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Review: MediaFORM (MF Digital) Spectrum2
Posted Jan 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Note: On August 11, 2003, MediaFORM reorganized as MF Digital,

With broad operating system support, clever labeling software, easily interchangeable disc trays, large buffer memory, straightforward maintenance, a competitive price, and the lowest operating cost of any thermal transfer printer currently on the market, MediaFORM's Spectrum2 has a lot going for it. As with most new products, however, the Spectrum2 still needs some refinement including enhancements to its printer drivers, more careful craftsmanship in its assembly, flash firmware upgradability, and tweaks made to its image output in order to realize its full potential.

When it comes to color photographic labeling, inkjet and re-transfer printer capabilities may seem glamorous, but thermal transfer is significantly faster and cheaper for creating durable results. Thus, it has become the real workhorse of disc duplication and publishing.

Until recently, however, equipment choice was severely limited. Purchasing a thermal transfer labeling solution meant picking either a Prism (now PrismPlus!) from Rimage (See Bennett review, or an Inscripta from Primera Technology (See Bennett review, Never one to shy away from pursuing an opportunity, MediaFORM is now getting into color thermal transfer printing with its new Spectrum2.

System Requirements
The MediaFORM Spectrum2 is available as a $3,995 standalone peripheral (as reviewed here) or as a labeling solution integrated into any one of MediaFORM's automated printing, duplication, or publishing systems. Currently, these include the AP-1301, SCRIBE, SCRIBEec, Vantage2000, QuadraPRO, and Director series.

Each Spectrum2 is ready to go out of the box and includes a power cord, parallel cable, serial cable, monochrome black ribbon (already installed), and a CD containing the necessary printer drivers, electronic documentation in PDF format, and MediaFORM's own Spectrum2 Designer label creation software.

The unit itself is housed in a stout and sturdy 14.25" L x 8" W x 7" H sheet metal case with a removable lid, three front-mounted control buttons (tray, print, start), and three status indicator lights (ready, status, active). The printer's rear panel contains a low-density female 25-pin parallel interface port as well a DB-9 connection for integration into disc autoloading systems. Ribbons are available in monochrome black, blue, or red, as well as three-color Cyan/Magenta/Yellow (CMY) and custom color monochrome (if ordered in sufficient quantities).

In a standalone configuration, the MediaFORM Spectrum2's system requirements are modest, consisting of at least a 233mHz Pentium PC with 64MB RAM, 30MB free hard drive space running MS Windows 98SE, NT 4.0, 2000, or XP, and a CD or DVD-ROM drive. Connection is made using the included (albeit industrial-strength) low-density 25-pin parallel cable. For this evaluation, the Spectrum2 was put to the test using a 1.7gHz Pentium 4 PC with 256MB RAM running MS Windows XP Professional, a Western Digital 60GB Ultra ATA/100 EIDE hard disk, and a Sony DDU1621 16X Max ATAPI DVD-ROM drive.

The MediaFORM Spectrum2's printer driver supplies most of the essential settings for the printer, including selectable resolutions (300x300dpi, 600x600dpi), installed ribbon type (monochrome, three-color), strobe (disc time spent under the print head), type of disc (CD, DVD), double printing, and graphic half-toning. Disappointingly, however, no provision is made to input the parameters for the physical position a disc assumes relative to the printing mechanism. This position varies significantly from printer to printer and, while corrective values can be input into the Spectrum2 Designer software, this driver deficiency essentially prevents the unit from being used with other graphics programs.

Fortunately, the Spectrum2 Designer software is reasonably powerful and should satisfy most needs. In fact, it offers an array of disc-labeling niceties including templates for standard and custom-sized discs and card CDs, unprintable area-masking, image placement, circular text, and basic drawing tools. A few complaints include the software's sometimes counter-intuitive interface, text-size limitations, and poor online documentation.

As with all thermal transfer printers, the Spectrum2 works by conveying resin from a ribbon onto the surface of the disc through a combination of heat and pressure. This allows monochrome images to be printed onto most CD-R disc surfaces, including lacquer and durability protective coatings. Color labeling, however, is more particular and requires using thermal printable media.

In testing, using a black ribbon and printing onto 75 MBI and 50 Taiyo Yuden silver-lacquer surface discs, the labels printed by the Spectrum2 proved attractive with rich solid areas, clean lines, and legible text. Detracting from the results, however, was light horizontal ghosting above each printed section which could not be eliminated by print-head cleaning or adjusting any driver setting. MediaFORM indicates that they aware of this issue and plan to address it in an upcoming revision to the printer's EPROM. Operating noise, including rattling metal, also proved significant.

