We bought a new printer last weekend.
And it got me thinking about a few things.
One, just how much I need to clean out the basement storeroom, or as I like to call it, the Stonekettle Station Hall Of Computing and Dust Bunnies,
and two, just how much technology has changed since I bought my first computer and printer.
Now by “first computer” I mean first professional business machine, not the Commodore VIC20 and C64 I first bought - though as I recall, the printer I bought with those machines was actually a pretty serious piece of hardware in all its cutting edge 9-pin dot matrix glory, and if I remember right it actually cost more than both the Vic and the C64 combined.
No, the first professional machine I owned was an IBM PC XT Model 5160 bought through the government employees purchase program in 1985. The thing cost somewhere in the thousands of dollars. That price did NOT include color graphics (that’s how you knew it was a professional business machine, not a toy. Business machines were monochrome), a hard drive (though it did come with two 5.25 dual sided floppy drives – remember when you had to specify the difference between single sided and dual sided? And dual sided cost extra? How about double sided, double density disks? No? Punks) or a printer.
I eventually ended up with some cheap 9-pin dot matrix printer. I don’t remember the manufacturer, or much about it other than it sounded like yards of ripping cloth when it printed. It was hideously slow, as befitting its state of the art serial cord interface. You had to program the serial port directly, and map it to the DOS drivers manually using pipes and redirects in the DOS CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT boot up files. It printed in kind of a faded purple color, and the ribbons were impossible to get in Spain were I lived at the time. Oh, and it was tractor fed from a big box of fanfold paper.
Neither the computer or the printer lasted for very long. I sold them both and bought a Zenith Z-248, again through the government employees purchase program. Now the Zenith was a beast. I had learned a lot about personal computers by then and knew I wanted the biggest and most powerful machine I could get. The Zenith was that in spades. 80286 processor, with 80287 math coprocessor, one whole Meg of RAM, and (joy!) an internal 20Meg hard drive (20 whole megabytes, I couldn’t conceive of ever using up all that storage space – today I have a camera that takes digital pictures in TIFF format that wouldn’t fit a single image on that drive and my cell phone has 8 Gigabytes of internal storage).
Now, what printer should I get? What I really wanted was one those new HP Laser Printers – but they were about eight grand and were the size of a mini-fridge (This being a huge improvement over their commercial predecessors which cost literally tens of thousands and were the size of a mini-van). No way I could afford something like that on Navy petty officer’s pay, even with my re-enlistment bonus. But in 1987 Hewlett Packard had just come out with something they called the Deskjet, based on ink jet technology. Ink jet had been around in one form or another since the late 50’s, but it was never a commercially viable technology until the mid-1980’s. Jerry Pournelle reviewed one and gave it a big thumbs up in Byte magazine. Supposedly I could get professional quality for a lot less money in a much smaller package – and if I remember correctly, HP advertised Laser quality for under a $1000 in Computer Shopper. That I could do, and I bought one of the first models made by mail order (I was living in Iceland at the time and I’m pretty sure it was the only Deskjet on the island at the time). It was a great printer, fast, really fast at 4 whole pages per minute (seriously this was a step up from dot-matrix) due to its fancy Centronics (parallel) interface, and there was a disk with included DOS and Windows drivers. It was quiet. It printed crisp clear text, better than anything I was using at work. About the only drawback was that the ink tended to smear if your hands were damp, and it ran right off the page if you got it wet.
That Z-248 and its odd DEC-like backplane architecture went through many upgrades and lasted longer than any computer I’ve had before or since. But eventually it was replaced by a Gateway 2000 486/33. Which was the first tower cased machine I ever owned, with room for endless drive bays and expansion. That’s it on the far left in the picture below.
In addition to the six expansion bays in the front, there are twelve more rear-facing and internally. Honestly I don’t remember what size drive it came with, but there are now at least four drives in there (for a total of well, well under a gig. I think it was around 500megs, but I can’t remember). It sounded like a jet taxiing for take off when it was fully booted up. It was also the first computer we bought that came with a fancy new 3.5 Floppy drive - not the one you can see, that was an upgrade to a "mini" drive after the original "full sized" drive died. And if you look carefully you’ll see a tape backup unit, added later along with two CD-ROM drives. This was also the first computer that I used to access the new online world, first through BBS’s, then CompuServe, and then the Internet, using an external modem cable to the serial port – 9600baud, then 14.4Kbs, then 56.6. Wow! (show of hands, how many of you know what a serial port is? How many of you have ever used one?)
The HP Deskjet? Well, that was still chugging along and nothing better had come out.
Eventually the 486 was upgraded with a new mother board and a Pentium 1, and I bought a new HP Deskjet II.
