Introduction to the Varitronics thermal Transfer Printers.

The Varitronics poster printers such as Varitronics ProImage XL3000 and Variatronics ProImage Plus are for making flip charts, posters, directional signs, banners, and teaching materials.

About once every four months someone asks us our opinion about the Varitronics poster printers, so we have prepared this page. We have never seen one at any trade show, nor do we know anywhere that has one (though we realize plenty of them are in use). Until we can get one in-house to analize it ourselves, we can only judge the advertising claims.

These are thermal transfer printers, not inkjet. There is no ink hence no variety of colors. The colorant comes on the underside of plastic sheets (the size of the poster) or on narrow ribbons (which go back and forth until they cover the size of the poser). The heat from the printer transfers the color from the plastic onto the surface of the poster paper. You then throw away the sheet or eventually the ribbon. Of course you waste all the ink that was not needed. Thus if you have one letter in red, your entire sheet is thrown away even though you got only one letter's worth of the red color. If you are curious about thermal transfer technology, FLAAR is preparing a white paper on this. Thermal transfer is used by desktop printers (the former Alps printers), by digital large format printers (Roland) and by printers for outdoor signs (Summa and Matan). It's a mature technology but one with not much new energy or new developments. Roland is the only mainstream company that uses thermal transfer technology for a printer in the inkjet category (it's of course not itself inkjet, but the printer itself is basically the same as an inkjet, and the output is comparable as well).

First of all, a good inkjet printer such as the HP 500 or HP 800 will do virtually everything that the Variatronics will do, but better. As for doing flip-charts, of course an inkjet will do that also, but you are nowadays better off with a PowerPoint presentation. Flip charts sound rather archaic.

Pros: the equipment is most likely well thought out, after all, it's been around since the 1980's. The built-in scanner probably makes the scan-to-print aspect almost idiot proof. These printers have built in scanners, though I get the impression you get only grayscale from some models and on the color, only multiple colors but not a true color mix. You can use fluorescent paper, fluorescent pink and fluorescent yellow. Finding this kind of paper for an inkjet printer is tough.

Downside: the scanner apparantly only produces gray-scale images. Students and audiences want full color, and in photo-realistic quality. Connects only to a PC; most inkjet printers connect to Macintosh as well as to PC. Prints only in limited colors, only basic solid colors. The color comes from the thermal ribbons and/or whatever is the background color of the paper you select. You can't print a color photograph of blue sky and green grass. You can only print Varitronic-blue letters and Varitronic-green letters. Also, supplies come only from a limited number of suppliers. With inkjet you can select more than 50 kinds of media from dozens of suppliers. With the basic Variatronics printer you can do blue letters on white paper. A basic sign. You can print from CorelDraw, Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, and Microsoft Word. Nary a word about printing from Illustrator, much less from Adobe PageMaker or PosterShop.

Price: entry level Varitronics poster printer is close to $4,000. You can get a 24" large format inkjet, full color, 1200 dpi, for about that, and have full digital technology. The Varitronics Pro36 color poster printer is almost $7,000. You can come close to that price and get a 42" full color 1200 dpi inkjet printer such as the HP 500 or HP 800. For a bit more you can get the even better six color HP 5000.

Let's look at specific capabilities touted by the Varitronics site: take maps, map enlargement. That is what a GIS printer does best, and the best GIS printer happens to be an HP 800, or HP 500 at entry level. I can't imagine any lesser printer doing as good a job with a sophisticated map. HP printers are used by the federal government, by state agencies, and city planning. I doubt any of those mapping departments use a Varitronics. Even an Encad or Canon printer would be better.

Conclusion: if you want a simple idiot proof printer for quickie signs, the Varitronics or **** is ideal. But if you intend to use photographs in color, if you intend to accomplish higher quality digital prints, then you need a true inkjet printer. Varitronics and **** represent the 1980's and early 1990's. Inkjet technology and fully digital imaging is the present and future of poster printing.

It's now the year 2003, and buying equipment developed in the 1980's seems rather backward looking. Sooner or later your employees ought to learn Adobe PageMaker and Adobe Photoshop anyway. You can bring any kid in from the local community college to teach your employees how to use all this. You can learn basic Photoshop in two days. After that, just get any of the books from Peachpit Press and you can learn all the Photoshop tricks.

The ads suggest the printers are versatile and the posters look professional. Yes, a print looks more professional than had scrawled, but an inkjet poster would normally look more sophisticated than any one-color poster. And it's precisely the lack of versatility that is the downside. All they can do is print letters and designs.

Varitronics is a Brady company. I have always been curious whether this is the same Brady as made the inkjet printers taken over by Fuji and now sold as Fuji-Hunt? They also are older technology, as though in a time warp.

Nicholas Hellmuth's thematic reports on large format printers for outdoor signage now available
discussion of large format printers for outdoor signs, banners, billboards, building wrap: lists of all the main solvent ink and oil-based ink printers along with thermal transfer printers which can be used outdoors with no lamination.
reviews of large format printers most appropriate for signs, posters, banners including POP, primarily for indoor signage: HP, Encad, and more
large format printers appropriate for use in printing vehicle graphics, bus wrap and comparable outdoor use.
media and inks for signs, posters, banners (for all printers, piezo as well as thermal inkjets, media for indoor as well as outdoor without lamination)
quick-start help, list of the best RIPs; hints for what accessories you need; list of where you can get books and training on digital imaging.
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