Undead Tech: The Smart Printer

An installment in a series tracking the evolution of some of the most exciting tech toys and tools of 2009.

printer

Printers have historically been lobotomized, plasticky pieces of bloat that we begrudgingly tether to our computers. Not anymore. Purveyors like Lexmark and HP have made novel revisions to their high-end models that let the printer operate independent of a PC, with Web access, network connectivity, apps, and services all built in. These things are so competent, so improved, they're downright fun to play with. (Below, an HP printer with TouchSmart Web functionality.)

Sound familiar? If so, it's because the lowly home printer is becoming more and more like it's bigger brother: the commercial printer/copier. You don't have to be a nerd to appreciate the feats of the office document machine; it can blast out hundreds of pages, stapled and reverse-collated, all while supporting the weight of a naked human ass on the glass. It's a species worth looking into.

The modern pro document-maker is roughly the size of a large couch, prints 80 pages per minute--that's 1.3 pages a second--and can punch, bind, tape, stitch, and trim almost any document you can dream up. One such machine, used mostly for direct-mail campaigns and other high-volume print jobs, is the Xerox DocuColor 8002. Its guts (below) look like the insides of a blue whale.

printer

The office workhorse you're used to probably looks more like this thing (below), the Canon imageRUNNER C5185i. You'd have no idea by their homely looks that these bad-boys are packing up to 1.5GB of RAM and 80GB hard drives, and run dual-processors so that they can connect to your network, store dozens of print jobs in memory, print over the Web, operate by voice commands, backup documents like a server, and act like a digital hub that disseminates documents to your team's email addresses or shared folders. They also hold a hell of a lot of paper.

printer

That's pretty incredible considering that the notion of a plain-paper office copier is pretty new. The first modern office copier only showed up around 1960, but immediately, the technology behind it ("electrostatic" copying) became all the rage--and with it came the popularity of Xerox, both the machine and the ensuing verb. This beauty, below, is the Xerox 914, the first plain-paper copier. (Below images from Wikipedia.)

copier

Modern photocopying, or "xerography," works like this: a cylindrical drum is charged up with static electricity. Then a bright lamp illuminates the document you want to copy. The white areas of the document reflect the light down onto the charged drum, and those corresponding areas on the drum are discharged. The remaining charged area (ie, where the words are printed on the original document) transfers charged toner-dust onto the paper with static electricity. Then the machine uses heat and pressure to make the transfer permanent. The most advanced of (color) copiers now work via inkjet printing technology--like the monster Xerox pictured earlier--but if you work in a typical office, most of the copiers you'll get to know work by xerography, just like the 1960s Xeroxes.

If you remember something slightly more barbaric from your childhood, you may be recalling the slightly older reflex copy machines, like the below from Kodak. These things asked you to put a sheet of photo-sensitive paper behind your original document, and blasted the paper sandwich with bright light. Whatever was reflected back by the print on the original document showed up as a shadow on the other sheet.

copier

Reflex copies sucked, because they smelled bad, degraded, curled into tubes and required expensive paper. (If you remember Ditto machines, those things were reflex copiers--except they used waxy paper and alcohol solvents to induce an image ... and occasionally a heady buzz.) But they were paradigms of efficiency compared to their forerunners, the photocopier. Introduced around the same time as the Model T Ford, photocopiers used a large camera and developing machine to create actual photographic copies of a document.

Just a few years earlier, Thomas Edison was in the midst of patenting the mimeograph: a so-called stencil duplicator that forced ink through a stencil outlining the print on the original document. (You might not see too many mimeographs like the one below hanging around anymore, but they're still useful machines; they can be hand-cranked, so they don't require electricity.)

mimeograph

Before the mimeograph came the original copy machine: the person. Starting in the 1870s, that person would have used something called the "blue process," a sort of hand-made reflex copy that used photosensitive paper on the back of the original, doused in a whole bunch of chemicals. Since the process was so laborious, it was reserved only for the most intricate of documents: namely, architectural drawings. Hence the modern term "blueprint."

As you can probably tell, re-printing or copying a document used to take considerable care and concentration; it's only recently that we've come to expect printing to be a non-event that takes place away from our desks. With WiFi printers, you can stick your little grumbling HP in a closet and never even hear it working. The new iterations of printers--the touchscreen ones--brings back a little of that direct person-to-printer contact.

The Lexmark S605 (below) has a sizable touchscreen on its face, letting you print Web stuff directly from the printer, or use "apps" to cull stuff from sites like Picasa. The touchscreen is capacitive, not resistive, so it's reasonably accurate and supports multi-touch gestures like swiping to move photos along in a queue.

printer

HP has also jumped aboard the touch bandwagon with its TouchSmart Web-enabled printer, which lets you cut out the computer in other ways: you can print movie tickets directly from Fandango, slap together driving directions, or pull photos from Snapfish.

At $200 and $350 respectively, neither of these printers are cheap--but at least they're a credit to their lineage.

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