March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 05.01.05

Hard Copy

When you need to print in the field, you’ve no choice but to carry a printer. Luckily, today’s mobile printer choices abound.
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By Teresa von Fuchs




As the push for more automated mobile systems becomes part of many enterprises’ business processes, there is an emphasis on the paperless office—reports completed on handhelds and automatically updated to backend systems, forms filled out on touchscreens, electronic time cards punched in on cell phones and route info displayed on handheld screens. But sometimes there is no substitute for paper. Many customers require a printed receipt from field service personnel for their records as proof of service. For such cases, we took a look at the latest and greatest mobile printers from a handful of manufacturers that are working to reduce heft, increase battery life and include wireless connectivity for business tasks that still push paper.

According to a recent survey by research and analysis firm Venture Data Corp. (VDC), field service companies that use mobile printers are looking for five things when they evaluate a mobile printer: printer size, weight, print technology (thermal, impact, ink jet), installation services (such as hardware, software integration and device support) and communication method (cable, 802.11 or Bluetooth). And so it was with these features in mind, as well as our intimate knowledge of the rough environment any field service tool must work in, that we collected the six printers that follow. See what you think.

Print the Town in Stripes

“We designed [the Zebra RW 420] to be the most rugged product in our arsenal,” says Bob Danahy, director of global mobile wireless technology at Zebra. “It’s geared toward the rigors of [the service] environment.”

And so it seems. The RW 420 is constructed with an abrasion-resistant rubber-over-mold, has been tested to withstand multiple 6-foot drops to concrete, has an IP54 dust and water resistance rating and the ability to endure extreme temperatures (-4 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit) and serious weather conditions.

Good thing for mobile workers that Zebra understands that being tough doesn’t equate resembling a brick; the RW 420 starts at a mere 2 pounds and measures 6.3 by 3 by 6.9 inches. With print capabilities ranging from 2- to 4.12-inch paper widths, the 420 can print up to 3 inches per minute. Zebra promises a full day of battery life with multiple charging options, including a Fast AC charger and cigarette lighter options. Modular options include a magnetic strip reader, an MV-certified smartcard reader, a fanfold slot and a shoulder or hand strap.

The RW 420 is also fully updated in terms of connectivity options; Bluetooth, serial and USB 2.0 come standard, with 802.11b as another wireless option. Danahy also explained that the next generation RW 420, which should be out in mid 2005, will include GPRS. For pricing, contact a Zebra representative.

One Flashy Lil’ Printer

O’Neil’s flagship microFlash 4t merges the company’s years of printer experience with today’s technology, and the re-
sult is a workhorse of a 4-inch receipt printer. Measuring 6.8 by 6.6 by 2.7 inches, the 4t is rugged enough to withstand multiple 6-foot drops to concrete and extreme temperatures (from -4 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit), yet light enough (only 2.2 pounds including battery and paper) to dangle from your belt loop.

O’Neil promises the 4t’s battery will last a full eight-hour shift or longer, printing nearly 1,000 6-inch receipts on a single charge. Its automatic sleep mode saves power, and the fast three-hour recharging time (along with an optional vehicle charger) provides the ideal solution for long, intense printing applications. And, the 4t’s 203dpi print resolution is sharp enough for graphics, bar codes and logos, as well as a compressed 80-column receipt.
Still not sold? The microFlash line’s full one-year warranty should give you peace of mind. The 4t comes with standard cable connectivity and offers 802.11b and Bluetooth as modular extras, with the warning that wireless options will reduce battery time.

The 4t also has a smaller sibling, the 2t, which offers many of the same features in a smaller (7.4 by 4.7 by 2.4 inches), lighter (0.83 pounds) body. Pricing for the microFlash 2t starts at $600 and $983 for the 4t.

Long Name, Tiny Footprint

Newcomer to the portable printer space, Fujitsu’s 2-inch thermal receipt printer includes Bluetooth, IrDA and serial interfaces, making it a solid contender against more venerable models.

