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.)
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.