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Linux Tutorial - The Computer Itself - Printers
  Modems ---- Mice  


Although more and more companies are trying to transform into a "paperless office," you will undoubtedly see a printer somewhere. Even if the office is paperless internally, it will have to use paper of some kind to communicate with the rest of the world.

Printers come in many different shapes, sizes, formats, means of connection to the system, ways of printing characters, speeds, and so on. The two most common ways to connect printers are by serial port or parallel port. Linux also supports Hewlett-Packard Laser Jet printers equipped with JetDirect cards. These cards allow the printer to be attached directly to a network, thereby increasing its speed. I'll talk more about these later. In addition, although they are not supported by Linux as of this writing, SCSI printers have appeared on the market.

In previous sections, we talked about serial and parallel connections, so I don't need to go into detail about them. I do talk about these connections in more detail in the second part of the book, however, when I talk about installing and configuring printers.

There are two kinds of printers that, although were once very common, are now making way for more advanced successors: the daisy-wheel and chain printers. The distinction these printers had is that they had preformed characters.

In the case of a daisy-wheel printer, printing was accomplished by means of a wheel, where the characters were at the end of thin "leaves," which made the daisy shape. The wheel rotated very fast and as the appropriate letter came into position, it was struck with a hammer that forced the leaf with the character on it against the ink ribbon, which then struck the paper. This mechanism uses the same principle as a normal typewriter. In fact, there are typewriters that use the same daisy-wheel principle.

Chain printers also have preformed letters. Instead of a wheel, however, the letters are on a long strip called a chain. Instead of rotating, the chain moves back and forth to bring the appropriate letter into position.

Although these printers are fairly quick, they are limited in what they can print. You could get pretty tricky in which characters you use, and come up with some rather cute pictures. However, these mechanisms aren't able to do anything very detailed.

The next step in printers was the impact dot-matrix printer. These, too, had hammers, but rather than striking preformed letters, the hammers themselves struck the ink ribbon. Instead of a single hammer, there was a column of usually 9 or 24 hammers, or pins. Such printers are called 9-pin or 24-pin printers.

As the printer prints, the heads move across the page and print out columns of dots. Depending on what character is to be printed, some of the pins do not strike the ink ribbon. For example, when a dash is printed, only the middle pin(s) strike the ribbon. When printing a more complex character like an ampersand (&), the pins strike at different times as the print head moves across the page.

As with monitors, the more dots you have, the sharper the image. Therefore, a 24-pin printer can produce a sharper image than one with only 9 pins. In most cases, the type of printer used is obvious the moment you see something printed with a 9-pin printer. Some 24-pin printers require a closer look before you can tell.

Next, printers began to get rid of the ink ribbon and replace the pins with little sprayers connected to a supply of ink. Instead of striking something, these sprayers squirt a little dot of ink onto the paper. The result, similar to that of an impact dot-matrix printer, is what an ink jet printer does.

Ink jet printers have two advantages over impact dot-matrix printers. First is the issue of noise. Because no pins are striking the ink ribbon, the ink jet printer is much quieter. Second, by extending the technology a little, the manufacturer increased the number of jets in each row. Also, instead of just squirting out black ink, you could squirt out colored ink, which is how many color printers work.

The drawback is the nature of the print process itself. Little sprayers squirting ink all over the place is messy. Without regular maintenance, ink jets can clog up.

Using a principle very similar to video systems, laser printers can obtain very high resolution. A laser inside the printer (hence the name) scans across a rotating drum that has been given a static-electric charge. When the laser hits a spot on the drum, that area looses its charge. Toner then spreads across the drum and sticks to those areas that retain the charge. Next, the drum rolls the paper across, smashing the toner onto the paper. Finally, the toner is fused into the paper by means of a heating element.

Although laser printers may appear to print a solid image, they still work with dots. The dots are substantially smaller than those of a 24-pin dot matrix, but they are still dots. As with video systems, the more dots, the sharper the image. Because a laser is used to change the characteristics of the drum, the areas effected are very small. Therefore, with laser printers, you can get resolutions of even 300dpi on even the least expensive printers. Newer printers are approaching 1,200dpi, which is comparable to photographs.

Some laser printers, like HP's LaserJet, use a technology called resolution enhancement. Although there are still a limited number of dots-per-inch, the size of each dot can be altered, thereby changing the apparent resolution.

Keep in mind that printers have the same problem with resolution as do video systems. The more dots desired, the more memory is needed to process them. An 8 1/2" x 11" page with a resolution of 300dpi takes almost a megabyte of memory to print.

With printers such as daisy-wheel and chain printers, you really don't have this issue. Even a buffer as small as 8K is more than sufficient to hold a whole page of text, including control characters that can change the way the other characters appear. While such control characters may cause the text to be printed bold or underlined, they are relatively simple in nature. For example, underlining normally consists of printing the character, backing up one space, then printing an underline.

Multiple-character sets (fonts) are something that this kind of printer just can't handle. Different character sets (e.g., German) or changing the characters form (e.g., italic) can easily be accomplished when the letter is created "on-the-fly" with dot-matrix printers. All that is needed is to change the way the dots are positioned, which is usually accomplished by using escape sequences. First, an escape character (ASCII 27) is sent to the printer to tell it that the next character (or characters) is a command to change its behavior.

Different printers react differently to different escape sequences. Although there is a wide range of sets of escape sequences, the two most common sets are those for IBM Proprinters and Epson printers. Most dot-matrix printers can be configured to behave like one of these. Some, like my (very) old Panasonic KX-P1123, can be configured to behave like either one.

The shortcoming with this is that you are limited to a small range of character types and sizes. Some printers, like mine, can get around this limitation because they can print in graphics modes as well. By viewing the page as a one complete image composed of thousands of dots, they can get any font, any size, with any attribute (assuming the software can handle this). This is how printers like mine can print charts, tables, and, to some extent, pictures.

Viewing the page as a complete image works when you have graphics or diagrams, but it's a waste of memory when you're dealing with straight text. Therefore, most laser printers operate in character-mapped mode, in which the characters are stored in memory and are the dots are generated as the page goes through the printer.

Printers are controlled by other means than just escape sequences of treating the page as a single image. One most widely used means of control is Adobe Systems Postscript page description language, which is as much a language as the programming languages C or Pascal, with syntax and vocabulary. To use it, both the software and the printer have to support it. However, the advantage is that many applications allow you to print Postscript to a file. That file can then be transferred to a remote site with a Postscript printer. The file is then sent to a printer (as raw data) and the output is the same as though it were printed directly from the application. The nice thing is that the remote site does not even have to have the same application as long as its printer is Postscript-capable.

Selecting the best printer is more than just choosing the one with the highest resolution and fastest print speed. Although these are two of the most commonly quoted characteristics, they do not represent everything you need to consider.

One commonly overlooked thing is administration. Most business are at a single site, with a handful of people. Even if everyone had their own printers, walking a few feet to figure out what's wrong or make changes is no big deal. However, if you are dealing with dozens or even hundreds of printers, spread out all over the world, physically going to the printer is not always practical.

In many cases the only solution is to physically be at the printer, such as adding paper or changing the toner. You hope that the people on site are capable of doing that much However, there are a number of problems and configuration issues that most users are notable to handle. Since calling in a service technician for mundane issue might be too expensive, it would be able to do some kind of administration remotely.

There are many printers on the market available that have built-in network cards and others can be connected to printer servers to allow you to do certain administrative functions across the network. You simply use telnet to connect to a specific port where you get a command line interface to the configuration options. Although you can generally do all of the configuration across the network that you can do locally, you still have the command line interface, which is typically not all that easy to use.

If you can build a telnet server into the printer (or print server), why can't you build in an HTTPD server. Well that's is what Brother did with a number of their printers. Using any standard browser which supports, JavaScript you can administer any of the Brother internal or external print servers.

Their an external print servers are just like many others on the market in that you can most any printer to it. It has both twisted-pair and thin-wire connectors, which allows them to be placed in most any network. In addition, the NC-2100h supports either 10 or 100Mbit Ethernet, making it perfect for high use printers.

The internal print server is basically an Ethernet card built into the printer, with the same connectors as the external version. This are essentially the same products with slightly different constructions, which means the administration is identical. As with the external printer, the Ethernet connector is auto-sensing. In addition, both support a large list of network protocols, including:

TELNET (with user-definable ports)
SNMP(incl. proprietary MIB)
IPX/SPX (NDS and Bindery)
NetBIOS support (TCP/IP and NetBEUI)
Banyan Vines

One of the most interesting things for me was the inclusion of DHCP. I used network printers from other companies before, which only supported BOOTP. This meant that we either had to configure our UNIX machines to support BOOTP, just for these printers, or configure them by hand. With DHCP, you can configure all of your nodes using just a single protocol.

