Ink-Jet Printers Let Home Users 'Color it Beautiful'

Computer users lead a double life. On screen, they work in color. On paper, their ideas still come out in black and white.

It's time to put an end to this two-tone existence. Color printers have gotten good enough and cheap enough that almost every home user can afford one.

During the past few weeks, I've tested three color printers under $400. They're called ink-jet printers, because they spray minute droplets of ink onto paper. Early models did a rather sloppy job of this, so the print quality wasn't high. The best of today's ink-jets, however, can serve a home office quite well.

Of the three ink-jets I tried - the Hewlett-Packard's Deskjet 660C, the Epson Color Stylus II, and Canon's BJC4100 - my favorite was the Hewlett-Packard Deskjet. It produced the best text and image documents. Text came out very clear; colors were sharp and bright - easily surpassing the Epson and the Canon. The Deskjet 660C (known as the DeskWriter 660C for Macs) has also won top honors from PC Magazine and FamilyPC.

For an extra $20, Hewlett-Packard bundles the printer with software and paper stock for do-it-yourself greeting cards, labels, and stickers. The package includes a reduced-price offer from Kodak that can turn your family photos into images that can be included in a Christmas card or end-of-the-year letter. (The package also adds a super-saver mode to the printer, so that little Johnny won't exhaust your ink supply when he prints out 100 copies of his computer masterpiece.)

Don't count out the competition either. Ink-jet technology is moving so fast that Canon and Epson will probably catch up with and perhaps surpass Hewlett-Packard when they introduce their new models.

Whatever model you buy, make sure it includes a separate black ink cartridge for black-and-white printing. Three-color models try to make black by mixing all the colors, which not only looks funny, but also wastes precious color ink.

The biggest drawback with all ink-jets is speed. Printing out a single page of text took anywhere from 32 to 50 seconds (the Canon was the fastest). That was the time range it took from pressing the ''Print'' button to getting a finished page. All these printers are faster per page when they're handling many black-and-white pages at a time.

Color is another matter. My full-color pages took up to seven minutes to print out on the Epson. Color laser printers are much faster than that. But at $5,000 to $10,000 apiece, they're not exactly within everyone's reach.

So the real choice for home users is between a color ink-jet or a black-and-white laser, which today can be had for as little as $500. Admittedly, laser printers are faster and produce better images. According to Hewlett-Packard, they're also cheaper to operate, using roughly 2 cents of ink per page of text compared with about 3 cents for an ink-jet. If you do a lot of printing, especially in an office, a laser is probably the best choice. But for the home, I'd choose a color ink-jet, especially if it's the Deskjet 660C.

Why? Because a little color can turn normal text into an eye-catching document. Last month, for example, I printed out 75 trip-information sheets and was amazed at how eye-catching they became when a few headlines were highlighted in red.

''As people realize the power of color to convey ideas, people will continue to go in droves to color ink-jets and color lasers,'' says Michelle Hamilton, home-printer product manager for Hewlett-Packard.

Join the droves. Go color.

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