The Benefits and Joy of Dot Matrix Printing

I was fortunate to grow up in the 80s. I remember writing school papers on the TRS-80, or the Atari 800 with the Bank Street Writer word processing program, and printing those documents on printers like the Atari 825 or the Star SG-10.

Later, when I “upgraded” at home to an IBM clone, I got a Panasonic KX-P1091i, a printer that printed in Epson or IBM Proprinter mode. Back then, printing text was fast, direct, and cheap. Graphics looked bad, mostly. But you could print a long Happy Birthday banner for your younger sister or school buddy’s birthday party using The Print Shop or something if you wanted to. And you could print pages and pages of text before you had to change the ribbon.

The Problem

Then came inkjet. Wow, look at the great quality, right? But then people started to realize what they had gotten themselves into when replacement cartridges came at a cost of $35 – $75 a piece. We could hardly bring ourselves to buy them but soon, we hardly had a choice. We couldn’t afford a laser printer at home so most of us had inkjets, and dot matrix printers became increasingly hard to print to with every new iteration of Microsoft’s dominant operating system. And with the inkjets came new papers and labels. No more giant boxes of tractor feed anything was available. And this new stuff wasn’t cheap either. I remember paying $30 once for a single pack of Avery address labels for my inkjet printer at Staples. Sure, the new inkjet-printed, peel-n-stick labels were nice looking, but at what cost?

The Benefits of switching back

So I looked online and found a Panasonic dot matrix printer that is still being produced and supported. The KX-P1150. So I bought one.

My Panasonic KX-P1150 at home

Actually, I bought two. One for home, and one for the office. Then, I looked online and found that ribbons are still available for these. I get them on Amazon.com for $11.49 a 6-pack. That’s $1.92 per cartridge!

The Panasonic printer ribbon

These ribbons print until the cows come home, and then some. And when the text starts to look a little light, you stick a pen into the little hole on the front like you see pictured there, and it magically darkens up again for a while longer.

Great, right? Wrong. Because the problem you run into, is that while most modern operating systems can technically print to these things, they no longer do so by sending *draft text* to the printers, so the printers can print in those native, fast, simple draft text fonts like they used to under old 8-bit computers, or under MS-DOS. Instead, modern printer drivers send image data to these things that the printers then try to approximate graphically, and it is horrible. It’s slow, and it looks bad, and for some reason, it takes several passes of the print head just to print one line of text. So after a lot of experimentation and disappointment, these printers ended up not getting used very much. For quite a while. At work, I would print internal documents on them that end up in the filing cabinet anyway, like bank reconciliations and things like that, and that worked fine mostly. Employees complain about the noise, but I just tell them that that is the sound of savings.

The Joy of beating the game

Then I decided to solve the problem once and for all. I bought an old IBM AT clone, a 286 if you remember those, and it runs DOS, just like the old days.

My Packard Bell PB-800 286/10 MHz PC

Now yes, I can virtualize DOS on my home computer (running Linux) using built-in tools, and I might be able to get virtual DOS talking to a local printer, but guess what? I don’t have a parallel port on my current main home PC. And the USB to parallel technology is iffy and only works with some printers. Besides, I wanted the fun of running a vintage PC again anyway. So, here’s what I did.

I Win

I searched the DOS software archives at vetusware.com and finally found an old abandonware version of Act! 1.10 for DOS. It even came with a pdf file of the complete user manual. With this program, I can store my small mailing address lists and print labels from them directly to this printer and it knows just what to do. I even found these old-school tractor feed labels at Amazon.com for about $22.00 a box shipped.

This box contains 5,000 labels. This will get us through many decades of Christmas letter mailings! For printing single labels, I found a little program called LabelPro that lets me enter an address and print out a quick label on the fly. Nothing could be easier, or cheaper, and dot matrix is more than adequate for addressing mail. In fact, it looks *nice*. For the Christmas letter itself, I use MS-Word version 5.5 for DOS and just print out 120 copies. It prints fast using native fonts on tractor-feed paper, and it is cheap per page for that ink and paper. It is still the cheapest way to get ink on paper that I know of.

So I win! I beat the inkjet cartridge racket once and for all just by resurrecting some old technology that should have never been completely, forcibly replaced in the home. Now I have the joy not only of saving gobs of money every year, but also of using and keeping alive nostalgic vintage computing and printing technologies that remind me of the good old days, and that obviously still offer a lot of value!