REVIEWS

Desktop Color

NeXT advances the state of the art in personal color printers

by Dan Lavin

When we wrote a preview of the NeXT Color Printer (NCP) based on its paper specs, we were ecstatic about the prospect of PostScript color output on the desktop at a breakthrough price (see "Color for Everyone," NeXTWORLD, Spring 1992). Now that we've been able to put the printer through the paces in our lab under beta NeXTSTEP 3.0, our enthusiasm is tempered only slightly by performance realities.

The NCP lives up to its billing for quality output, but we found the processing requirements of an attached NeXT system so great that the product does not fulfill the vision of a true personal color printer. While it represents a breakthrough in PostScript color printing, potential buyers need to recog- nize the limitations as well as outstanding benefits of the device.

Like the NeXT Laser Printer, the NCP is less expensive than equivalent devices on other platforms because the PostScript processing is done on board the NeXT machine that's connected to it. With the Laser Printer, that approach involves few trade-offs. It can sit on a network or individual desktop spitting out pages in the background with little effect on the performance of an attached NeXT computer.

Unfortunately, because of the size and complexity of color images, the same is not necessarily true for the NCP.

It is probably unreasonable to expect the NCP to perform as well as the NeXT Laser. As long as buyers compare it with competitive color printers and not their hopes and dreams, most will agree that it is a great product.

Basics
The NCP is built around the Canon Color BubbleJet printer engine. There are four print heads inside the NCP, one each for cyan, magen-ta, yellow, and black, the components of the CMYK color model. Each print head has 64 nozzles that deliver a single drop of ink to the page. An illusion of full color is produced by laying down the dots at 360 per inch under the control of PostScript Level 2 inside the NeXT machine itself.

The printer weighs in at 22 pounds and measures 20.5 inches wide by 16.6 inches deep by 6.7 inches high. Aesthetically, it resembles the other black toys with fins on your desk. It takes paper up to 11 by 17 inches or the A3 European standard. It connects to a NeXT computer via the SCSI port for data throughput of up to 4MB per second.

Priced at $3495, the NCP is half the price, or less, of any comparable color printer. Thermal-wax alternatives range from $6995 for the NEC ColorMate to $9495 for the Seiko PSX-4. The only comparable plain-paper technology is the Tektronix Phaser III PXi, which costs $9995.

The per-page costs are somewhat higher than we estimated earlier (about 24 cents per average page for the toner and 10 cents per sheet of the special paper you need for highest quality). Keep in mind, though, that only the amount of toner needed is used on any given page. So if you want to print only a small yellow circle, for example, it may cost as little as a penny a sheet on plain paper.

Test drive
The printer is easy to set up. Loading materials was much easier than with thermal-wax printers, for example, which use inks delivered on sheets resembling plastic wrap. Ink for the NCP comes in plug-and-play cartridges. No maintenance or cleaning is necessary.

The primary machine we used for testing was a loaded NeXTstation Turbo Color with 32MB of memory and a 400MB hard disk, a heftier configuration than many users will have available. We tried it on less-loaded machines and found that performance was indeed slower but not dramatically so.

We used a random collection of color images for our test, including scans, line art, and drawings of varying complexity and color coverage. Figuring that people will also use it for ordinary tasks, we tried it with black-and-white text as well. We experimented with both the coated paper and the normal copier paper we use around the office.

Output
The printer handled everything we threw at it. The connection, even with a beta operating system, was solid. The printer never malfunctioned, never misprinted, never jammed. The output looked, for the most part, excellent.

Color reproduction is surprisingly good. The results are especially impressive with line art and "soft" images that benefit from lots of blending and dithering. If you're used to the "cartoony" effect of the RGB color model used in thermal-wax printers, you'll find that colors are more realistic and subtle. Built-in PostScript Level 2 provides color correction, which yields accurate, vivid colors, though the CMYK model always has trouble reproducing certain colors, like sky blue.

We complained in our preview of a grainy texture in the printing, especially when the printer tried to print light shades of colors and certain halftones. This has been improved significantly, though not completely corrected.

Reproductions of photographs are often quite stunning, though not quite up to the standard of very expensive dye-sublimation printers, and not even close to the quality of a Canon Color Laser Copier or a printing press. The quality of output is excellent for presentations, color comps, and reports. It is not appropriate, however, for high-end color proofing.

A good rule of thumb is that output should not be a stepping stone to some other goal. The NCP isn't suited for creating color mechanicals or photographic masters for quantity reproductions. It's good for short runs of letterhead originals, transparencies, and other things that are in themselves the final product.

The results are superior in most cases when using the special coated paper instead of plain paper. Anything with a lot of blending looked fine on plain stock, but precise line art tended to blur. The colors were always better on the coated paper. In most cases, the 10-cents-per-sheet cost of the special paper is not a big deal. It might be a problem, however, when you want to run off 500 copies of an intricate line-art logo onto Ivory Laid bond paper, for example. The coated paper comes in only a few varieties. We were also annoyed at having to specify plain paper in the Print panel every time we wanted to output to noncoated stock.

Performance
Print times were reasonably good about two minutes for an average image.

Unfortunately, the NeXT machine itself ground to a virtual halt when processing color images. For all practical purposes, we were unable to do anything else with the machine while the image was printing. This is mildly annoying with small images but highly frustrating with big ones.

Why does this happen? Post-Script files are composed of three sets of commands: to generate text, generate graphic elements like lines and circles, and process bit-mapped images like scans and TIFF files. The CPU steps through PostScript commands one by one, letting other programs do their work in between. That's no problem if most of what you do involves text and graphic elements. Drawing a line, for example, is a discrete step that takes little time. Unfortunately, to some approximation, processing a bit-mapped image is also one instruction. With the additional processing drain caused by PostScript's color correction, you'll find yourself going for a coffee break every time you print a TIFF.

The net result is that the printer needs a NeXT machine as a dedicated print server if it is used a lot for bit-mapped images. That makes the $3500 printer an $8500 printer still a better deal than thermal-wax printers but not the breakthrough personal printer we'd hoped for. Also, if you publish your personal NCP to the network an easy task you're throwing yourself on the mercy of your officemates.

Our recommendation: If you plan to use the NCP mainly for line art and presentations and just the occasional bit-map, you can connect it to any machine on the network. If you will use it for large numbers of images, don't share it on the network unless it's connected to a dedicated print server.

Conclusion
Despite our performance concerns, the NCP is a great printer at a great price. We had hoped that the NCP would be the color printer for the everyman that it would prove to be a color version of the popular NeXT Laser Printer. Unfortunately, printer technology is not yet at that point. Performance limitations and the cost of materials conspire against this ideal.

Considering the NCP in the real world and comparing it with other color printers that are complicated to own and operate, the NCP wins hands down it's half the cost, faster, and has better output. Further, it's environmentally sound, wanting little toner and containing its own waste.

The NCP is highly recommended. Just remember to manage your expectations.

Dan Lavin is a senior editor at NeXTWORLD. He can be reached at dlavin@nextworld.com.


NeXT Color Printer

4 Cubes

With careful management of user expectations, an excellent printer and an excellent value. Performance of the host machine is affected, so a dedicated print server may be necessary if the printer is shared or used to print a large number of bit-mapped images.

$3495

$20/200 sheets of letter-size paper

$14/100 sheets of legal-size paper

$50/50 transparencies

$35 for each color cartridge

NeXT Computer, 900 Chesapeake Dr., Redwood City, CA 94063.

800/848-6398.