Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Plugged In: To print, or not to print

Editor’s Note: The following column contains puns. Be forewarned.

Whether ’tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune-gouging, or to take arms against a sea of paper, and end it?

All mock seriousness aside, whether to print a document, and the best way to do so, is a question to which there are a variety of right, or nearly right, answers. Actually, I was tempted to say “write answers,” but I’ll forego that homonymic bad pun. Really. One needs to be restrained in these printed pages and, as a modest word-wright, show the Write Stuff.

Paper documents remain highly useful, even though more than 95 percent of all business documents are electronic, and e-mails with grandparents are now more common than scrawled thank-you notes. Paper handouts are usually a more effective way to conduct meetings. A few sheets of paper can be folded and carried easily in a pant or jacket pocket. Printed documents can be read by any literate person when there’s no computer around and are often a more effective way to present data and reasoning, particularly in complex matters — for example, note that the homonymic puns in the first two paragraphs work only in written form. Courts require paper exhibits, even if they are photocopies. A high-quality, fine-art photo enlargement is almost always preferable to photos displayed on a computer screen.

In my opinion, though, paper is no longer the data recording, archival and filing medium of choice. Paper is easily misfiled, cannot be easily searched and is expensive to reproduce and store off-premises in case of a disaster. Losing your business records, especially accounting records, to any sort of casualty like fire, flood or storm, is tantamount to ultimately losing your business. That’s happened to several of my business clients over the years.

I believe that the best overall approach is to preserve documents electronically in a standard, easily searchable format, and to print paper copies only when needed. This approach has several benefits. It maximizes your business efficiency and effectiveness. It minimizes storage and filing costs, is much more economical, and is more ecologically sound. It’s also more convenient, especially when you can e-mail signed copies in seconds and enable electronic marginal notes and comments by readers, who can then electronically return their comments to you with a few mouse clicks.

Let’s first look at the more modern approach to “printing” electronically. Adobe Acrobat PDF files are already the de facto standard for the federal government, most state and local governments and businesses generally. Thus, printing a document to Adobe’s PDF makes the most sense as a long-term medium for storing data electronically in a way that’s easy to search, back up and protect.

It’s always been important to store data in an open data file format like Acrobat’s PDF, and to avoid long-term storage of data in proprietary data file formats. It’s unwise to trust that most niche vendors, or their file formats, will be around next year, or that the data will be usable with another program. That’s especially true in tough economic times.

Acrobat documents can be “printed” to a standard format electronic file directly from digital data stored on your computer, such as e-mail, Web browsers, spreadsheets, word processing programs or photographic programs. Basically, printing data to a PDF file costs you nothing in supplies. Unlike printing paper documents, “printing” to an electronic PDF file is essentially without any cost — it’s only some electrons being moved around the computer and hard disk.

If you already have paper documents that you wish to preserve electronically, then you can scan them directly into Acrobat using a wide variety of flat image scanners and document scanners that can feed and scan many pages a minute. I’ll discuss scanning in the near future.

Adobe has recently provided a new, archival version of Acrobat, PDF/X, that should be suitable for long-term data storage so long as you take care to ensure that the physical storage (hard disks, portable USB flash drives, CD disks, etc.) are in good working order and that you regularly transfer the electronic files to newer types of data storage hardware.

In order to make Acrobat PDF documents easy to search across a large hard disk, you’ll need to run the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) process so that the internal contents become readable to search programs and to Acrobat itself. I like Copernic’s Desktop Search because commercial versions can search an entire network, rather than your computer alone. Google’s desktop search program also has its enthusiasts. Downloads of each are free and worth trying.

Even if you are committed to storing all of your data electronically, there will be many times when you will want, or need, paper copies. That obviously requires a printer. There are several types of printers in common use: color laser printers, monochrome laser printers, ordinary inkjet printers and photo-grade inkjet printers. Each has unique uses, advantages and disadvantages.

Inexpensive, compact home printers are usually inkjets, often part of “multifunction” devices that include a slow scanner, light copying functions and perhaps some fax capability. These are typically inexpensive to purchase, are suitable for light home and home office use but are too slow, and insufficiently robust, for heavier business use.

Because smaller inkjet printers use very low-capacity but expensive ink cartridges, your ink cost is the killer. Light-duty inkjet printers are like the reputed Gillette razors of years past — the razor itself is basically given away to induce you to buy only Gillette razor blades and at a pretty high unit cost. As with razor blades, the real profit for inkjet vendors is in the supplies.

Some midrange consumer inkjets, such as HP’s Photosmart series, the Kodak ESP-7 and ESP-9, or some Canon or Epson multifunction devices, can do a very creditable job printing lab-quality photographs up to 8.5-by-11. If you don’t care about photo-quality printing, then almost any inexpensive multifunction device will be suitable for home use.

Businesses should generally consider getting a laser printer. Laser output is typically faster, looks better and is more water-resistant than inkjets. If you do not believe that you will ever need color output, then a monochrome (black and white) laser printer will be sufficient. Low-end monochrome laser printers tend to be fairly inexpensive, while upper-end ones tend to be quite fast. I have tried several brands, but HP LaserJets have always proven to be the most reliable, and the HP dealer in Anchorage, Lewis and Lewis, has been very good to work with.

Realistically, though, color laser output is becoming the norm and it is quite useful. Color laser printers are often more convenient. Most color laser printers run slower than advertised, so don’t buy an inexpensive one that claims high output speed and then expect quick results. I have had several Lexmark color laser printers costing less than $1,000 and I have been disappointed.

I have, as a result, reverted to HP’s slow Color LaserJet 2,600 series. These printers do a quality job but are suitable only for fairly low volume, despite being advertised as a printer sufficiently fast to service an entire small business. I found that was not the case and purchased an excellent Konica-Minolta 5,670 printer. This series is very fast and the quality is adequate, although not quite as good, in my opinion, as the photo output from my HP LaserJet 2,605. Konica-Minolta printers are sold locally at Frontier Business Systems and Hi-Speed Gear. Konica-Minolta also makes some less-expensive, slightly slower color laser printers that I found to be good values.

Color laser printers are generally limited to 8.5-by-11 output, and their photographic print quality is not very good compared to good inkjet printers. If you want any sort of printout larger than 8.5-by-11, particularly photographic work, then you’ll need to buy a large-format inkjet printer. Large-format photo printers deserve an entire article, and we’ll do just that next week.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com.

1 comment:

Leonard said...

I believe you meant to refer to PDF/A (ISO 19005) which is an international standard, not one created by Adobe, and has been around since 2005.

PDF/X (ISO 15930) is also an international standard for PDF, but for the prepress and publishing communities. It has been around since 1999.

And PDF itself is now ISO 32000.

Leonard Rosenthol
PDF Standards Architect
Adobe Systems