Home Computer: How to make an impact in print: To the outside world you are only as good as your printer. Mike Hardaker looks at how much you need to input into your budget to achieve high quality output

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WORD PROCESSING software can let you write supremely elegant letters to the bank but unless you can persuade your manager to pop in on her way home from the office and admire your work on-screen, you will need to get it on paper, stick it in an envelope and post it off if it is to have any effect. In the end your computer is only as good as your printed output.

Reports, business presentations and The Great 20th Century Novel all need to hit paper before they hit their audience.

There are currently three basic kinds of printer suitable for use with personal computers. One of them, the dot-matrix printer, is now, in effect, obsolete, although for a long time it was the only affordable way of getting anything from disk to paper.

Dot-matrix printers are still the cheapest printers, but the print-quality they produce ranges from appalling to merely poor and they are usually incredibly noisy. Furthermore, they tend to use perforated fan-fold paper, which is ugly and generally poorly made. They have ceased to have any real interest to all but the most cost-conscious as more sophisticated printers which can print high-quality text and graphics on to ordinary paper cost only a little more.

The cheapest dot matrix printers cost little more than pounds 100, but they are so awful that you really would be better off without one, while something more acceptable will cost you about pounds 200 if you are lucky.

The ink-jet printer is responsible for the death of the dot-matrix. Ink-jet printers provide high-quality printing on plain paper - and, usually, envelopes - in almost total silence. The standard for ink-jet printers is set by the Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 500, which can now be found for less than pounds 350 including VAT.

Since it is better than a dot-matrix printer in just about every way, except for being slightly slower, the Deskjet 500 should be regarded as the one budget printer of choice.

However, there is now also a range of smaller ink-jet printers which are particularly ideal for use with portable computers. The market leader here is Canon's Bubblejet, which can be found for about pounds 200, although Hewlett-Packard's recently announced Deskjet Portable can be expected to challenge the Canon printer's position.

Laser printers represent the top end of the personal computer printer range. They used to be frighteningly expensive, but prices have been falling rapidly in recent years.

Once again, Hewlett-Packard is the trend-setter with its Laserjet range. Practically every laser printer on the market 'emulates' - offers the same method of operation - as one or other of the Laserjet models, so the computer thinks it is 'talking to' a Laserjet, even though the printer came from another maker.

In the past, you paid a hefty premium for buying genuine Hewlett-Packard Laserjets instead of the clone printers, but the gap has shrunk. A Hewlett-Packard Laserjet IIIP can now be bought for about pounds 700 including VAT, while its big brother, the Laserjet 4, should come in at just under pounds 1,200 including VAT if you shop around. The Laserjet 4 can print faster (more pages per minute, PPM, in the adverts) than the IIIP - the P stands for 'personal', reflecting the fact that it is designed for relatively light use - and is designed for a more intense office environment.

If you want slightly crisper text than an ink-jet printer provides - together with the ability to print out more pages more frequently, then it is probably worth paying the extra for a laser printer.

Also, it is worth pointing out that Hewlett-Packard printers come with a 12-month, on-site warranty - so if the printer breaks down someone will come to your home or office and take it away to fix it.

The prices mentioned are for 'mono' printers, which print black text and pictures on white paper - although there is nothing to stop you using rose or lilac-coloured paper for those more intimate missives. But with most computers now sporting colour displays, colour printers are in greater demand than previously and prices are dropping - though slowly and from a great height.

Quality colour printers used to be stupidly expensive. They are now just outrageously expensive. The only reasonably affordable colour printers are dot-matrix and ink-jet models. As might be expected, colour dot-matrix printers give you poor colour print instead of poor mono print, with a pounds 100 price premium over the price of ordinary dot matrix printers.

Colour ink-jet printers are a lot better, and are reasonable for one-off reports or educational work, though they do not yet reach the often scruffy quality of a colour photocopy. The entry-level is the Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 550C, which will cost about pounds 550 including VAT if you look for a discounted price. A Deskjet 550C gives you the same quality in black only as a standard Deskjet 500, as well as the colour option - but pounds 200 is a lot to pay for the extra ability to print in colour.

A cheaper option is the Deskjet 500C, currently available discounted at under pounds 350. Although generally a little less sophisticated than its successor, the main difference compared with the newer model is that you have to physically change the print cartridge to switch from printing in black to printing in colour.

Do not forget to budget for what are known in the trade as 'consumables' for your printer. Just as a car needs petrol, a printer needs ribbons if it is a dot-matrix printer, ink cartridges if it is an ink-jet printer, or toner if it is a laser printer.

These are far from cheap and you can go through them pretty quickly. If you want to print lots of pages, in a small business, say, you will be lucky to get away with pounds 25 a month on ink cartridges. Colour cartridges are considerably more, but you are unlikely to use them in such cavalier fashion.

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