Review: Microboards PrintFactory
Posted Jun 1, 2003

Microboards' Print Factory introduction marks the beginning of a concerted industry effort to provide HP-based alternatives to Primera-based printing solutions. Disc Factory ($2995) has a lot to offer prospective CD and DVD disc labelers, including excellent high-resolution printing quality, rapid-fire output, reasonable cost per label, the ability to control multiple units from one PC, and the convenience of using off-the-shelf inkjet cartridges. But Microboards (www.microboards.com) still needs to iron out some small wrinkles, including addressing glitches in the Disc Factory's driver software and disc output system.

June 2003|Competition drives innovation, sharpens prices, influences business practices, and offers consumers much-needed choices. So, in a world long dominated by Primera CD and DVD inkjet disc printers, it's a welcome sign to have another industry veteran like Microboards Technology throw its hat into the disc-labeling ring.

Rather than confronting the juggernaut head-on, Microboards has instead opted to pick its first target carefully and come to market with a more specialized autoprinting product. Aimed at tower CD and DVD duplicator owners, as well as service bureaus decorating discs as an alternative to silkscreening, the Print Factory is a one-trick pony wrapping 50-disc autoloading capabilities around a thoroughly modern color inkjet printer in a smooth desktop unit.

In contrast to Primera's solutions, which utilize Lexmark technology, the $2,995 Print Factory employs Hewlett-Packard's Deskjet 6122 inkjet printing engine, which boasts 4800x1200dpi optimized resolution and true four-color capability combined with four- picoliter droplet size. This is a step up from Primera's SignaturePro and Bravo (See reviews, www.emedialive.com/r4/2001/bennett9_01.html and www.emedialive.com/r4/2003/bennett0203.html), which offer 2400x1200dpi and seven-picoliter droplet size and the older Signature IV (see review, www.emedialive.com/r4/2001/starrett6_01.html) with 1200x1200dpi and 18-picoliter droplet size.

Beyond using a different inkjet engine, the Print Factory also avoids the industry convention of using pick-and-place robotics by instead employing a gravity-fed belt arrangement to supply and move discs through the printing mechanism. The system functions by stacking CDs or DVDs to be printed in a bin located at the top rear of the unit. An escapement is used to allow one disc at a time to fall as needed onto a moving belt that carries it forward under the inkjet print head for labeling. The mechanism then drops the disc into an awaiting bin slung low out the front of the unit.

System Requirements and Installation
Since the Print Factory is a straightforward autoloading printer without duplication capabilities, system requirements are predictably light, although using a faster computer will reduce imaging times with complex labels. Consequently, at least a 233mHz Pentium PC with 128MB RAM is called for, along with MS Windows 2000 or XP and a parallel or USB 1.1 port. For this evaluation, the Print Factory was put to the test using a speedier (although run-of-the-mill these days) 1.7gHz Pentium 4 PC with 256MB RAM running MS Windows XP Professional with a USB connection. As with most contemporary inkjet printers, installation proved to be a snap. The unit was up and running within a matter of minutes of unpacking.

In addition to the autoprinter, each Print Factory package includes a full complement of niceties, including one tri-color and one black ink cartridge, power cord, USB cable, a handful of alignment CDs, a spindle of 50 blank Taiyo Yuden inkjet-printable CD-R discs, printer drivers for Windows 2000/XP and Microvision Development's SureThing CD Labeler LE label creation software. Serious production users, however, should take note that the unit offers only a one-year non-extendable warranty.

The Print Factory uses a customized HP driver to control the printing process. This includes selectable printing modes and print quality levels, overall ink volume, saturation, brightness, and color tone, as well as grayscale and black-only operation. Also included are maintenance features for checking ink levels, changing ink cartridges, and outputting test and alignment images. More specific to disc labeling is the ability to specify inner and outer printing diameters, hub labeling, and drying time (which unfortunately, didn't appear to make any difference during testing). Conspicuously absent is color-matching capability.

Output Quality and Costs
As is the case with all inkjet CD/DVD label printers, only inkjet-printable media can be used with the Print Factory. For these tests, both MBI and Taiyo Yuden silver and white surface media were used to produce excellent results with good drying times, excellent text, graphic and photographic image quality, and bold, rich colors on par with or better than competing inkjet printers.

