Macworld Magazine, December 1991

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy


The Meaning of Slow

Passing the time with Apple’s StyleWriter


Owning an Apple StyleWriter is like having a recalcitrant pet, a puppy perhaps permanently damaged by pre-mature separation from its mother. It can make your heart leap with its sporadic charm, but its general misbehavior makes you want to take a trip to the river to drown it. [MFR disclaimer: be kind to all living things.] In the case of the StyleWriter, thank God, the problem is not errant bladder control or a propensity to gnaw on the couch. The problem is speed. Oops. Did I somehow foolishly manage to include the word speed in a sentence referring to the StyleWriter? The only relationship existing between speed and the StyleWriter, as the guy in “Wayne’s World” would say, is... NOT!


If you like watching paint dry, or trees grow, or continents drift, you will love Apple’s StyleWriter. As a onetime owner of an original 128K Mac, I thought I knew slow, but having a StyleWriter in my house for even a few weeks demonstrated that I had much to learn about the concept. In fact, during the long periods of cogitation it has provided me while printing documents and tying up my Macintosh, I have come to the conclusion that the StyleWriter is not, as Apple insists, simply a compact, affordable, “professional-quality” ink-jet printer, but a learned dispenser of wisdom. Like Buddhists, Native Americans, and Heinz ketchup commercials, it instructs patience in all things, especially spreadsheet documents.


While you meditate, the StyleWriter speaks. I can hear it now, softly growling as I attempt to compose this column while it’s printing “in the background.” (More on the spooler later.) At first I ignored these sounds, naively thinking they were just the noises made while hot jets of ink sprayed on the paper one painstaking line at a time. Then it dawned on me that the StyleWriter is different from any other Apple printer.


My old ImageWriter, though no speed king itself, projected an industrial clatter. It was a shot-and-a-beer type of printer, blue-collar all the way.


Its sound was not one of communication, but the consequence of hard work, hammer on steel. My LaserWriter, on the other hand, was a Yuppie knowledge-engineer type; its soothing whine as it printed was sort of a Windham Hill accompaniment to my work, which I could perform seamlessly while the printer did its job. During the silences between pages, the LaserWriter was obviously calculating its next move, and then with a short burst of the engine, it impressed words upon paper.


But the StyleWriter’s sounds are different. It grabs the paper with a greedy meshing of gears, then momentarily halts, almost abashed at its eagerness. Finally, it emits a high-pitched scraping noise as its print head moves across the page. The sound is annoying but stifled, like a Victorian sneeze. One line. Then the paper moves a bit, and the printer ekes out another line. Every so often, to my bafflement, the StyleWriter pauses in the middle of a page. It took me a while to figure out what was happening, but then it all made perfect sense. The StyleWriter was reading the documents as they printed! This printer is not a laggard hunk of plastic but a careful reader, like those who snub Evelyn Wood courses. The device luxuriates in prose. Every so often, it stops and ruminates on a particularly felicitous passage.



The Odd Couple

Whoa. Have I taken leave of my senses, thinking a printer can actually read? Sorry. Having a StyleWriter around does weird things to your head. It is definitely an odd piece of machinery. It even looks strange. It is compact, covering roughly the same amount of real estate as a keyboard and weighing in at under 8 pounds. But for reasons best understood by either the wizards who designed it at Apple or the production geniuses who built it at Canon in Japan, the StyleWriter comes in two pieces-a sheet feeder and the printer itself.


If you are the type of person who needs the visceral contact of personally handing the printer each page as it prints, you don’t need the whole thing. But almost everyone else, I’ll guess, puts the pieces together. They are arranged in such a way that even after you snap them together, like a giant Lego structure, you’re not sure it’s right. It looks as if it’s perpetually sideways. And then you have to add the finishing touches-first attaching a little wire-hanger-like thingamabob (called the paper support) to the top of the sheet feeder. Then you open up the printer, snap in an ink cartridge, figure out how to get the paper in the sheet feeder (tricky at first), open up the flimsy plastic output tray that catches the paper (designed with a tip of the hat to Rube Goldberg), and you’re off. Maybe.


