Archive for June 3rd, 2007

Last week, my trusty Lexmark Optra R+ laser printer expired after eleven years of hard service. In a couple of days, I made myself an expert on alternatives, and bought a replacement. This effort at responsible consumerism emphasized to me how much and how little has changed in printers over the past decade.

Eleven years may seem like a long time to keep a printer, so I should explain that, while I’m a tech-journalist. I’m not a technophile. Nor am I a technophobe. I keep current on new technology, but, for personal use, I try to avoid the two extreme approaches by evaluating new hardware carefully according to its features and my needs before I introduce it into my life. By the time I accept a new piece of technology, I’ve researched it thoroughly and I’m prepared to pay for what I want.

That was the case with the old printer. Having installed it, I forgot about aside from occasionally cartridge replacements – until, years later, to my dismay and amazement , it commanded my attention again by failing to work.

What I bought was state-of-the-art for 1996: with true 1200 x 1200 dpi resolution and 16 megabytes of RAM. I might have topped it off with more RAM, but, today, it still compares favorably to new laser printers in its price range. In fact, many comparable laser printers still do only 600 x 600 dpi. Considering how much the clock speeds and caches of motherboards have increased in the last decade, this lack of change in something as basic as printer resolution is surprising. Apparently, 600 x 600 dpi is good enough for most people, and the industry has largely stagnated.

Most of the innovation in printers is in low end inkjets and color laser printers, both have which have dropped dramatically in price. There are even low end lasers for less than $100. But,on average, the main differences between today’s printers and those of a decade ago are that today’s printers carry more memory, and cost a quarter of their early counterparts. For example, I paid $1200 for my older printer, plus another couple of hundred for extra RAM. To buy the same functionality with four times the RAM cost me $320. Other differences, like built in support for more languages and perhaps a twenty percent reduction in size also exist, but these are relatively trivial differences.

Overall, things have changed so little in printer hardware that the largest innovation is probably the all-in-one machines that combine printing, scanning, copying, and faxing. But even these are a mixed blessing; because I have a color inkjet and a black and white laser printer, I now have three scanners, two of which are inferior to my dedicated scanner and that I never wanted.

That’s the difference, I suppose, between technology driven by the demands of the gaming industry and the demands of business. If video card development were driven by business’ needs, we’d probably still think that two megabyte cards were blazingly fast.

However, one area where great changes have occurred is in installing a printer under GNU/Linux. When I first installed GNU/Linux, printing support was via the lprng command and the painfully basic printtool, and I had to run dozens of tests before I found a driver that supported my printer. Had I been buying a printer for GNU/Linux, the only real advice would have been to get one that supported the postscript printing language.

By contrast, my first stop last week was LinuxPrinting.org, Till Kamppeter’s database that divides printers into four categories, based on how they work under GNU/Linux: Perfectly, Mostly, Partially, and Paperweight. My first stop was the Suggested Printers page to look for ideal models and manufacturers. Then, I went through the websites of half a dozen local hardware vendors, keeping an eye out for recommended manufacturers and checking the available models against the database and my requirements. After several hours’ work, I had produced a shopping list of half a dozen possible printers.

The next day, I located my first choice. Thanks to the foomatic database and the Common UNIX Printing System (CUPS), it was installed and running twenty minutes after I lugged it home. And most of that time was unpacking and assembling, and crawling around under the computer desk.

Clearly, then, some progress has been made in printers over the last decade – but it has been by the free software communities as much as the manufacturers or the marketplace. Admittedly, LinuxPrinting.org is part of The Linux Foundation, which many manufacturers support. Also, many of the advances in GNU/Linux printing are due directly to Hewlett-Packard’s free tools and drivers; because many of HP’s printers are postscript, they also run many of the printers made by other manufacturers. But the point is that, together, the community and the manufacturers have taken so much of the pain out of installing a printer under GNU/Linux that all I had to do was be a responsible consumer and shop around – and I would have done that regardless.

Still, I admit that I am disappointed to realize how little the basic specs have changed. A decade ago, I expected that 4800 dpi laser printers would be available by now – the equivalent quality of a fine book. So, while I’m pleased by the ugly but functional HP 3050 that I bought, I’m also a little disappointed that it is such a small improvement over my old printer.

Not for the first time, I’m left reflecting that, for an industry that once thought of itself as being composed of mavericks, the tech sector has grown awfully conservative.

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