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We finally found a printer that does most of what a computer printer should do. At $6,000, it ought to! But here's the good news: For $360 you can get some of the same results on the printer you now own.

Printers have always been the weak link in computer technology. Without one, there's almost no way to get out what you put into the computer's memory. But we've been cursing printer quirks ever since buying our first letter quality NEC over ten years ago.That NEC used a type ball like those of electric typewriters. It couldn't print drawings of any kind. It hammered so noisily, we built a padded cell to enclose it. (A year or two later, similar printer boxes were in every computer supply store.) Today, noise is much less a problem. Letter quality printers are practically obsolete. Dot matrix printers print drawings as well as type and offer a Near Letter Quality (NLQ) mode. While slow, NLQ output looks as good as any typewriter.

Many NLQs make a tearing sound that drives sensitive ears crazy, but at least you can talk on a phone in the same room.

If you need near-silence along with pictures and type, you can get it from a laser printer. You can now also get it from the NEC SilentWriter LC 890XL. Since we've always had better-than-average luck with NEC, we asked to test one of the first SilentWriters. We weren't disappointed.

The SilentWriter gets laser print quality using non-laser technology. It substitutes a matrix of tiny LCD `lights' for a laser printer's laser beam. Fewer moving parts always equals less wear and tear and fewer trips to a servicer. Since service calls average $80 an hour, that's a decided plus.

Like most NEC products, this one is engineered for the big leagues. We shoved it around. We ran it day and night, cranking out flyers we'd ordinarily take to our quick printer. It didn't quit, didn't smudge, didn't get heatstroke and start printing garbage.

Since paper jams are one of the biggest problems with sheet-feeding printers, we challenged it to jam. We loaded the crummiest paper we could find and then the heaviest, roughest paper the hefty rubber rollers could handle. It didn't choke until we fed it some shredded paper.

Here's other good news: Right out of the box, the SilentWriter connects directly to most computers, IBM type, Apple type or what have you. It can `emulate' (work just like) the popular Hewlett-Packard LaserJetPlus. We tested that using a dozen popular programs. It performed faultlessly.

Many accounting and spreadsheet programs `drive' (talk the same language as) H-P printers. Most graphics and desktop publishing programs don't. They need a printer that understands a set of computer codes called Postscript.

Most laser printers emulate either H-P or Postscript. The SilentWriter claims it not only does both, but clips along in Postscript mode at more than double the usual slow-poke Postscript printing speed.

We've learned to take computer industry speed claims with hefty skepticism. But these claims prove true. We tested it against the Apple LaserWriter, prime purveyor of the Postscript standard, in several printing jobs. A file that the LaserWriter took 50 seconds to print zipped through in 10 to 15 seconds.

Now for the bad news. While the Silent-Writer's output looks as good as many laser printers, it's not nearly as professional as our Apple LaserWriterII. Frank can't always spot the difference. But Judi's been working with type so long, she can see poor alignment and incorrect sizing at 20 paces.

Poor paper-handling is a big gripe with H-P printers. Typically, they hold a measly 100 sheets at a time. Some days, we jump up 20 times to reload a printer. The only alternative to keeping an eye peeled is to add a kludgy device that rings a bell when the bin is empty.

This NEC printer claims to hold 500 sheets of paper, 250 in each of its two paper bins. That's only if you use 17-lb. paper. Frank grew up in a paper-mill town and even he never heard of 17-lb. bond. But 200 sheets per bin (using 20-pound bond) is still an impressive number.

The LC-890XL lists for nearly $6,000 including the two-bin feeder. (It's a thousand-buck add-on for most other printers.) If you don't need high speed in your Postscript printing, buy the $4,000 LC-890.

If those prices knock your socks off, we've got a find for you. Two $179 programs for IBM compatible computers make dot matrix printers behave like Hewlett-Packard laser models. The first, called LaserTwin, gets near-laser quality from even many older non-NLQ printers. It prints forms of all kinds beautifully.

Add the second package, SuperFonts 25/1, and your cheap old printer can duplicate all the type fonts and sizes that H-P owners get via type cartridges. If your software lets you designate 8-point Times-Roman or proportionally spaced 16-point Helvetica, your dot matrix printer will be able to produce it.

Does the output duplicate H-P laser printer quality? No. But unless you feel for dot matrix hammer marks or do side-by-side comparison, few people (except Judi) can tell the two technologies apart.

Both programs are made by Metro Software (800-621-1137). To use one or both, you need a hard disk with at least 1M free. (For best results, we recommend 4M.) The results are so impressive, we'd like to see Metro work on a solution to the Federal Debt.

You can read back issues of this twice-weekly column at the electronic library, NewsNet, reachable via computer plus modem over phone lines. For NewsNet information, 800-345-1301. (C)1990 P/K Associates, Inc. 3006 Gregory Street, Madison, WI 53711.