Printing on recordable DVD discs proved a little trickier than labeling CDs since DVDs have a raised stacking ring in the center hub area. Typically, this doesn't pose a problem for inkjet or re-transfer printers, but since the print head in the thermal transfer process is pressed firmly against the moving surface of the disc, during labeling it's possible to damage the head when contacting the raised stacking ring. While not an ideal solution, the Spectrum2's printer driver offers the usual workaround in the form of a DVD labeling mode to allow only printing on either side of the disc's center hole. This functioned well during testing using 10 Taiyo Yuden DVD-R General Purpose (GP) discs. For those requiring full-surface printing, several blank media manufacturers, such as Mitsui, Verbatim, and others, also offer DVD-R discs specially manufactured without the stacking ring.

Printing with the three-color ribbon onto 35 Mitsui white and 20 Maxell silver thermal printable discs yielded more mixed results. While thermal transfer printers can't reproduce photographic quality images, they generally do a reasonable job of laying down spot colors in full intensities of black, red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow. During testing, it was apparent that while the Spectrum2 reproduced basic spot colors, image quality still needed some tweaking to be on par with its Rimage competition. Again, MediaFORM concedes the issue and plans improvements in further upgrades.

In terms of printing speed, Spectrum2 performance was middle of the road with single-pass monochrome averaging roughly 25 seconds per full label (from tray in to tray out) and full color at approximately three times longer. Obviously, smaller image sizes reduce printing time accordingly. One time saver worth mentioning is the Spectrum2's unique ability to retain the last downloaded label image and print it by pressing a button rather than re-sending it from the computer.

Care and Feeding
For all of their virtues, thermal transfer printers typically disappoint when it comes to the day-to-day care and feeding they require. The Spectrum2 does its best to rectify some of these concerns by incorporating several user-friendly innovations including unobstructed access to the print head and ribbon path. A sheet metal cover encasing the top front half of the printer is easily removable to expose the inner workings of the printer. Once there, the main chassis (containing the print head and ribbon path) simply swings upward for quick access. Cradles for the ribbon supply and take-up rollers are located at each end of the chassis with the ribbon threaded between. Thanks to this design, the print head was a breeze to clean and ribbon changes somewhat easier to accomplish than the norm. On-the-fly exchanges of monochrome and color ribbons, however, are still impractical.

Dealing with odd-shaped discs is a problem for most printers and usually involves a collection of ad hoc shields or adapters. Not so for the Spectrum2, which handles the predicament head-on with interchangeable disc trays. Currently offered are a standard tray (included) to accommodate 120mm round discs. Also available is a $299 version for 61 to 63mm "hockey rink" business-card CDs. During testing, the trays were conveniently swapped in and out in just a few seconds and provide an adequate nest for the discs.

Cost of Living
Like all thermal transfer CD printers, the MediaFORM Spectrum2 uses in its labeling process two separate consumable items, an ink ribbon (monochrome black, red, blue, or cyan/magenta/yellow) and the print head. A replacement head good for roughly 11,000 full-surface monochrome discs is priced at $350. It should be noted, however, that many factors influence print-head longevity, including the printer's strobe setting, damage from misuse, or misadventure and physical wear and tear caused by encountering dust and debris from disc surfaces.

The Spectrum2 uses a significantly longer black ribbon (850 feet) than do competing solutions, resulting in significantly lower operating costs. Roughly 2,250 full-surface CDs can be printed per $50 ribbon. When adding in the price of the print head, cost is (at most) 5.4 cents to print a monochrome label on a disc. As is common with its competition, the Spectrum2 uses "ribbon saver" technology to lift the print head and stop the advance of the ribbon when travelling over blank areas resulting in considerably more partial labels being printed at even lower costs.

For color, however, the price remains fixed since the ribbon consists of panels for each of its three colors. Consequently, only 500 CDs can be printed from each $125 ribbon and a third the number of discs from each print head which translates into a cost of 34.6 cents per color label. Overall, the price tag for running a Spectrum2 compares favorably with the approximately seven cents per full black CD and 36 cents per color label from Rimage's latest PrismPlus! and 10 cents per full black label using Primera's Inscripta.

The Bottom Line
With broad operating system support, clever labeling software, easily interchangeable disc trays, large buffer memory, straightforward maintenance, a competitive price, and the lowest operating cost of any thermal transfer printer currently on the market, MediaFORM's Spectrum2 has a lot going for it. As with most new products, however, the Spectrum2 still needs some refinement including enhancements to its printer drivers, more careful craftsmanship in its assembly, flash firmware upgradability, and tweaks made to its image output in order to realize its full potential.

Component Pricing: MediaFORM (MF Digital) Spectrum2
Black Ribbon
Blue Ribbon $50
Red Ribbon $50
CMY color $125
Print head $350

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