However, if you look at the list, the Brother print servers are not just limited to specific protocols. Basically, all of the most common protocols are supported, allowing the Brother printers to fit into any network environment. In addition, the Web configuration interface allows you to switch between Printer Control Language (PCL) and PostScript.

Near top end of the scale is the Brother HL 1660N, which is designed for very demanding businesses. It can provide resolutions as high as 1200x600 dpi, in 256 shades of gray. Although it has a default of only 4Mb of RAM it can be expanded to 66Mb using industry standard SIMMs. This is an important issue, because some hardware manufacturers require you to buy your memory upgrades directly from them, although they are the same as what you buy from other places. The result is that you can pay as much as ten times the streets price just to have the hardware vendors name on it. I realize that many companies make most of their money through after sales service, but this is ridiculous and unnecessary.

The HL-1660N is ready to work amazingly fast. Many printers can take several minutes to warm up, even if just in standby mode. However, the HL-1660N is usually up in about a minute, meaning basically no waiting when you walk from your desk to the printer. Keep in mind that if 10 people a day have to wait an average of three minutes for the printer to warm up, that's 2.5 hours a week or over 500 hours a year!

The speed of printing is also another factor in determining how much time your printer can save. Depending on the amount of text, resolution and other factors, the HL-1660N can get up to 17 pages a minute or just under 4 seconds per page.

The HL-1660N can also help you save paper. When you print, you can tell the printer driver to print in "draft" mode which decreases the resolution. This is useful for seeing exactly how the print out will look or in cases when high quality is not necessary. In addition, it supports 2-in-1 and 4-in-1 printing so you can get multiple pages of your document on a single piece of paper.

For business with less demanding requirement and even for home users, Brother also produces a number of printer with slightly less speed and throughput. For example, the HL-1040 has a resolution of 600 dpi, but only gets about 10 pages per minute. It also includes an internal processor and supports Brothers data compression, thereby increasing throughput.

Brother also produces several color laser printers. The HL-2400C has a resolution of 300x300dpi in color mode and 1200x600dpi mono, with a throughput of 4 and 16 pages per minute, respectively. Once again, throughput is enhanced with an internal processor, this time with a SPARClite and a default of 32Mb RAM. The HL-2400CN is network ready and supports all of the features discussed early including SMTP and POP3 allowing your to automatically print out incoming mail.

If you work with people like some that I do, then you will appreciate the additional security features. The HL-2400C and the HL-2400CN both allow you to block access to the printer based on IP address. Therefore, you won't have certain users blocking the printer by outputting all of those images they downloaded from the Internet.

One group of users whose printer needs are often forgotten as those that are always on the road (out of sight, out of mind.) If they are visiting a customer site, for example, it is either embarrassing or cumbersome to get the customer to make a print out for them. Therefore, it would be nice to have a portable printer. Many vendors provide solutions which require cumbersome parallel cables and the inconvenience of a bulky power-supply.

Brother's answer to this is the MC-21P series of "mobile" ink jet color printers. Connectivity to the printer for both data and power is provided by a PCMCIA card. Although it can only get about 2.5 pages per minute, the convenience far outweighs the delay in getting your print out. In addition, the MC-21P can print on transparencies, as well as plain paper, which helps you make last minute changes to your presentations, reports and so forth.

From a business perspective it is important to look at having a single company satisfy all of your printing needs. The larger your company the greater the need is. With a hand full of printers, the need is not as great. However, I can speak from experience when I say how hard it can be to manage a large number of different kinds of printers.

Keep in mind that you not only need to deal with different drivers, but with different quality of printouts and different materials (i.e. toner cartridges). In addition, there is the issue of support. You need to keep track of different warranty information, different support numbers, as well as different problems. If you have discovered how to solve one specific problem on one printer, you will end up having to call to another vendor when the problem arises on a different printer.

One thing Brother printers and other devices emphasize is straight-through printing. This can make them slightly larger than similar devices from other vendors. However, I get annoyed when my pages come out with a slight curve to them.

Brother also provides multi-function printers, which are slightly different than their multi-function centers. As with the multi-function centers, these provide printer, scanner and copier functionality, but no fax or other communication. The MFC-P2000, for example, is a laser printer, which gets up to 10 pages per minutes with a resolution of 600x600, which is perfect for the small or home office. It can scan at the same resolution and comes with a copy of the Xerox TextBridge OCR soft. So, what do you get when you combine the functionality of a scanner with that of a printer? A copier, which is the third function the MFC-P2000 provides. It, too, has a built-in processors and warms up in under a minute.