You are off only if your Macintosh has System 6.0.7 or later; the StyleWriter supposedly doesn’t operate on anything earlier because it requires TrueType (although I know people who claim to get around this by using Adobe Type Manager). This is fine if you have converted to System 7, but many of the Classic, SE, and Plus people for whom the StyleWriter is putatively designed have not made, and cannot make, that upgrade. They must search for the elusive 6.0.7, an upgrade that was the prime Mac system software for a few months last year. (This system software is not included in the StyleWriter package.)


Did Someone Say Slow?

So it’s set up and it’s ready to print. Did I mention that it was slow? The StyleWriter manual estimates “approximately one-third page per minute in normal mode,” which is a nice way of saying it takes three minutes to print a page, and an hour for a normal 20-page document. But since plain users don’t gauge operation by stopwatches or hourglasses, but by how things feel, I must abandon metrics to convey the state of mind triggered by using a StyleWriter. Printing a 4-page document means this: leave the room and make a cup of coffee. If you have a Mac II or above, read the sports page while you drink your coffee, then return. If you have a Classic or a Mac Plus, drive into town for your cup of coffee. Schmooze before returning.


If you are printing a long document, something that will test the limits of the 50-sheet paper feeder on the StyleWriter (50 sheets doesn’t sound like too much, but it lasts a long time), I suggest you consult your local theatre guide for a good feature.


Oh, there is a draft mode for more rapid printing. Apple shows its sense of humor by referring to the standard speed as “best” and the draft mode as “faster.” Sort of like calling a small box of detergent “Jumbo.” Draft mode is indeed almost twice as fast, but the output has a washed-out quality.


The other option is actually using the Mac to create new work while the StyleWriter is printing. For the first few months of the StyleWriter’s existence, that was not an official option, as the StyleWriter could not use the background-printing feature so slickly utilized by LaserWriters (although some third-party spooler software was available). Just as I was finishing this column, Apple released new software that reportedly brings StyleWriters into the age of background printing. Unfortunately, it didn’t work too well for me. On a relatively powerful Mac, a IIcx, the cursor lagged seriously when I used applications while printing, and the performance was jerky and halting. The act of word processing was like watching a movie with the visuals badly out of sync with the audio. Background printing with a less powerful Mac is out of the question. When I tried it with a Mac Plus, I could type entire paragraphs without a word showing up on the screen. It was like composing a document in a different time zone.


Then there is the price of a StyleWriter. It lists for $599; the street price is around $450. The street price of an Apple Personal LaserWriter or a GCC Personal LaserPrinter is slightly more than twice as much, around $1000. Not too long ago, you had to figure at least $2000 for a laser printer that worked with a Macintosh. With a lousy $500 or so separating the StyleWriter from a good laser printer, why lowball it? (Unless, of course, you don’t have the $500 to spend.)


My Type of Type

There is one other thing I should mention about the StyleWriter. Its output. Once the StyleWriter is set up, its software installed, and the arduously lengthy printing process is completed, you get a piece of paper with print on it that is simply ... gorgeous. Startlingly so. You may be excused for mistaking it for output on the more expensive LaserWriter. No jaggies. Clear type. Nice.


I have experimented with the StyleWriter, using Apple’s TrueType fonts and PostScript fonts accessed by Adobe Type Manager (which works nicely with the StyleWriter). In all cases the results are more than acceptable; they are impressive. They shame the ImageWriter and do not overly flatter the LaserWriter.


One might even be tempted to say that the StyleWriter is worth the wait. But it’s not. If you value your time, you will get with the program and buy some sort of laser printer, even if it puts you into deep debt. If worse comes to worst, your bankruptcy filings will look beautiful. And you won’t have cause to meditate on the meaning of slow.


Macworld columnist Steven Levy is writing a book on artificial life.