February 2001|Labeling CDs with an inkjet printer is not always the best answer. Primera Technology—best-known in CD-R circles for its Editor's Choice-winning Signature line of inkjets—has understood this and is now expanding its printing repertoire to include a range of different technologies. One of these is the company's latest creation, the $2,995 Inscripta optical disc printer which boasts a thermal transfer process for directly labeling the surface of CD-R and DVD-R discs.
In contrast to inkjet printers, which create images by applying liquid ink, thermal transfer technology works by conveying solid wax from a coated ribbon onto a disc's surface through a combination of heat and pressure. This allows the transfer of monochrome images onto low-cost, lacquer surface CD-R discs instead of the specially coated media required to receive ink for the inkjet process. For printing in color, however, the use of thermal printable- surface media is required. Inscripta ribbons are available in monochrome black or two-color red/black, green/black, and blue/black combinations. Primera also offers custom color monochrome ribbons if ordered in quantities of 40 or more.
Compared to its only real competitor, Rimage's Prism thermal transfer CD printer, the Inscripta is extremely compact. With much lighter-weight construction and housed in a slender 6" x 3.875" x 12.875" plastic and sheet metal case, the Inscripta has an attractive footprint for standalone use. As printing takes place entirely within the unit, it is also well-suited for OEM integration into jukeboxes, duplication systems, and other production equipment such as Microtech Systems' ImageAutomator 150 and Primera's own Composer Optical Disc duplicator (www.emedialive.com/r4/2001/bennett1_01.html). The Inscripta itself is a model of simplicity, having only two front-mounted buttons (tray open/close, ribbon cartridge eject) and a single status indicator light. The printer's rear panel contains a standard Centronics parallel interface port in addition to an auxiliary 6-pin port for integration into disc autoloading systems.
setup and software
Primera ships each Inscripta printer package with one monochrome black wax ribbon, an external power adapter, two CD-R discs, printer drivers for Windows 95/98/2000 and NT 4.0, a 32-bit spooler, and MicroVision Development's excellent SureThing CD Labeler First Edition label creation software. It should be noted, however, that any off-the-shelf graphics software will also work quite well. Additional monochrome black and two-color ribbons can be purchased for $39 and $59, respectively. Spindles of 100 Maxell gold or silver thermal-surface CD-R discs are also available from Primera for $125.
A unique two-piece design allows for straightforward ribbon replacement and simple print head cleaning. The top half of the Inscripta contains the print head and ribbon path and is a removable assembly that slides forward to disengage from the main unit. Each ribbon comes attached to a supply spool and take-up reel which nest inside clamps at each end of the assembly. While installing ribbons is not a big deal, still it is really not convenient enough to allow switching on-the-fly. However, for users wishing to exchange different color ribbons between jobs, Primera offers a solution, albeit an expensive one. Spare assemblies can be purchased for $995, preloaded with the appropriate ribbon and swapped as needed.
Like all printers, the Inscripta is controlled through its supplied printer driver. Main settings include selectable resolutions (305 x 305dpi, 610 x 305dpi), installed ribbon type (monochrome, 2-color), and intensity (amount of heat generated by print head). When the printer driver is installed for the first time, the position of the disc relative to the printing mechanism must be calibrated and should simply involve entering factory-supplied settings into the driver. Unfortunately, in the case of the test unit, the provided settings were inaccurate, so some fiddling was required.
The designers at Primera were clearly using their heads when creating the Inscripta printer driver; the software incorporates several thoughtful features. These include the automatic masking of the center hole and area beyond the circumference of the disc to be printed, plus a handy saturation feature which optionally forces the Inscripta to print solid colors rather than dithering (a dot pattern effect). One desirable capability missing, however, is two-pass printing, which can be helpful in enhancing image quality when printing to white thermal media or discs with relatively rough scratch-resistant coatings.
printing test results
The Inscripta was tested using a black monochrome ribbon printing onto 100 Kodak silver lacquer surface discs. The results proved very good, exhibiting sharp, readable large and small text and attractive clip art graphics and line art. Printing with two-color ribbons onto 100 Maxell/Primera Tuff-Coat gold and silver thermal transfer media yielded similar good results. Bear in mind, however, that anything but 100% intensities of black/red/green/blue create dithered patterns. Print quality can vary significantly among different disc surfaces, so it is a good idea to experiment with a range of products and settings to determine what works best for each application.
As is the case with any thermal transfer printer, it is important to understand the capabilities of the Inscripta and appreciate that it cannot be expected to compete with inkjet units and to output photographic-quality images. It may come as a surprise for some, for example, that the vast majority of commercial CD-ROMs and audio CDs employ only two-color labels. With this borne in mind along with the capabilities of the Inscripta when designing labels, the results are very attractive. Something to consider as well is that thermal printing, unlike inkjet labeling, is not water-soluble or easily smudged, though thermal print can be scratched off smooth surface discs with a fingernail. It should also be noted that the Inscripta currently does not print small- diameter (8cm) or business card CD-R or DVD-R discs.
One area of concern that did arise, however, was the inability of the test unit to print large areas of solid black or color without pinholes or some voids and streaking. Primera indicates that they have experienced a few problems with ribbon consistency (a visual inspection did indeed reveal small lesions on the black ribbons). As can be expected with most new products, it is obvious that Primera still has some fine tuning to do to their otherwise fine product.
Printing times for the Inscripta are generally in line with what can be expected of any thermal transfer printer. Primera advertises that, depending upon the amount of coverage, the unit takes 5 to 10 seconds per pass to print a label. During testing, the Inscripta did indeed take roughly that amount of time for actual, physical disc printing. In terms of practical performance, however, the unit consumed up to an additional ten seconds (not including rasterization time) per pass from the time the Inscripta started to when the finished disc was ejected.
fun with numbers
As is the case when budgeting for any printer, there is more to consider than just the price of the Inscripta itself. When calculating what it costs to print a disc, it is important to remember that in addition to the cost of its wax ribbon, the Inscripta's print head is another consumable item with a fixed life span. Replacement heads come at $595 and process between 12,000 to 20,000 discs.
As a cost-saving measure when printing with monochrome ribbons, the Inscripta uses a "ribbon saver" system to lift the print head and stop the advance of the ribbon when moving over blank areas. It is, therefore, possible to create label layouts which extend the life of the ribbon beyond its 800-disc minimum rating to lower the cost per print. Realistically, 800 to 1,000 CDs can be printed per $39 ribbon, so, when factoring in the price of the print head, cost averages between 6.9 and 9.9 cents to print a monochrome label on a disc. Two-color operation is different since the ribbon uses fixed disc-sized panels for each color. As a result, only 350 CDs can be printed from each $59 ribbon using half the number of discs from the print head, which translates into a cost of 23 to 27 cents per two-color label.
the bottom line
Although Primera insists they did not design the Inscripta to compete directly with Rimage's Prism thermal transfer printer, some comparisons are unavoidable. With three-color capability compared to the Inscripta's two-color configuration, and significantly more prints per ribbon and greater physical robustness, the Prism remains a better choice for performing high-volume production chores. But the Inscripta, with its much lower price, compact form, and generally friendlier disposition, is a far better choice for everyday corporate and small business use. It certainly provides a good alternative to inkjet solutions. As with any new product, however, the Inscripta still has a few rough spots to be worked out; but its solid performance in testing bodes well for its future in low-run CD-R production applications.