FTP 628WSL110, Fujitsu’s mouthful of a name for the printer, measures 3.3 by 5.3 by 1.7 inches and weighs a tiny 0.6 pounds. But you’ll compromise for that tiny package with sub-par battery life; Fujitsu promises 50 meters of paper, or 328 6-inch receipts from a single charge. But a print speed of 1.6 inches per second isn’t bad, and Fujitsu promises it can print bar codes, alphanumeric KANA, JIS KANJI and international characters.

“We saw a niche between light-duty mobile printers and heavy-duty mobile printers,” says Jim Harrison, Fujitsu product manager. “We saw a need that we believed we could satisfy with a medium-duty product; we call it semi-rugged.” Semi-rugged means the unit is water resistant to JIS C0920 Class 2 standards and designed to withstand a 4.5-foot drop test.

The printer comes with an AC adapter, battery, belt clip and paper roll, all for $480. “We’re obviously not the first guy into the market on mobile printers,” explains Harrison, “so we’re trying to offer something different; hit a size point and a price point that is attractive to the market.”

According to Taylor Smith, a senior analyst with VDC, Fujitsu’s entrance to the market “definitely makes sense. They have good experience in the mobile solutions’ space with tablets and other sorts of handheld devices, and they’re familiar with the data capture industry. A mobile printer logically makes sense.”

The Can-Do Kid

The Mt2 is a lightweight, 2-inch thermal printer that is compatible with most computing platforms: Windows, Windows CE, Pocket PC, DOS, EPOC and Palm operating systems. Measuring 4.2 by 5.4 by 2.7 inches, it weighs only 1 pound with battery and paper. It features a protective thermoelastic-over-molding to meet the real-world dangers of field work. Operating temperatures range from 14 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, with drop tests certified up to 3 feet and a dust and water resistance rating of IP54. Its clamshell print-head design allows for easy paper loading, IrDA, cable connectivity and optional Bluetooth make for simple and varied interfaces. (The Mt2B is the conveniently named model that includes Bluetooth.) The internal, fast-rechargeable battery lasts for up to six paper rolls or 800 6-inch receipts on a single charge. A variety of accessories are available, including a three-track magnetic card reader. Available with one- and two-year warrantees. Price: $595 for the Mt2, $795 for the Mt2B.

Something Special

Brother’s MW-140BT is a uniquely designed microprinter. Shaped more like a slim, professional PDA than a typically square-ish service printer, the MW-140BT measures 6.3 inches long by 3.9 inches across and is only 0.7 inches thin. “It’s part of our normal product development cycle to experiment with things like [design],” says John Biancamano, product manager at Brother. “I think [this design] came about because we had the technology, and one of our engineers thought it would be something cool to try.” At 0.6 pounds, including paper, the MW-140BT can easily be slipped into a shirt or pants pocket.

This ultraportable form factor does imply some compromises; instead of a paper roll, Brother’s MW-140BT comes with paper cassettes. Five types of cassettes exist (thermal, three kinds of labels and carbon copy two-ply paper), and each cassette holds 50 sheets of paper at the most. However, the paper is easy to change—the front face of the printer slides back and pops open to reveal the cassette. Biancamano explains that Brother didn’t intend for this printer to be pitted against rugged workhorse printers, but hoped to create its own niche market for those looking for an ultra-portable, easy-to-use small-format printer. The MW-140BT includes a USB cable as well as Bluetooth. And it’s compatible with Windows, Pocket PC and several versions of Palm OS. Price starts at $299.

Full Page Ahead

Though full-format printers are not as common among the service set, should the need for 8.5- by 11-inch forms be part of your mobile model, the Canon iP90 offers reliable printing features in a lightweight package with a price that won’t break your bank.

Debuted at CES earlier this year, the iP90 cranks out 16 pages per minute (ppm) black and white and 12 ppm in color, features Canon’s FINE high-performance print heads, measures 12.2 by 6.9 by 2 inches and weighs 4 pounds. The iP90 supports wireless with IrDA and an optional, user-installable Bluetooth module. Power options include a universal power adapter; a Portable Kit that includes a Lithium Ion battery with 450 pages per two-hour charge; and the Automobile Power Unit, which allows the printer to charge directly from the car power socket. Price starts at $250; Bluetooth and other mobility kits sold
separately. •
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