Tubby, the grey cat there, is on top of the Gateway’s replacement, a Pentium II HP XL. The machine served us well for a very long time. We bought an upgraded HP Deskjet 550C to go with it, and for the first time could print in color. The problem was that the 550C was slow. Horribly slow. And by then laser printers had actually become affordable – so we went looking for one and came away with that Brother MFC-8600 Professional multifunction machine sitting in the rack directly behind the cat. At the time, it was one of the few printers that utilized the, then, new USB interface standard. It prints 40 pages a minute (compared to 6 for the Deskjet it replaced) and can scan 30 pages a minute in black and white. And that beast is still hands down the best computer purchase I’ve ever made. The Brother MFC-8600 is fast, quiet, and utterly reliable. It’s an excellent fax machine and standalone copier. It holds two reams of paper and prints absolutely crisp text and pictures in black and white. The integrated scanner is only grey scale though and it can’t scan odd sized documents. But it has lasted us since 1999 and it’s still going strong, and it has outlasted both the HP a310 and a350 computers (stacked one on top the other on the right hand side of the above picture) that replaced the XL – and it’s currently plugged into the HP-6800 series Pentium IV machine that I’m typing on and that you can just see on the far right of the picture.
Along the way, we’ve had a bunch of other cheaper printers, a Cannon Pixma and a couple of HP Photojets for printing pictures. And I’ve still got an old Okidata wide carriage dot matrix printer somewhere around here and a couple of boxes of fanfold, tractor feed paper (you know, just in case I need to print Pascal code from the 1980’s). But the Brother MFC-8600 has been our workhorse for over a decade now.
The problem is that the Brother is getting old, it still works great, but there’s no driver for Vista – so I can only use it to print, the rest of its capabilities are of very limited utility. And while we’re on the subject of Vista and drivers, my old HP flatbed scanner, which has given us great service, is no longer supported and Vista can’t talk to it at all*.
Now before you get all spun up and start making suggestions, understand something here. I like Vista (Don’t even look surprised. How long have you people been reading this blog? You know I’m not right in the head.) Vista works for me. Yes, it has some weird drawbacks, especially in a corporate or commercial setting, but for it works for me. I like it and I don’t want to use anything else. I’m not saying you have to like it. Got it? Good. Great, let’s move on then.
So, we were looking for a new printer and/or scanner.
I’m a big fan of multifunction machines. My desktop real estate is limited and I wanted something that would do everything I needed in one compact package. I wanted a color printer and one that would print hi-res photos and that had multiple paper trays, one for regular bond paper and one for photo paper (I need to print photos for use in the shop. I can’t use a computer out there, the dusty environment and power spikes from the heavy duty equipment would kill a power supply very quickly). I also wanted a network machine – one, because I’m tired of hanging printers off of my work machines, and two because a printer wired to a computer means the printer needs to be within about seven feet of the supporting machine which limits my office arrangement. This irritates me. I didn’t spend twenty years risking my ass in defense of truth, justice, and the America Way so that imperialistic USB cord manufactures could dictate my office layout. Screw them.
Last weekend we picked up an HP Photosmart C7280 All-in-One professional multifunction machine. Like the Brother MFC, it’s a printer, fax, copier, and scanner. Unlike the Brother it’s a color printer, an inkjet, and it’s also a network machine – both wired and wireless.
First, it’s glossy. It has this kind of retro, 1950’s kitchen appliance look to it. I like that. Personal computing equipment has been in our homes for two decades now, and most of it still looks like something built by a defense contractor. In the last couple of years HP has began building glossily beautiful cases for their equipment and I like that.
It’s solid. The thing weighs a ton, a hell of a lot more than you’d expect for its size. It’s well built, nothing flimsy here.
It’s intelligently laid out. All controls are on the front or top. I hate devices that have controls and indicators hidden around back or on the sides. The only things that should be located on the back of the machine are the cords. Period. The power switch belongs on the front and it should be a big damned button that is clearly marked. I want all the toggles and tabs and flipper jobbers for clearing paper jams accessible without hunting and without having to move the machine. I want the paper tray, both load and finish, and scanner/copier feed trays on the front or on top where I can get to them even if I rack-mount the printer. Ditto for the toner cartridges. The C7280 meets all of those requirements and then some. HP put a high resolution color graphics display on the machine, it’s small but it’s bright and it’s mounted on a pivot so you can see it clearly any position. I like that touch a lot. The controls are clearly marked and grouped according to function and the important ones light up in function specific context. I like this feature too, a lot.
Network set up is easy. Unbox the printer. Pull off the packing tape. Open the front panel, load the six ink cartridges. Plug it in. Push the power button. Then you get three connection options, USB direct to machine, wired network to your network router/hub, or 802.11 wireless network or Bluetooth. I selected wireless setup from the display control panel, entered my network encryption keys and the C7280 connected seamlessly to my wireless network. For good measure I tried it via wired connection via standard CAT5 Ethernet cable as well, since I had a cable handy. Both methods worked just fine for connecting the C7280 to the network and the printer appeared instantly on Vista’s network map.
