If you were to tell a 20-year-old today that a decade ago, people bought PCs with black and white screens, they would laugh. A few years from now, the same will be true of printers. Increasing speed, improving quality and tumbling prices have turned the choice between mono and colour into what our transatlantic cousins call a no-brainer. For less than £200, consumers can buy a reliable device that prints text at several pages per minute, produces near-photographic quality colour pictures and whose inks and printing techniques are tuned for different types of output.
Nearly 80 per cent of all printer sales are colour inkjets and domestic sales are almost all colour. According to Arnaud Gagneux, senior analyst for imaging at research firm Context: 'For consumers, colour is almost the only market that exists. Cheap monochrome laser printers have had to become multi-functional devices to compete and even then their market share is dropping.'
In the office, the Henry Ford principle (any colour you like as long as it's black) still predominates - but for how much longer? 'The Web has driven the demand for colour printing in the office and we can expect to see more and more of this,' says Gagneux.
The manufacturers are certainly enthusiastic. Stephen Burt, marketing manager at Tektronix - which makes only colour and colour-capable printers - says: 'We increasingly find that colour printers are used for general office purposes on a network, as people realise that colour prints only cost a few pence.'
Priscilla Dickason, business manager at Xerox Channels Group, adds: 'All the evidence points to people wanting everything in colour. Whatever they see on screen is what they want on paper.'
Obvious business applications for colour include: print-outs of Web pages and photographs; overhead projector (OHP) presentation slides and the hand-outs for afterwards; one-off or small-print-run reports, proposals and brochures; designs and proofs of documents that will ultimately be printed professionally or published on the Web; general business documents, especially where colour is part of the document's core content, such as charts and graphics, or people's comments picked out in different colours.
Professional photographers are starting to use high-quality inkjet printers and many print shops and CAD studios use them for proofing. Some businesses have found more imaginative uses, such as printing final demand invoices in red to hasten payment. Many companies now have at least some colour printers, although the penetration tends to be one per floor rather than one per office.
A representative at Epson, the market-leading inkjet vendor, says: 'As consumer sales have exploded, people often have better printers at home than in the office, which is driving inkjet sales into the SME market.'
In the home market, inkjet sales can be expected to follow PCs - Canon says nearly a third of its home printers are sold in bundles with PCs.
The advent of intelligent set-top boxes could provide another growing market and vendors claim that improvements in quality will soon drive replacement sales too.
'The movement in the market will not slow down in the foreseeable future,' says Tony Hall, director of the consumer division at Lexmark. 'The first generation of colour inkjet printers, two or three years ago, lacked the speed and high-quality photo printing of modern machines. A £99 printer today is better quality than one for which you paid £300 two or three years ago, so there will be a rush to throw away the old one and upgrade.'
The most popular colour technology is inkjet. Monochrome-only inkjets are almost unheard of these days and even portable printers are predominantly colour. The hardware is cheap and reasonably reliable, print quality is exceptional, and issues such as speed and print media are ongoing concerns.
User expectations are high, adds Hall: 'For £200 to £300, people expect laser-quality text, 10 pages per minute (ppm) in black and white and 4ppm to 5ppm in colour.'
The average street price of an inkjet is £139, compared with £233 two years ago, according to Romtec GFK. List prices start as low as £90 for a creditable output of 720x360 dots per inch (dpi). Compromise factors usually include having to change cartridges when switching from black to colour printing, and slow speeds - less than 4ppm for text and several minutes to print a page of colour graphics. But even in the bargain basement, specifications are improving. Lexmark's Z11, launched this month, claims to offer 1,200x1,200dpi resolution and photo-quality printing.
Machines for small businesses cost between £150 and £200. They usually have four-colour cartridges - black, cyan, magenta and yellow - and 600x600 or 1,200x1,200dpi. They tend to churn out text at 6ppm or 7ppm and claim to print colour graphics at 2ppm or 3ppm, although that only applies to simple pictures with limited coverage. General-purpose office inkjets usually fit Hall's spec of between £200 and £300, are high-quality and print between 5ppm and 10ppm - at least in theory.
