I was surprised a few months ago when a fax from Tektronix came across my desk, comparing the firm's new 300X A3 thermal wax colour printer to an Epson Stylus Color Pro XL. While both are A3 colour printers, the price difference is considerable, with the Tektronix model weighing in at slightly less than $80,000, while the XL costs about $13,000. A3 printers are used primarily for making pre-press proofs. These two models are just about the only A3 printers on the market selling for less than $100,000 in Hong Kong. Tektronix claimed higher print speeds and less expensive output, but the quality of Epson's 720 dpi printing would be hard to beat. The 300X costs almost eight times as much as the Epson, but if you like to buy your printers by the pound, the two units begin to even out. While setting up the Epson was a one-man job, it took two people to lift the Tektronix on to my desk, where it occupied the lion's share of the desktop. The machine is solidly built with a high-quality material and good fit and finish. I wish more computer peripherals were as well constructed. Connecting the 300X was simple and straightforward, with no problems with software installation in the Mac or PC environments. The unit has a direct parallel connection for the PC with an option for Ethernet. For the Mac there is a LocalTalk network connection and of course the same Ethernet option. There is no direct serial connection for the Mac - surprising considering that Macintosh makes up 80 per cent of the desktop publishing market. With the connections made, the next thing to do is turn the printer on and load the ink. This has to be one of the best things about thermal wax technology. Thermal wax printers use solid sticks of wax which are melted and then sprayed on to the paper. There are four wax loading bays, one for each colour. Using an ingenious little piece of technology, each stick of wax has a distinctive shape which corresponds to a specific loading bay. So you should not have to worry about accidentally putting the wrong colour wax into the wrong bay. The other nice thing about this set-up is that you can replace individual colours as you need them, where as most ink-jet printers require you to replace the cyan, magenta and yellow inks all at once even though you may have only run out of one colour. It's a good thing that the Tektronix is so easy to load, because I had to do it often. The ink sticks need to be replaced after fewer than 20 A4-sized prints. To be fair, the main reason for this was that I was turning the printer on, making two or three prints and then turning it off again. Every time the printer is turned on it goes through a cleaning cycle to remove any wax that might be clogging the nozzles. When on continuously, the printer self-cleans about once every four hours. The 300X has built-in Postscript and HP-GL compatibility and is Pantone approved. There is a ColorSync support for the Mac as well as an export function for PhotoShop. The driver also makes provisions for changing the mixture of the inks in order to match various types of presses. This is designed to make proofs printed on the Tektronix match a specific type of output device more closely. It also includes PhaserMatch software which allows users to make colour profiles which match individual presses more accurately. The test unit did not include a copy of this software and I was unable to test its accuracy. With the printer connected to a 10BASE-2 Ethernet, the print speeds were roughly what Tektronix claimed in its brochures, with a full-sized image taking about eight minutes to print. Prints with well less than 100 per cent ink cover showed little change in the print times. Colours were basically accurate although using the export function in PhotoShop caused the overall image quality to deteriorate somewhat. I felt the gains in speed that this export module offered did not outweigh the loss in quality. Another mystery surrounding the 300X is the print resolution. I was not able to find it anywhere in the specifications provided. I did eventually find it on a comparison chart which stated that, with the finepoint enhancement on, the 300X has a resolution of 300 dots per inch (dpi). Only the basic colours of 100 per cent cyan, magenta, yellow, black, red, green, and blue did not show an obvious dot pattern. The Epson StylusColor Pro XL+ is considerably less expensive than the Tektroni 300X but lacks built-in Postscript and HP-GL compatibility, as well as the Tektronix's high-speed risk processor and on-board memory. The XL+ has connection ports for Mac serial and PC parallel with options for Ethernet or LocalTalk. The XL+ introduces several new features that were not available on the StylusColor Pro XL. There is a warning light which blinks when the ink is running low. and a software ink monitor can read the exact amount of ink left in the printer. The XL+ also adds better dithering, and ColorSync support for the Mac. Again, there were no problems with set-up or software installation. The XL+ can print at a resolution of 360 dpi on plain paper and 720 dpi on specially coated paper. At $4.50 per sheet, the coated paper is not cheap. The output, however, is stunning. The dots are almost invisible at a normal viewing distance and colour accuracy is good, while 360 dpi output on plain paper is good but lacks the snap and vibrant colour of output on special paper. While the Epson shines in print quality, the speed is less impressive. The printer tested was equipped with a 10BASE-T connection. When connected to a Macintosh, there was little difference between print speeds with the Ethernet and print speeds with a serial connection. A full-page A3 image print at 720 dpi took about 20 minutes through the network and 25 minutes via serial cable. Although that is slow in comparison to the Tektronix model, it is a large jump from the XL that Technology Post tested just over a year ago which took about 45 minutes to print when connected by a serial port. When printing at 360 dpi, print times were halved to 10 minutes. It should be noted that as there is no RAM or processor in the printer, all processing must be done by the computer to which the printer is attached. Printing in the background while continuing to use the computer may slow print times and the computer may run noticeably slower than normal. As the Epson has no built-in Postscript interpreter, Postscript images need to be handled by a third-party software RIP in order to achieve the best possible quality. Epson sells Birmy's PowerRIP as an option. The PowerRIP can be used as an on-board RIP or can be used in conjunction with a dedicated server. The RIP software requires 15 megabytes of RAM and 40 MB of free hard disk space. Without the PowerRIP, images printed from Adobe Illustrator showed considerable banding. The RIP images were smooth and print times were quick, with A3 page printing done in about 10 minutes at 720 dpi. The dithering and colour fidelity were inferior to images printed without the PowerRIP. No colour control setting, including ColorSync, could improve the quality. All in all, Tektronix's comparison of its printer to the Epson StylusColor is a bit off. The print times and cost for the Epson may be higher at 720 dpi, but at 360 dpi the print times are comparable to the Tektronix, and the print quality is still noticeably higher. Costs are hard to estimate since wax consumption in the Tektronix depends on how often the printer is turned on and how many prints one manages to make between automatic cleaning. If speed and Postscript compatibility are more important to you than cost, for $80,000 you could buy two Epsons, two PowerRIPs, and two Ethernet cards with enough left over for two computers to serve as print servers.