You need to install the HP Solutions software for each computer in the network. On the first machine I selected “Advanced” installation and ended up using the default settings at each selection point along the way. For the other half dozen machines in the network I just clicked “Express” install and let the HP software run the process. Both worked just fine. The software package is a big installation though and takes 20-30 minutes depending on your software and hardware configuration. There were repeated dire warnings that the software might not be able to connect to the printer due to firewall and network security programs running on my various machines, but I had no problems connecting to the C7280 under either AVG or Norton security systems using both Vista and XP. The software connected immediately to the printer, asked me to print a test picture, and opened HP’s Solution Center software.
I like the Solution Center software. It’s simple, laid out intelligently, and tells me what I need to know at a glance. It gives me complete access to all of the C7280’s functions and status, an to HP’s support site. Help is built in, but I haven’t needed it. I glanced through the online manual, it looks intelligently organized and complete to my cursory glance.
I particularly like the scanner functionality. I can scan up to 50 pages from the top mounted sheet feeder, or individual odd sized documents from the glass. Documents can be scanned into all the usual formats, including excellent OCR RTF, but they can also be scanned directly into multi-paged, searchable PDF format. Now, I normally hate PDF, especially as an on-line format, but for certain things I think it is the best solution – say like scanning contracts and documents for the archives. Prior to the HP Solution center, we scanned documents in graphics format, then converted them to non-searchable PDF if they contained tables and graphics, or scanned them via OCR into RTF and then converted that into searchable PDF for text. With the C7280 and Solutions Center I can create searchable PDF documents of any size directly from the scanner.
Printing, including, color printing is fast, for a jet printer, about 33PPM. The C7280 also has double sided printing capability, though the rear mounted duplexer is a little loud. Not obnoxiously so, but it's distracting. Color photo printing is a little slow, depending on the quality of the photo and your printer settings, but the results are spectacular – better than any home printer I’ve ever seen and better than most commercial photo printers. The colors are fantastic. And speaking of color, there are six printer cartridges in the C7280, black, yellow, light blue, dark blue, pink, and magenta. The Solution Center or the printer display tells you the status of each cartridge and you only replace the colors you need instead of the whole damned toner cartridge like you have to on most color printers. The ink dries instantly and permanently, gone are the early days of smeared printouts.
The C7280 incorporates universal card readers and camera interfaces. You can select, edit, and print photos directly from the front panel or from the Solution Center. The card readers also function as a network drive and storage device and can be accessed from any computer in the network seamlessly. I like this feature a lot. I can pop a card in one of the reader slots and instantly share the pictures or data with every machine on the net without effort.
Faxing works as you’d expect – i.e. just fine, including hi-res color faxing to color fax capable machines.
If there’s anything I don’t like about it, it’s that the main feed tray lacks capacity. It only holds about 100 sheets compared to the full ream of heavy bond paper I can load in the Brother, two reams if you include the second paper tray. I wish the paper tray was larger, or there was an option to purchase an extended capacity tray.
I’ve been playing with the C7280 for a week now and overall I have to say that at $299.00 it is a bargain and a hell of a good machine.
I’ll move the C7280 into the printer rack later today, replacing the old hardwired Canon photo printer. I’m going to keep the Brother 8600 as a laser printer and as the fax machine for now (mostly because I’m too lazy to crawl under the desk and move the phone lines). The Canon will be moved to the basement storage room to join the ever growing pile of antiquated hardware and boxes of long outdated software (Hey, shove off. You mark my words, some day the the Smithsonian is going to make me an offer. Or someday the government will need an old 7-track Honeywell tape drive to read the CIA data files from the Kennedy Assassination and I’ll be ready. You’ll thank me then, you wait and see).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a SCSI II cable.
*Note: There is one thing that does irritate me a bit. My old HP 3570c color flatbed scanner. One of the reasons I’ve kept that thing around is because it has an attached Transparent Materials Adapter for scanning film negatives and slides. Vista will recognize the scanner and load its generic Microsoft driver, which gives me basic scanner capability but does NOT recognize the TMA. HP announced a while back that they would not be updating the 3500 series drivers for Vista – i.e. buy a new scanner. Now the 3570c is old, but it works great, it takes legal sized documents, and I really, really hate giving up the TMA function.
Then, when I loaded the Solution Center software, it immediately recognized the HP 3570c including the TMA. And it works just fine.
Sure that’s great. Really, but why couldn’t I download that software directly from HP? Hell, I would have paid for it, something reasonable, I don’t expect HP to support outdated software gratis in perpetuity, but seriously here HP, what the hell?