Portable printers: Mobility matters

Print on the go.

Progress toward a paperless society continues to take two steps forward, one step back. No sooner do you become accustomed to writing long reports on a BlackBerry than a client wants a hard copy. Now what? Well, maybe you reach for the Printstik. Unveiled in early January by Mississauga, Ont.–based PlanOn Systems Solutions Inc. at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, this ruggedized plastic and stainless-steel portable printer is intended to satisfy those on-the-spot needs for low-quality, small-quantity paper records.

Slightly smaller than a box of plastic wrap, the Printstik is compatible with Windows-based laptops and the most popular smart phones. It uses direct thermal printing, commonly used to dispense parking tickets or receipts. Electrical charges flow through a band of tiny wires that heat and chemically react with a built-in spool of special paper. This is a razor-and-blades business model: the printer costs $300, but it’s $12 for a three-pack of paper refill cartridges, into which 20 feet of paper is tightly spooled. That works out to be roughly 20¢ per standard letter-sized page. The good news is that the printer doesn’t spit out a full 11 inches if it’s just a four-line e-mail. Wherever the text or graphics stop, so does the printer, and you just tear off that portion. It scrolls out three pages or so a minute, with a modest clacking sound.

As always, convenience comes with trade-offs. By today’s standards, the print quality is only passable, with just 16 shades of gray. Plus, the paper curls a bit, it isn’t very good to write on, and the print will degrade within a year, even if it’s tucked in a filing cabinet (two weeks if left on your dashboard).

The upside is that while it’s not quite so portable as that BlackBerry on your hip, it slips into briefcases well, and it works over a USB cable or wirelessly via Bluetooth. The lithium-ion battery is good for about 30 pages before it needs to find a wall socket. And you’ll never need find a 24-hour copy centre. The verdict? It’ll do the job for road warriors, but good luck convincing your company to buy them for everybody on staff.