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What are Downloadable PCL Fonts and Why should I care?
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A brief history...

Sending data to a printer used to be a simple, line-by-line affair: you transmitted up to 80 characters (or up to 132 for a wide-carriage printer) followed by a carriage return and line feed. The printhead zipped back to the left margin, the paper moved up and you printed the next line. Earlier printers let you choose any font as long as it was Courier 12cpi; others offered a small selection of resident fonts. You could print graphics using special commands (but only one line at a time).

Then came the laser printer which formatted an entire page in memory before putting anything on paper. This opened up the possiblity of moving around the page at will to place text and graphics. Hewlett-Packard developed the Printer Command Language (PCL) to provide a means for controlling the printer and instructing it how to format pages. The language evolved from PCL1 to the current version as of this writing, PCL6. Even though the earliest laser printers offered a wide selection of embedded fonts, users often needed something more... scientific character sets, special graphics, barcodes, etc. Hewlett-Packard's LaserJet printers included plug-in slots for font cartridges, making it possible to add fonts to the printer (Hewlett-Packard's "Bar Codes & More" cartridge, for example). Current printer models no longer include cartridge slots, but achieve the same result with internal connectors for the installation of SIMM or DIMM memory modules.

PCL4 for the first time included the ability to download "soft fonts" into the printer's memory. A font file could be stored on the host computer and, when needed for a printout, copied to the printer just ahead of the report data. As long as the destination printer supported PCL4 or higher, the font would be added to the printer's list of internal fonts (until the power went out). This meant that printers did not have to be of the same brand or model and did not have to have a special font cartridge, SIMM, or DIMM installed.

Can downloadable PCL fonts help me?...

If you are manually adding barcodes to word processing documents and spreadsheets using TrueType fonts, the answer is probably no. TrueType fonts are stored on the host system, then automatically downloaded through the printer driver whenever needed; Code 39 is especially convenient for manually inserting barcodes into documents. If, however, you are running production software on Windows, Unix, Linux, HP/UX, AIX, Pick, etc. and your software creates reports by generating PCL output, then downloadable soft fonts may be an effective way to print barcodes.

If you have only one or two printers, SIMM/DIMM barcode modules may be a good solution. However, if you have a larger number of printers the cost of the SIMM/DIMM modules can add up quickly (typically $250 to $450 per printer), and the SIMM/DIMM you need may not be available for all of the particular brands or models of printers you have. In this case, it would be worth taking a look at downloadable soft fonts.

The benefits of downloading PCL fonts...

  • Economy: Downloadable fonts cost less than hardware modules if you have more than two printers, and they work with any brand or model of printer (PCL4 or higher), so they will most likely work with the printers you already have.
  • Flexibility: When it comes time to replace a printer, you do not lose your investment (as you would with a SIMM/DIMM module), and you are not restricted in your choice of a replacement printer... you can choose based on price and performance, not the availability of a specific SIMM/DIMM.
  • Reliability: If your high-capacity production printer goes down, you can always get by in an emergency by sending print jobs to any of your other laser printers.

Why downloadable PCL fonts are good for barcodes...

A downloadable PCL font is one of the fastest, most flexible, precise, and economical ways to implement barcodes on printed documents in production environments, including non-graphical operating systems like Unix, Linux, HP/UX, AIX, etc.  A small amount of programming is required in the software that generates the report output, but the results make it well worthwhile.

  • Compact: Barcode fonts from MEC Software are typically 3K to 4K in size and require almost no time to download once at the start of the print job.
  • Fast: The PCL instructions to print a barcode typically add around 12 characters to a report. Compare this to about 65K for a typical 600dpi barcode graphic. For example, if you are printing a batch of 200 invoices with 2 barcodes each, that's 4.8K for fonts vs. 26M for graphics.
  • Accurate: Bitmapped barcode fonts produce precise and easily-scanned barcodes while scaleable fonts, including TrueType, introduce rounding errors that make barcodes less than perfect (and in some cases unscannable).
  • Flexible: Downloadable PCL barcode fonts are available in a wide range of types and sizes, including custom sizes. With MEC Software's Barcode Font Generator you can create your own fonts in any size.

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