Speed has increased significantly in the past few years, but colour printing can still be a lengthy process. Epson claims its Stylus Color 900 is the fastest inkjet on the market, offering black text speeds of up to 12ppm and colour graphics at up to 11.7ppm. The operative words are 'up to'.
When PC Dealer's sister magazine What PC? tested inkjet printers in its June issue, the 900 produced text at 6.4ppm and low-resolution graphics on plain paper at 2.3ppm. At its highest resolution of 1,440x720dpi, it took more than two minutes to print a single page of graphics. In its favour, the Stylus Color 900 turned out to be the fastest machine on test.
Go-faster technologies are under development. Epson differs from other printer manufacturers in that it uses a piezo crystal with an electric current passed across it to expel each ink droplet. Other vendors use heat to expel the droplet - a process known as thermal printing.
Piezo printing isn't necessarily faster than thermal, but by varying the electrical current, the droplet size can be varied. This allows the production of very small dots, down to three picolitres - half the diameter of a human hair - and much larger ones, for faster coverage of single-colour areas.
Hewlett Packard, number two in the inkjet market, takes a different approach to print head design in its 2000C Professional series. In its modular ink delivery system, print cartridges are static, rather than moving with the print heads, and the ink is piped to the four print heads individually.
The print heads have been enlarged, enabling them to cover a wider area at each pass, and can move more quickly. HP claims speeds of up to 10ppm for text and 4ppm for colour graphics, although these drop to 6.5ppm and 0.5ppm at top resolution.
Because the list price of inkjets has plummeted to £90, they sound like a pretty poor prospect for the reseller, and margins on printers are so low that it's hardly worth cashing the cheque. The advantage, however, is that colour printers are hungry beasts and customers keep coming back for paper, ink and other goodies. Here the pickings are much healthier, especially since users prefer the vendor's own consumables to cheaper imitations.
Lawrence Gold, product marketing executive for bubblejet printers at Canon, says: 'Hardware margins are increasingly being squashed. We make our money through consumables. That's what supports the lower hardware prices.'
A representative at Epson adds: 'Resellers are starting to see consumables as an opportunity for repeat sales and for building up a relationship with the customer.' This could extend beyond ink and paper to digital cameras, scanners and other graphics-based products.
Other manufacturers agree and it's easy to see why. Premium photographic paper can cost £10 for 15 sheets and blank greeting cards can work out at 25p each. There are dozens of options, from banners and labels to T-shirt transfers and transparency film. Epson makes 55 types of paper alone.
If you explain to customers the importance of using the best, sales could rocket.
'People are always trying to print photos and graphics on plain paper - it's a constant education process to explain that you get vastly better results using special paper,' says Gold.
Ink, too, is reassuringly expensive. On the cheapest machines, cartridges can be a third of the price of the original printer - up to £40 - and some cartridges are only good for 100 or 200 pages. There are estimates that colour inkjet printing costs up to 21p per sheet, excluding paper.
Part of the expense is that aside from Epson machines, the cartridge usually contains the print head as well as the ink. The easiest way for vendors to reduce costs, which isn't necessarily good news for the margin-hungry channel, is to produce a refillable cartridge with separate ink tanks for each colour. The tanks only cost a few pounds to refill and avoid having to throw away the whole cartridge when only one colour has run out.
Inkjet quality has improved in recent years and is generally assumed to be better than colour laser output - although only on expensive, high-grade paper which prevents the ink from soaking in and smudging. Many printers have software which automatically distinguishes between text and graphics and optimises printing.
Resolution enhancement technologies abound. Canon has several, including photo-realism and dot modulation - which varies the size of the dots.
On its top-of-the-range BJC 7100, plain paper optimised printing offers better results on cheap paper.
Advances have also been made in printing colour photographs. Photo-optimised devices include the Epson Stylus Photo 1200 and Canon BJC 4400 Photo, but many ordinary printers can be fitted with photographic ink cartridges - even those in the sub-£100 category. The photographic cartridges contain lighter hued ink which copes better with flesh tones and other natural colours and goes onto the paper more smoothly, reducing the pixellated or dotted effect often seen on inkjet output.
