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Primera Signature III Color Printer

by Hugh Bennett

February 2000 | In 1997, when Fargo Electronics introduced the original Signature CD Color Printer, the new release set the market on its ear by making CD-R disc label printing available at moderate cost. The Signature's attractively low price, tray-loading design, and small size, however, were not sufficient to attract the production community. Key factors inhibiting its success in the production arena included the printer's low resolution, slow speed, and relatively primitive three-color inkjet technology. A year later, Fargo spun off its CD, sign, and label printer business to newly created Primera Technology, and an updated Signature II model appeared on the market. Unfortunately, while maintaining the attractive attributes of its predecessor, the Signature II offered nothing more than a slight improvement in printing speed.

Conventional wisdom seems to have held true and the third time has indeed proved the charm for Primera with the release of the Signature III CD Color Printer. Like its precursors, the $1,495 Signature III is a color inkjet system employing a Lexmark engine but, thanks to the latest technological advances, the printer's performance and output quality are greatly enhanced over the previous models. For example, maximum resolution of the Signature III has been extended to true 1200 x 1200dpi and speed has at least doubled. Addressing many of the issues that dogged its ancestors, the Signature III now offers the best combination of ease of use and overall value for any CD label printer in its price range and will surely find itself in demand by enthusiast and professional users alike.

signature look and feel

Compared to competing CD printers, the Signature III is positively diminutive, weighing in at a mere 8.5 pounds while housed in a stylishly compact 10.5" x 7.5" x 10.5" plastic case. Ink is supplied by a single three-color cyan, magenta, yellow (CMY) cartridge which can be swapped out in favor of a black (K)-only cartridge for more economical and vibrant monochrome printing.

Thanks to an exterior design which is the model of simplicity, attending to the Signature III is very straightforward. Controls on the top of the unit consist of three buttons (power on/off, tray open/close and ink cartridge replacement) as well as two indicator lights (power and busy status). The printer's rear panel contains a standard Centronics parallel and a mini 8-pin serial interface port for easy connection to PC and Macintosh computers as well as an auxiliary 6-pin port for integration into compatible disc-autoloading systems.

unpacking and installation

In addition to the printer, Primera ships each Signature III package with one-color ink cartridge, a holder for a spare ink cartridge, five cardboard CD templates for test printing, an external power adapter, printer drivers for Windows 95/98/NT and Macintosh computers, and Island Software's Compact Disc Image Designer label creation software for Windows. Additional three-color and black ink cartridges can be purchased for $57.95 and $49.95 respectively. Fifty packs of the two-sided cardboard printing templates are available for $24.95.

Despite being a specialized device, the Signature III installs like a dream and setting it up and using it is much like configuring and working with any other inkjet printer. Low-level control over the output is exercised through the supplied printer driver which offers several useful features including selectable resolutions (1200 x 1200, 600 x 600, 600 x 300dpi), dithering optimization (photos, graphics), color matching (algebraic, Candela PrimaColor, ColorSync), overall ink saturation, as well as maintenance routines for changing ink cartridges, calibrating image positioning, and the like. A 32-bit spooler is also provided to speed up multiple job processing under Windows 95/98.

One feature that sets the Signature III's printer driver head and shoulders above its competition is its automatic masking of the center hole and area beyond the circumference of the disc to be printed. This capability eliminates any chance of making a mess by accidentally labeling outside of the disc's boundaries. Thanks to the masking feature and the printer's handy tray-loading design, the Signature III is fool-proof and a joy to use. The tray-loading mechanism makes the Signature III ideal for integration into automated in-line CD duplication and custom disc production systems such has been done in MediaFORM's CD-3703I Eclipse, Cedar Technologies' Desktop CD-R Publisher, and Microtech Systems' ImageAutomator 150 systems.

On the downside, however, is Primera's questionable choice of bundling Island Software's Compact Disc Image Designer labeling software. Awkward and downright annoying to use for anything but the simplest label, it should quickly drive Signature users to opt for just about any other application they can get their hands on (Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator, etc.) for creating their designs. Why Primera couldn't bundle better software--like Seagull Scientific's excellent BarTender package--with a printer in this price range is a mystery.

inkjet-printable CD-R media

As is the case with all inkjet CD printers, the inks used by the Signature III do not adhere to the smooth lacquer surfaces of standard CD-R discs, so special "inkjet-printable" media must be used. Covered with a carefully engineered material (Ink Absorption Layer) that allows the ink to stay in one place long enough to dissipate its solvents and properly dry, inkjet printable CD-R discs are as important as the printer itself in achieving a high quality result. [See Hugh Bennett, "CD-R, Fit to Print: Printing Devices for CD-Recordable," August 1997, pp. 30-41--Ed.].

Inkjet-printable CD-R discs have come a long way in the past few years and are available from all the major manufacturers including Kodak, Taiyo Yuden, Mitsubishi/Verbatim, Mitsui, TDK, Ricoh, Pioneer, and Maxell, to name a few. The few and proud DVD-R users will also be heartened to note that Pioneer's just-announced "printable" DVD-Recordable discs will work with the Signature III as well. Primera also sells Taiyo Yuden media under its own "TuffCoat" brand name. Bearing in mind that the inks used by the printers are water-based, balancing image quality and durability has always been a challenge. The current generation of media, however, does an excellent job of accommodating high resolutions while achieving reasonably durable images. A selection of disc surface colors includes white, silver, and gold to help make for pleasing results. Beauty has always been in the eye of the beholder so the best advice for the image conscious is to print a selection of discs from a variety of manufacturers to see which is most pleasing.

pretty pictures in a jiffy

In testing the Signature III with a variety of silver and white surface discs, results proved very impressive. Small text was legible, line art and graphics were clean and precise, and photographs were colorful and vibrant. Generally speaking, the final results compare favorably with those achieved with much more expensive units. As well, images dried quickly enough and even areas fully flooded with color were dry to the touch within minutes.

Be aware, however, that drying time is dependent upon the amount of ink deposited on the printable surface and varies greatly even between brands of discs. The higher the resolution, the greater the amount of ink, and the longer it will take for the image to dry so it's advisable to use only as high a resolution setting as is necessary to achieve a desirable result. Experience will dictate how long to leave discs sitting in the open air to dry adequately.

Printing times were excellent and a huge improvement over previous models. Unfortunately, while Primera correctly advertises that the Signature III prints a disc with 100 percent color coverage in 38 seconds, they fail to mention that this is achieved only at the lowest 600 x 300dpi resolution. Admittedly adequate for draft work, most users will opt for the higher-quality results offered by 600 x 600dpi and 1200 x 1200dpi settings which test printed in 1 minute 45 seconds and 2:10, respectively.

During several months of reviewing and printing hundreds of discs, the Signature III performed like an old pro executing every task reliably. From a functional standpoint, the biggest shortcoming of the Signature III is its use of a three- rather than a four-color inkjet system. Quite simply, it's more expensive and a greater nuisance to have to swap a three-color for a black cartridge repeatedly rather than being able to install separate black and three-color cartridges for use at the same time. Another quibble with the Signature III is that, unlike its predecessors, the unit does not support jewelcase booklet or insert card printing--a handy feature for users not wanting a couple of printers on their desks.

sig III and ROI

With its convenient tray-loading design, compact size, competitive speed, and excellent printing quality, Primera's Signature III quite simply sets the standard for entry-level and mid-range CD label printers. Despite a few rough edges, poor labeling software and a price tag of $1,495 that is too high for casual users, the Signature III is well-suited to a wide range of applications and will prove useful in office and production environments alike.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Cedar Technologies
7667 Cahill Road, Edina, MN, 55439
612/830-1993; Fax 612/830-1039

Eastman Kodak Company
343 State Street, Rochester, NY 14650-1181

Maxell Corporation of America
22-08 Route 208, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410
201/703-2168; Fax 201/796-8790

400 Eagleview Boulevard, Suite 104, Exton, PA 19341
610/458-9200, 800/220-1215; Fax 610/458-9554

Microtech Systems
2 Davis Drive, Belmont, CA 94002-3002
800/223-3693, 650/596-1900; Fax 650/596-1915

Mitsui Advanced Media Inc.
2500 Westchester Avenue, Suite 110, Purchase, NY 10577
914/251-4216; Fax 914/253-8623

Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc.
2265 East 220th Street, Long Beach, CA 90810
800/444-6784, 310/952-2111; Fax 310/952-2990

Ricoh Corporation Disc Media Systems
One Ricoh Square, 1100 Valencia Avenue, Tustin, CA 92780
714/566-3235; Fax 714/566-2683

Taiyo Yuden USA, Inc.
Arlington Center, 714 West Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights, IL 60005
800/368-2496; Fax 847/925-0899

TDK Electronics Corporation
12 Harbor Park Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050
516/625-0100; Fax 516/625-0100

Verbatim Corporation
1200 W.T. Harris Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28262
800/421-4188; Fax 704/547-6609

Primera Signature III Color Printer

synopsis: Like its precursors, the Signature III is a color inkjet system employing a Lexmark engine but, thanks to the latest technological advances, the printer's performance and output quality are greatly enhanced over the previous models. For example, maximum resolution of the Signature III has been extended to true 1200 x 1200dpi and speed has at least doubled. The Signature III now offers the best combination of ease of use and overall value for any CD label printer in its price range and will surely find itself in demand by enthusiast and professional users alike.

price: $1,495; Ink Cartridge prices: three-color (Cyan/Magenta/Yellow) - $57.95, monochrome (black) - $4995; One CMY cartridge included with printer

Primera Technology, Inc. Two Carlson Parkway North
Plymouth, MN 55447-4446
800/797-2772 612/475-6676 Fax 612/475-6677

Hugh Bennett (hugh_bennett@compuserve.com), an EMedia Magazine contributing editor and columnist for THE CD WRITER, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems (http://www.forgetmenot.on.ca), a company based in London, Ontario, Canada offering CD and DVD-ROM recording, replication, and consulting services as well as CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RAM hardware, duplication systems, software, and blank media sales.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc. com.

Online Inc.

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