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Color for the masses on plain paper

Mother Nature isn't the only one having fun with color at this time of year. The Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced two new color printers Monday, taking another step toward making color a standard enhancement of printed documents.

Color printers have been available for many years, but mediocre print quality, high cost and annoying maintenance demands have kept them from becoming widespread.

Color laser printers are still painfully expensive and it will be several years before they reach the average user's desktop. Color ribbon printers are cheap but produce atrocious color.

The best solution today, as evidenced by the new Hewlett-Packard printers, is color inkjet technology. Inkjets spray little droplets of ink _ in standard colors called cyan, magenta and yellow _ onto the page at a rate of 300 dots per inch, the same as a standard laser printer. By mixing the three colors, inkjet printers can create a full rainbow of hues.

The new Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 550C, which works with DOS and Windows computers, and the H-P Desk-Writer 550C, for Apple Macintosh computers, both use a simplified inkjet technology that yields impressive colors, as well as impressive blacks and grays, on plain paper, with a minimum of fuss.

The new printers will have a list price of $1,099 when they reach stores in early November. Hewlett-Packard has given them a three-year warranty.

Meanwhile, H-P said it had cut the list price of its current desktop color inkjet printers, the DeskJet 500C and DeskWriter 500C, to $749 from $1,095.

Unlike the 500C printers, the 550C models use two ink cartridges, one for black ink and one for the colors. The earlier models created black ink by mixing colors from a single cartridge, which had several disadvantages. The blacks were not as crisp, the printing was slower, and the cost per page was higher because everything on the page was created with the costlier color cartridge.

By using a separate black cartridge, the 550C printers produce crisper blacks. Printing speed is increased. After all, most of the information on a typical business letter or report is black, with color reserved for charts, highlights, etc.

The ability to create good-looking color on plain paper is important, but the H-P printers also work with transparencies, for making overhead presentations, and with coated paper for when the color really has to pop off the page.

In a test, a regular color photograph was scanned into a computer using a Hewlett-Packard ScanJet IIC scanner, and the resulting file was printed on a DeskJet 550C loaded with slick, coated paper. Viewed side by side, the original photograph and the reproduction were surprisingly close in quality.

The coated papers are expensive, though, typically about a dollar a page. Using plain paper, the cost of printing a color sheet is about 15 cents. The costs are variable, since adding a small highlight of color takes less ink than creating a full-page, full-color chart or printing a scanned color photograph.

In contrast, the cost of printing a standard business letter, using only black ink, is about three cents, according to Hewlett-Packard officials.

Color printers require more attention from the user than standard black printers, but Hewlett-Packard has lessened the demands. Special software, included with the printers, allows the user to align the black and color cartridges with ease, a task that needs to be done only when a cartridge is replaced.

Other than that, "these are very hygienic printers," said Michael Thompson, a product manager for Hewlett-Packard's Vancouver, Wash., printer division.

At top speed, which means black text only, the new printers can produce three pages a minute. A large, densely colored image can tie up the printer for as long as 10 minutes, however.

Color aside, the 550C printers are impressive for the inkjet category. Hewlett-Packard also strengthened the 550C's font selection.

DOS users have access to six type fonts in the DeskJet 550C: Univers, CG Times, and two versions each of Letter Gothic and Courier.

Six fonts may not seem like much to Windows or Mac users, but they are welcome to anyone who has been limited to Courier for years. Type can be as large as 14 points, or almost a quarter-inch tall.

The font choices are better for Windows users. The DeskJet 550C comes with special software called drivers, which allow the printer to use scalable fonts of virtually any size.

Thirteen Windows fonts, plus any number of TrueType scalable fonts, can be used. The DeskWriter 550C comes with 35 scalable fonts, the same fonts found on Apple LaserWriter NT printers.

Hewlett-Packard also introduced the DeskJet Portable printer. The $599 printer, for DOS and Windows machines only, has some impressive ease-of-use features.

It matches the print quality and many of the features of Hewlett-Packard's DeskJet 500 black-ink printer, but in a 4{-pound package. It produces up to three laser-quality pages a minute and prints on plain paper, label sheets and transparencies.

The DeskJet Portable runs on standard video camcorder batteries.

More information on the Hewlett-Packard printers can be obtained by calling (800) 752-0900.