When it comes to the appearance of your reports and documents, your word processor or desktop computer is only as good as its printer. Hardly the "sexiest" part of the office-automation revolution, printers still benefit from improved technology. As a result, prices have slid an average of 10% to 15% in the past year. Businesses that previously couldn't justify the cost of letter-quality printouts now can afford crisp-looking hard copy from inexpensive machines. And, in top-of-the-line models, exotic printing techniques that were once laboratory curiosities can now be economical alternatives for special needs. The way two companies generate crucial reports on printers -- priced at $895 and $29,655, respectively -- illustrates the wide gamut of hardware available today.

Bruce Hayden, a partner in Hayden, Mackenzie & Co., in New York City, a five-employee start-up firm of insurance underwriting managers, could afford a letter-quality machine to produce proposals for prospective clients because of a price break in daisy-wheel printers. These machines use a whirling print wheel to strike a carbon ribbon and produce a crisp impression on paper that is indistinguishable from good typing. Until recently they started at $2,000. For less than $1,000, Hayden bought Smith-Corona's new TP-1 printer to work with his office Apple 11 Plus computer system.

"We send out nine-page proposals to our potential clients with customized projections of cash flow," says Hayden. "We use VisiCalc to create charts projecting the future over five years with 10 different assumptions. It would take a typist three hours to type up each personalized proposal, but with our printer we can do it in minutes." At 12 characters per second, about a page every two minutes, the typewriter-size TP-1 is one of the slower printers, but its economy more than makes up for its pace. "We print up seven or eight proposals per week, so speed isn't that important for us," says Hayden.

Dolby Laboratories Inc. is a $15 million-a-year company synonymous with noise-reduction systems in recording studios, movie theaters, and home stereos. At its 80-employee San Francisco office, a laser printer doubles as a crisp, black-on-white graphics printer and a typeset-quality document printer. Says Michael Ham, Dolby's information system manager, the Xerox 10 Mb 8044 Print Server, a laser printer was the only printer available for graphics when it was decided to invest in a $150,000 Ethernet local area network (see INC., November 1982, page 49).

The laser printer, which uses the same electrostatic principle as an office copier to affix toner powder to paper and get a permanent image, uses a fast-moving beam of laser light to delineate letters and graphics. Occupying as much space as a stand-alone copier, the printer is shared by the individual computer devices on the network to produce high-quality originals at the rate of 12 pages per minute.

"Anything that would go out to the print shop, we can now print in-house," except for a few jobs that need thousands of copies, says Ham. "We print up the weekly management minutes, about five pages each, with 10 collated copies, in the time it takes to tell about it. We also print all in-house documentation and engineering manuals with the laser printer, after originating text on our word processors or Xerox Star 8010 workstations."

To create its own "office of tomorrow" last summer, Dolby bought 28 North Star Advantage personal computers, made by North Star Computers Inc. of San Leandro, Calif., as word processors, along with three Xerox 860 word processors for composing text and two Xerox Star workstations on the Ethernet network. The Stars can combine text and computer-generated graphics and select any of 26 typefaces to be transmitted to the laser printer over the network cable. "The print quality is very good. I find it looks better than a daisy-wheel printer," says Ham.

To make the most economical use of the laser device, ordinary correspondence is printed on daisy-wheel printers attached to the Xerox 860 word processors or the North Star Advantages. Before the current all-electronic system for report creation and printing, all of the layouts, graphics, and schematics had to be done by hand. "It's too early to figure out all the economic benefits, but we've already seen greater efficiency in our graphics department," Ham says. "One draftsman spends 80% of his time using a Star workstation for creating schematic diagrams and technical drawings on the laser printer. If you put a transparency into the printer, it can give you a presentation-quality exhibit for use with an overhead projector " And Ham notes that "it will be a while before we take full advantage of the laser-printer system."

Between an inexpensive daisy-wheel printer and a top-of-the-line laser printer are several options. Dot-matrix printers use a combination of pins striking the paper to create characters but don't yield letter-quality resuIts. But while their end product looks like a computer printout, most of these machines have speed and economy and can generate high-resolution graphics. (Daisy-wheel printers don't have this capacity.) Popular brands like Anadex, Centronix, Epson America, Data Computer, Integral Data Systerns, and Okidata cost from $650 to $3,200 and run at speeds from as slow as 10 to as fast as 400 characters per second.

Letter-quality printers, using daisy wheels or compact "thimbles," typically cost $2,000 to $4,000 and produce hard copy at the rate of 30 to 136 characters per second -- much faster than the Smith-Corona TP-1 that Bruce Hayden bought for Hayden Mackenzie & Co. Top manufacturers include C. Itoh Electronics, Diablo Systems, Qume, and Xerox. Among the promising new printer technologies is ink-jet printing: ejecting droplets of ink onto paper via a print head nozzle. The advantage is quiet operation. So far only Siemens Communication Systems Inc. has developed low-cost ink-jet machines in the $2,000-$3,000 range.

Printers can be bought or leased from office-equipment companies or from computer retailers. The market for these machines has grown to where one chain of stores, Orange Micro Printer Stores, sells nothing but printers. Currently four such stores exist in California, with more due nationwide on a franchise basis.

In addition to a printer's price and speed, it is also important to consider compatibility with your computer or word processing system. The printer usually must be connected to your machine via an electronic circuit board or "interface" card, which often plugs into a slot in the computer chassis. Interface cards, however, don't exist to connect every printer to every major brand of computer.

Another factor is whether word processing software will have to be modified to take full advantage of the printer's capabilities. WordStar, for example, MicroPro lnternational Corp.'s popular word processing program, can be modified to produce double-width characters on some popular dot-matrix printers. For printing muIti-page documents, you should also weigh whether the printer requires single-sheet feeding (a tedious task when done by hand) or can accommodate an automatic sheet feeder or tractor feed for pre-perforated paper. Finally, you will want to consider the cost of supplies: special format paper (if needed), ribbons, toner chemicals, and replaceable print elements.