Printers and paper

As I men­tioned in the in­tro­duc­tion, it really doesn’t mat­ter what word-pro­cess­ing or page-lay­out pro­gram you use—all of them are ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing good typography.

But your printer and pa­per can make a big dif­fer­ence in the fi­nal re­sult. As your eye for ty­pog­ra­phy gets bet­ter, you’ll start to no­tice that not all print­ers are alike.

(I am not a com­pen­sated en­dorser of any prod­ucts men­tioned be­low. These rec­om­men­da­tions re­flect my ex­pe­ri­ences. Yours may vary.)

Laser. Inkjet print­ers used to be the cheaper and lower-qual­ity al­ter­na­tive to laser print­ers. Inkjets are a lot bet­ter than they were 20 years ago, but they still can’t equal the crisp edges of laser printing.

Why? Inkjet print­ers work by spray­ing small droplets of liq­uid ink onto the pa­per, which start out wet and then dry in the air. The wet droplets spread slightly as they’re ab­sorbed into the pa­per. That’s a de­sir­able ef­fect for pho­tographs, be­cause it helps blend ad­ja­cent col­ors, and it’s why inkjets are pre­ferred for photo print­ing. It’s not de­sir­able for text, be­cause it makes edges less dis­tinct. And as the text gets smaller, the prob­lem be­comes more pronounced.

Laser print­ers work by de­posit­ing par­ti­cles of dry toner onto the pa­per and then fus­ing the toner to the pa­per with heat. This cre­ates a sharper edge on the printed page and makes laser print­ers bet­ter suited for print­ing text.

Over the years, laser print­ers have also got­ten a lot cheaper. So there’s no longer any rea­son to use an inkjet printer.

Be­fore a printer can ren­der a page, the lay­out on the screen has to be con­verted into an in­ter­me­di­ate for­mat us­ing a page-de­scrip­tion lan­guage. If you ever won­dered what a printer dri­ver does, that’s what.

Post­Script is a pro­pri­etary page-de­scrip­tion lan­guage owned by Adobe. In the ’80s, most laser print­ers were built on Post­Script, in much the same way that most com­put­ers to­day are built on Win­dows. As laser-print­ing hard­ware be­came cheaper to man­u­fac­ture, printer mak­ers sought al­ter­na­tives to Post­Script with lower li­cens­ing fees.

Most print­ers to­day don’t use li­censed Post­Script. The main al­ter­na­tive is Post­Script em­u­la­tion, which ap­prox­i­mates Post­Script us­ing non-Adobe tech­nol­ogy. Other page-de­scrip­tion lan­guages ex­ist—the most com­mon one is PCL, owned by Hewlett-Packard and found mostly in their printers.

Why should you care?

First, dif­fer­ent page-de­scrip­tion lan­guages—and dif­fer­ent em­u­la­tions of a page-de­scrip­tion lan­guage—will ren­der a given doc­u­ment slightly dif­fer­ently. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, those dif­fer­ences are of­ten most no­tice­able in the qual­ity of printed text, and that qual­ity can vary widely.

Sec­ond, no printer can ever be bet­ter than its printer dri­ver. Garbage in, garbage out. Even if a printer has ex­cel­lent tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tions—great res­o­lu­tion and print speed—it can be hob­bled by a bad dri­ver. And if it turns out your printer has bad dri­ver soft­ware, there’s not much you can do ex­cept buy a dif­fer­ent printer.

Among page-de­scrip­tion lan­guages, Post­Script is still the gold stan­dard. It dom­i­nates pro­fes­sional pub­lish­ing. There­fore, if you want the best printed out­put, con­sider a printer that uses true li­censed Post­Script. (For in­stance, most mem­bers of the Xe­rox Phaser line of print­ers. I own one of these.)

If you’re con­sid­er­ing a printer that uses Post­Script em­u­la­tion, scru­ti­nize its out­put be­fore you buy. Get sam­ples of black text at var­i­ous sizes. Ig­nore the ritzy color photo that most print­ers use as their au­to­matic test page. That photo may be pretty, but it won’t tell you any­thing about how the printer per­forms with text-heavy documents.

A pho­to­copier used to be an in­dis­pens­able tool for a writer. But to­day’s pho­to­copiers are just laser print­ers with a cam­era at­tached. And as of­fice laser print­ers have got­ten faster, the pho­to­copier has be­come less essential.

For text doc­u­ments, copies made di­rect from the laser printer will al­ways look bet­ter than pho­to­copies. The cost per page will also be some­what higher.

For im­age-in­ten­sive doc­u­ments—for in­stance, scanned im­ages—the pho­to­copier will al­ways be faster.

If I could have only one laser printer, it would be a color laser printer. But I have two—one color, one mono­chrome—so I know that the mono­chrome per­for­mance of a color laser printer is not as good as a ded­i­cated mono­chrome printer in the same price range. This makes sense—a color laser printer is really four laser print­ers shar­ing a sin­gle pa­per path.

If you truly never print color, there’s no need for a color laser printer.

Though I have dis­suaded you from us­ing color for text in doc­u­ments, it’s fine to use color im­ages as il­lus­tra­tions or exhibits.

Be­ware—mak­ers of color laser print­ers soft-pedal the costs of color out­put, usu­ally with op­ti­mistic as­sump­tions about how many pages a color toner car­tridge will pro­duce. Al­ways check the cost of re­place­ment toner car­tridges be­fore buy­ing a color printer, and re­mem­ber that every sheet of color out­put de­pletes four car­tridges simultaneously.

Also be­ware of en­try-level color laser print­ers. While fine for oc­ca­sional use, they are eas­ily over­whelmed by large im­age files (for in­stance, pho­tographs). Writ­ers who rely on cheap color print­ers usu­ally find this out at an in­op­por­tune mo­ment, like 20 min­utes be­fore a deadline.

A du­plex printer can print on both sides of a sheet of pa­per; a sim­plex printer only prints on one side.

If you care at all about the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of print­ing, get a du­plex printer. A du­plex­ing unit is of­ten avail­able as an ac­ces­sory for sim­plex print­ers. You don’t have to print fewer pages. You’ll just be print­ing them on half the num­ber of sheets of pa­per. What’s not to like?

I shed a tear when­ever some­one sends me a doc­u­ment that’s not printed du­plex. That means I wipe a lot of tears. Folks, we have the tech­nol­ogy. Let’s use it.

One caveat: if you switch to du­plex print­ing, you may need to get pa­per that’s more opaque, so the print­ing on one side doesn’t show through to the other.

As noted above, laser print­ers work by de­posit­ing dry toner onto pa­per and fus­ing it onto the pa­per us­ing heated metal rollers. Pa­per has a nat­u­rally un­even sur­face. The more un­even the sur­face, the less well the toner ad­heres to the pa­per when it goes through the rollers. (Think about stick­ing a stamp on an en­ve­lope vs. stick­ing it on a brick.)

For best re­sults, use the smoothest pa­per you can find. Choose pa­per des­ig­natedlaser” over pa­per des­ig­natedcopy” orinkjet”—these va­ri­eties tend to be less smooth. I use Ham­mer­mill Laser Print be­cause it’s smooth, opaque, and very bright. (Among pa­pers, bright­ness mea­sures how well the pa­per re­flects white light.)

If you go shop­ping for nicer pa­per at the sta­tionery store (e.g., to use as let­ter­head), choose wove pa­per, which is smooth, rather than laid pa­per, which has a ribbed tex­ture. Toner af­fixes bet­ter to wove paper.