Keep in mind this is not all that Brother has to offer. I barely touch on what printers and multi-function device are available. If I hadn't I would have needed an entire book. To find the exact printer to suit your needs, check out the brother web site (www.brother.com)

There are also a number of ink jet printers that brother produces. At the high end of the scale is the HS-5300. This gives you a resolution of 600x600, with a quality that is extremely close to a laser printer. It too comes with a built-in processor and default 24 Mb RAM, but can be increased up to 72Mb. As an upgrade option, you can get it with the NC-2010H network card, which then gives it the same functionality as any of the other Brother network capable printers.

It too, has the built in compressor of the driver, which helps increase speed across the network. In addition, the ink cartridges are replaced through a panel in the front of the printer. No need to open up the cover and deal with the cartridge attached to the print head.

One important aspect that I often see overlooked with printers is the total cost of ownership. Some companies will consider it for their computers, but often overlook it for their printers. The reason is often that many people are not aware of what aspects can increase the total cost of owning a printer. One important aspect is the expendable materials that have to be replenished at regular intervals or the parts that can wear out and need to be replaced.

Let's take a laser printer as an example. As you print, you use toner and eventually you will need to replace the toner cartridge. Normally, there is at least one cartridge provided by the vendor when you first purchase the printer. Therefore, you may not be aware of how much a new toner cartridge costs. In many cases, it can be anywhere from $50 to $100, or more. The more often you have to change the toner cartridge the more you pay in total for the toner and the more the total cost of ownership.

Let's take two theoretical printers. One costs $300 and the other $500. Assume that both have the exact same quality and speed, and each can print 10,000 pages before the toner needs to be replaced. You might think that $300 printer is less expensive. Let's assume that the toner cartridge for the $300 printer costs $70, but the one for the $500 printer costs only $50. It has either 10 or 100Mbit Ethernet interface, making it reasonable to expect the printer to last 3 years and in that time, you also expect to print over 200,000 copies. This means, you will need to buy twenty new cartridges. With a price difference of $20, that means you will pay $400 extra for the toner cartridges for the less expensive printer. Therefore, the more expensive printer actually comes out cheaper.

Unfortunately, the calculations are not always as easy as that. Often the total number of pages you can print with a single cartridge will differ from printer to printer. Therefore, you need to first make an estimate of how many pages you will print during the expected lifetime of the printer and then calculate how many cartridges your will need. In addition, you need to find out how long parts like the drum will last before it needs to be replaced. This also adds to the total cost. When you have done your calculations, the best choice is the printer that has the lowest cost per page.

This is one place where I often seen people complain about Brother printers. If you are using your printer at home with just a couple of dozen pages per month, then perhaps many of the Brother printers are not for you. However, once you start getting toward hundreds or thousands of pages per month, this is where Brother printers become extremely attractive. In some cases, Brother printer can be as little as half as much per page.

Another problem I often see is buying generic toner or ink. As with other products, generic or less known printer supplies are often cheaper than their brand-name counter parts. I intentionally used the word "cheaper" here, as such products often take on the other meaning of "cheap." For example, I have found many vendors who sell ink for ink-jet printers that has a lot higher water content than the ink from the printer vendor. It doesn't dry as quickly and therefore produces a less than acceptable printout. (Maybe it's okay for a draft, but nothing you would want to send to a customer.)

However, this is not always the case and it often depend on the paper. Therefore, you might want to test a single cartridge and package of paper before you buy them in bulk.

With color printers another place to save money is if it is a color printer and there are separate cartridges for each color. If your company logo has red letter on a yellow background, then you might end up using more yellow and magenta. The cyan cartridge could be almost full, but you end up having to through the ink away if there are separate cartridges.

You should also look into refills for the ink cartridges. This usually allows you to refill a specific color, without having to replace the entire cartridge. However, this can be a messy job if you are not familiar with it. In addition, how easy it is to use the refills will be different from vendor to vendor. If you only do refills a few times a year, the savings compared to buying completely new cartridges may not be worth the hassle.

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Copyright 2002-2009 by James Mohr. Licensed under modified GNU Free Documentation License (Portions of this material originally published by Prentice Hall, Pearson Education, Inc). See here for details. All rights reserved.
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