 have all been retired in favor of two Epson MFPs. The $249 Workforce WF-7510 is a wide format MFP. It can scan documents as large as 11x 17 inches, and print on paper as large as 13 x 19 inches. No more taping together large spreadsheets!

The second new MFP on the network is a just introduced Workforce Pro model, the WF-4630. It costs $300, can print as fast as 20ppm, has auto duplexing on printing, scanning and faxing, and a maximum duty cycle of 30,000 pages per month (though running that much paper through it will nuke the unit in a matter of months). The model I have can hold half a ream of paper (250 sheets) in the main drawer and another 80 in a rear tray. There’s another model, the WF-4640, that offers a second paper tray and a 580 sheet input capacity. The MFP’s black cartridge is rated for a page yield of 2,600 pages, while the color cartridges should yield around 2,000 pages and cartridge costs are under $43 each.

The take-away from all this is simple. In my office, printing on a color laser has gotten so expensive compared to the inkjet devices now available, that it simply doesn’t make sense any more. That may or may not be true in your office. But given the costs involved it’s certainly worth considering replacing at least some of your laser printers with a new inkjet.

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