In contrast to Primera's proprietary approach, a particularly attractive feature of Microboards' Print Factory is its use of off-the-shelf HP inkjet cartridges. The unit accepts standard 19ml ($34.99) or large 38ml ($54.99) 78 series tri-color cartridges available through almost any computer or office supply store. One wrinkle, however, is that instead of standard black refills, Microboards recommends using HP's 40ml versatile black cartridges ($29.99), which are more specialized and typically available only through resellers serving the industrial mail printing industry. Since it's likely that most users will mainly print color labels using the system (thermal transfer devices are generally better solutions for monochrome and spot-color work), this shouldn't present too much of a problem.

Using standard color cartridges also opens the door to alternatively purchasing third-party refilled products at almost half the cost of brand name cartridges. Microboards, however, recommends against this practice, and indeed using refurbished cartridges voids the Print Factory's warranty.

In terms of the Print Factory's operating cost, Microboards advertises that roughly 600 disc labels (94% coverage) can be printed per large (38ml) color cartridge in normal photo mode, translating into a modest cost of approximately 9.2 cents per label. Be aware, however, that this formula changes dramatically depending upon such things as the nature of the images, printing area, and selected resolution. For example, Print Factory testing here suggests that using graphic-intensive labels and floods with 100% coverage can easily double or triple ink consumption over Microboards' estimate.

Call Me Speedy
From a more mechanical perspective, during one month of testing the Print Factory performed solidly while printing 500 discs and successfully completing another 500 simulated printing cycles. Aided in no small part by its rapid-fire gravity-feeding mechanism, the unit also acquitted itself admirably in terms of its labeling speed. Testing on ten discs took approximately 40.5 minutes (100% coverage) in its 4800x1200dpi optimized mode, 21 minutes in best mode (most likely to be used), and 17.5 minutes in fast mode. The text and graphics settings clocked in still faster at 10.5 minutes in 4800x1200dpi, 4 minutes in best, and 5 minutes in fast modes. Printing smaller images would obviously yield better times.

Given such high performance it might be easy to criticize the Print Factory's modest 50-disc capacity as an unnecessary limit to long unattended operation. However, a powerful feature (not tested here) is the Print Factory's unique ability to have multiple units attached through USB to a single controlling PC. This feature has the potential dual effect of not only expanding capacity, but also significantly reducing printing bottlenecks when performing multiple or single large jobs.

While speed is an obvious advantage of gravity feed over pick-and-place robotics, the Print Factory's design does have its drawbacks. For example, the unit can only accommodate standard 12cm discs, but not 8cm round or business card media. What's more, during testing, problems were encountered with the front disc output assembly where finished discs were ejected on an angle such that their leading edges sometimes struck and marred the labeled surface of the disc below. Microboards indicated that it was aware of the issue and shipped for trial a plastic plate designed to correct the problem by extending the lip of the machine to allow finished discs drop flatter rather than edge first. The remedy, however, introduced its own troubles, including making it more awkward to remove discs from the output bin, and creating an exposed dust-collecting surface for the discs to slide across.

A more serious deficiency that became evident during use is that ejected discs become somewhat scattered within the generously proportioned output bin so that, instead of being vertically aligned and held apart by the center stacking hub ring of each disc, their flat surfaces actually can touch. Testing with heavily flooded graphic labels resulted in a number of instances where discs had their labels blemished by physical contact with their upstairs neighbors and, in some cases, ink was smeared on disc undersides. Unless this problem is solved, this will necessitate using media with only premium-quality inkjet surfaces while, at the same time, exercising caution in designing label images.

The Bottom Line
Microboards' Print Factory introduction marks the beginning of a concerted industry effort to create competition with Primera-based printing solutions. Other HP-enabled competitors, including those using Rimage's Liberty and Verity Systems' OptiPrinter, will soon follow. For the time being, however, the Print Factory has a lot to offer prospective CD and DVD disc labelers including excellent high-resolution printing quality, rapid-fire output, reasonable cost per label, the ability to control multiple units from one PC and the convenience of using off-the-shelf inkjet cartridges. That said, Microboards still has work to do in ironing out some wrinkles, including addressing glitches in the Print Factory's driver software and disc output system.

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SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

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OTHER COMPANIES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Hewlett-Packard Company
www.hp.com
MBI (Glyphics Media Subsidiary) www.glyphicsmedia.com
MicroVision Development, Inc. www.surething.com
Primera Technology www.primera.com
Rimage Corporation www.rimage.com
Taiyo Yuden www.yuden.co.jp
Verity Systems www.veritysystems.com