Printing on the fly

The $249 Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 450ci prints in draft mode at 9 ppm for black and 0.5 ppm for color.

Canon's BJC-85 is a bubble-jet model that prints 5.5 ppm in black and 2 ppm in color. It's $249.

Brother's $299 MW-100 includes software that reduces 8.5-by-11-inch documents to 2.9-by-4.1, and prints at 4 ppm.

Portable printers travel light, but you have to choose between weight and options

Many technology purchases involve selecting from thousands of options. When buying a notebook PC, for example, factors to consider include vendor, hard drive, removable media drives, wireless connectivity, CPU speed, RAM, battery type and more.

Picking a printer to take on the road with that notebook, on the other hand, is a piece of cake.
'There are not too many players in this area and not many models to choose from,' said Jennifer Thorwart, senior research analyst covering printers for International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass.

Portable ink-jet sales figures have remained in the 300,000- to 400,000-unit range since at least 1997, so manufacturers are not going to spend a large portion of their R&D budgets pursuing this small number of customers. But for users who do buy one, it is an indispensable tool.

'There is obviously a core niche of consumers interested in these products,' Thorwart said. 'These people can see the value of being able to print at a location, such as when they need an original document to be signed.'

They have little more than a dozen models to choose from, and their approaches vary widely. The 14 models in the accompanying chart use four different printing methods and range from a six-pound dot-matrix printer to a model the size of a small paperback that weighs just over half a pound'including battery and 50 sheets of paper.

All the printers have some things in common. They are battery-powered, nearly all have an adapter to run out of a car's cigarette lighter socket and all have some sort of wireless connection, either infrared or Bluetooth.

Technology is the difference

The main difference among the units is their printing technology, which affects other design factors, so we will use this as the means of categorizing the printers.

Dot matrix. There is one full-sheet portable dot-matrix printer on the market, O'Neil Product Development's 8i. It uses fan-fold paper from 3 inches to 9.5 inches wide and is ideal for printing multipart forms, but not graphics.
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It prints at a rate of 180 characters per second. At 6.3 pounds, it is not one you would want to carry on a plane with your laptop, but its rugged design makes it suitable for field workers who continually need to print documents on location.

Ink-jet and bubble-jet. These are small, battery-powered versions of the regular desktop ink-jet and bubble-jet printers. At 2 to 5 pounds, they are lighter than the dot-matrix printers, but much bulkier and heavier than thermal printers.

All models print on standard ink-jet paper stocks, all print in color and they all have higher resolution than either the dot-matrix or the thermal printers. They are also less expensive in terms of equipment cost but do have the ongoing expense of print cartridges.

Canon has four models. The BJC-55 and BJC-85 both print 730 by 360 dots per inch, the lowest of any printers in this category. But at 2.1 and 3.1 pounds, they are also half the weight of some of the other models.

The i70 and i80 are nearly identical. They have the same dimensions, weight (4 pounds) and price ($249). Both are designed for printing photos as well as text, since they have up to 1,200-by-4,800-dpi resolution for color printing and also take direct input from a digital camera, rather than having to send the data via a computer.

The primary difference between the two models is that the i80 has a Bluetooth connection, which the i70 lacks. For $100, Canon also offers a scanner cartridge, the IS12, that installs in place of the ink cartridges. This turns the BJC-55 and BJC-85 into 360-dpi, 24-bit color scanners. If you have a photograph taken with a film camera, for example, you can scan it and then reinstall the ink cartridge to print additional copies.

Hewlett-Packard also has three nearly identical models, the Deskjet 450ci, 450cbi and 450wbt. All weigh a bit over 4 pounds and have 1,200- by 1,200-dpi resolution for black and 1,200-by-4,800 for color. In addition to parallel, USB and infrared connections, they will also take files from CompactFlash Type I cards.

The 450ci costs $249 and doesn't include a battery as standard equipment. For an additional $50, the 450cbi comes with the battery. And for $349, the 450wbt includes both the battery and a Bluetooth connection.
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Italy's Olivetti Technost offers two lightweight bubble-jet printers, the Nomad-Jet 100 and Nomad-Jet 200 Bluetooth. Each weighs 2.4 pounds and, as the names implied, the primary difference is that one has an infrared connection and the other uses Bluetooth. They also accept regular alkaline batteries in addition to their nickel-metal hydride rechargeables, so you can keep spare batteries on hand for when you can't recharge. Unfortunately, these printers are not sold by Olivetti's U.S. subsidiary, but you can purchase them for use by foreign offices.

Thermal printers. Direct thermal printers don't have print cartridges or a moving print head, which makes them by far the smallest and lightest option. But they have much lower resolution than ink-jets and only print in black. You don't have the expense of ink cartridges, but you need to buy special paper.

Pentax has two models that print full 8.5- by 11-inch sheets but weigh less than a pound. Both are 10 inches long, 2 inches wide and only one inch high. The $399 PocketJet II is designed for use with laptops and desktops and has 300-dpi resolution. The $319 PocketJet 200 has a lower, 200-dpi resolution and is for use with personal digital assistants.

Brother also has two models, the MW-140BT ($399), which comes with Bluetooth, and the MW-100 ($299), which uses infrared. These are by far the smallest and lightest printers. Including a battery and 50 sheets of paper, they only weigh 9 to 10 ounces. At 6.3 by 3.9 by 0.7 inches, they almost fit into a shirt pocket.

But the size does come with trade-offs. The paper, which costs 9 cents a sheet, is only 3 by 4 inches. This will work fine for printing out items like PDA format documents, notes and perhaps e-mail messages. It has software that shrinks 8-1/2-by-11 documents to fit on the smaller paper, but they will be hard to read at only 300-dpi resolution. Before purchasing a printer, be sure to consider how it will be used and what devices it needs to interface with. All printers offer a variety of connection options, but you may need to buy accessories to get what you need. Whether you will be using it in a hotel room, a car or an airplane affects power needs. Is color needed, or is a smaller, lighter thermal printer a better choice? Once these questions are answered, it will be easy to select the printer that best suits your needs.

Drew Robb of Glendale, Calif., writes about IT.

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