To save fiddling about, mid-range and high-end devices may have photographic and standard ink in the same cartridge. The downside is that photographic cartridges may use several times more ink, significantly increasing the cost per page. There are even fluorescent cartridges for banners, cards and OHP slides and it may be possible to fill ink tanks with a colour exactly matched to the user's corporate logo.
Bi-directional management software may be able to work out how much ink is left in the cartridge and how much will be required to print the next page, and also tell the printer not to start printing if there isn't enough. The software is becoming almost as common on high-end inkjets as on laser printers. USB interfaces are available on some mid to high-end machines and some photographic printers can print directly from digital cameras without being connected to a PC. Epson's Stylus Color Photo has a serial link for cameras, while Lexmark's 5770 has smart media and compact flash slots, plus an LCD screen to control exactly which shots are printed and their size.
In the office, high-end colour inkjets can now be shared as network printers.
Epson's Stylus Color 900N will be launched in July with an internal network card, at about £60 more than the standalone 900. HP makes network versions of the 2000C and 2500C, although the price hike is nearly £300, while for £149 Canon sells a network access box that plugs into the parallel port of most of its inkjets.
But inkjets aren't entirely suitable as network printers. Aside from being slower than lasers and a higher cost of printing - even for a black and white inkjet - they are simply not designed for the heavy workload of a busy network. Canon's BJC 6000, built to be an all-round workhorse and available in a network version, is only designed to print 1,667 mono pages and 333 colour pages per month, with a total life of 12,000 colour pages or 60,000 mono.
For high-volume work, a colour laser printer is the better bet. The average street price of colour lasers has fallen from about £4,800 to £2,750 since 1997, according to Romtec GFK. Sub-£2,000 colour lasers are quite easy to find, such as Tektronix's Phaser 740 range which starts at a list price of £1,805. Consumables are cheaper, too, with claimed costs of between 1p and 2.5p per colour page - more for large, densely coloured images.
Today, colour only accounts for about five per cent of the laser printer market, but this could be about to change. 'I think the main growth area in colour printing is going to be in lasers,' says Jo Hillier, research analyst at Romtec GFK.
Colour lasers work exactly like mono ones, heat-fusing dry toner powder onto the paper. Although their colours are not quite as rich as inkjets, they can achieve good results on cheap paper. Most tend to have a rather larger footprint than their monochrome cousins, but otherwise they look very similar and have similar specifications. Resolution is typically 600x600 or 1,200x1,200dpi, with the usual options of duplex (double-sided) printing, extra-large paper feeders and internal network cards.
Compared with inkjets, colour lasers are fast. Most departmental models run at 12ppm or 16ppm in monochrome, although to print in colour, most have to make four passes (one for each colour of toner), reducing rated speeds to about 4ppm. The exceptions are Lexmark and Oki, whose single-pass colour mechanisms allow speeds closer to mono printing.
An alternative to colour laser is solid ink printing, championed mostly by Tektronix, which sells as many solid ink printers as lasers. Solid ink works on a similar principle to inkjet, by melting resin-like ink and spraying it onto the paper. It freezes instantly, allowing it to print on cheap paper, card, and even tissue paper and fabric. Tektronix says the colour spectrum is wider than on a laser and the replacement ink blocks are easier to handle than toner refills.
The Tektronix Phaser 840 solid ink range starts at about £2,400 list price. Specifications and networking options are similar to colour lasers, except that colour print speeds are faster at a claimed 10ppm, with 100ppm technology now in prototype. Colour printing is slightly more expensive, but black ink sticks are supplied free.
As with inkjets, manufacturers of colour page printers are adding more sophisticated features. Xerox's DocuPrint NC60 laser, launched in May, can print remotely by receiving files via email and emailing back a status report, making it almost like a colour fax. And all Tektronix printers can be set to warn the operator by email when they are running low on toner. They can even email the reseller to order their own replacements - now that really does sound like a revenue stream for life.
Colour is cheaper than ever. There are speed and media issues to be sorted out but if the price is right, many can afford the wait.
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