Thursday, August 12, 2010

Buying a printer for our home - curiously difficult

I've been fond of our giant-sized five year old Brother MFC-7820N black and white laser printer, scanner and fax machine. It was never as rock solid as our LaserWriter Select 360 (20+ year lifespan if you could find cartridges), but by the standards of 2005 it was a gem. The competition was dismal. HP combined hideous hardware with worse software, and the device drivers for Epson and Canon devices were almost as bad.

The 7820N has come to the end of days though. It jams easily if the paper tray is less than half-full, and the web-based diagnostics [1] tells me the internal print engine is nearing end-of-life. It needs to be replaced. That turns out to be trickier than one would imagine.

It's tricky for several reasons. Printers have been clobbered by ink jet technology churn [1], premature maturation and commoditization [2], brand loss [3], and technology transition (more on that). OS X users have the further problem of very poor device driver support -- you don't want to use anything that doesn't ship with OS X [4].

The technology transition is having a strong impact now. Apple doesn't sell black and white or color laser printers any more and iOS devices like the iPad and iPhone, the future of personal computing, don't print at all. Google's ChromeBooks to come are struggling to print.

Looking at this marketplace in transition it's clear that I need to go as simple as possible. That means black and white (grayscale really) laserwriter with a good record of reliable cartridge availability, long product life cycles, and OS X 10.5 "native" device drivers [5]. That will probably be another Brother printer. I'll also be looking for quiet operation and compact size.

For now I'll put our old MFC into the basement and use it as a standalone fax machine [6] and photocopier. If we keep the paper tray full it should work for years like that, and the occasional jam will be tolerable.

The upside of this transition is I can finally attack the scanning problem with a machine that's designed for producing B&W PDFs off a paper feed. The MFC vendors were never going to provide a good solution for a market as small as this one.

I'll update this post with what I choose, but it's probably going to be the Brother 2170W or  Brother HL-5370DW. Size, cartridge cost and availability, and native OS X support will probably be the determinant (price is almost irrelevant really) - so I'm betting on the 2170W or non-networked equivalent. Given issues with wireless security and peripherals I suspect it will end up being connected to a USB port on a Mac or AirPort Express/Extreme (back to the future!) but it may be useful to have other options.

Note that all laser printers come with "starter cartridges", so after initial testing you need to order a cartridge separately.

Update: I ordered the $80 Brother 2140, the same device I bought for my mother last year. It was $50 less than the 2170W. I used the money I save to order an Airport Express (I gave my old AE to my mother). So for $40 more than the 2170W I get to extend my LAN coverage and I get optional AirTunes support. It uses the very standard and widely available TN360 cartridge and has had native OS X driver support for many years.

Update 8/18/10: Installed the 2140. I didn't bother with Brother's software except to copy the manual to my "reference" folder. I ended up just attaching it to a G5 iMac which is now a print server; the Airport Express wasn't necessary. My 10.5 and 10.6 machines used native drivers. Painless - as expected.
[1] A miserable technology. It has never worked reliably, and a dying HP trapped the industry into a disposable printer and costly cartridge hidden-price business model.
[2] There's no real reason to go beyond 300 dpi, and that was achieved fifteen years ago. Color would be nice, but we still can't do it well at consumer price points -- and the market has lost interest. In a high tech industry reaching this kind of peak is a problem.
[3] Brands became meaningless and quality plummeted. This afflicted all parts of the computer industry from 1998 to 2008 with one notorious exception.
[4] See my links below on why device drivers are so bad everywhere. In OS X the small market and Apple's complete disinterest made things worse. I think with 10.6 bundled device drivers are tolerable, but you don't want to depend on a manufacturer for drivers.
[5] We still print from a 10.5 machine.
[6] The zombie technology that won't die. Sort of like Adobe Flash but worse.

See also:

Other stuff
My stuff

No comments: