February, 2001 | Labeling CDs with an inkjet printer
is not always the best answer. Primera Technologybest-known
in CD-R circles for its Editor's Choice-winning Signature
line of inkjetshas 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
Inscripts Thermal CD Printer
| synopsis: Primera
insists they did not design the Inscripta to compete
with Rimage's Prism, the only thermal transfer CD printer
on the market until the Inscripta's late 2000 debut.
With its much lower price, compact form, and generally
friendlier disposition, the Inscripta is a far better
choice for everyday corporate and small business use
than is the Prism. 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 it performed well when tested in both monochrome
and two-color printing functions.
ribbon pricing: Black $39 each; 2-color (red/black,
green/black, blue/black). $59 each
Primera Technology, Inc.
Two Carlson Parkway North
Plymouth, MN 55447-4446
MicroVision Development, Inc.
5541 Fermi Court, Suite 120
Carlsbad, CA 92008
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 [See Hugh Bennett's
review, January 2001, pp. 55-56Ed.]. 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
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
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.
Hugh Bennett (firstname.lastname@example.org),
an EMedia Magazine contributing editor and columnist
for The CD Writer, is president of Forget Me Not Information
a company based in London, Ontario, Canada offering CD and
DVD-ROM recording, mass production, and consulting services
as well as CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RAM hardware, duplication systems,
software, and blank media sales.
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