The IBM PC Compact Printer is a bit of a misnomer, as it was really intended for the PCjr. But it ended up working with a bunch of other computers as well as part of its second act. Here’s the story of IBM’s inexpensive model 5181 printer.

PCjr expert Mike Brutman has speculated that IBM didn’t sell a lot of these printers and they ended up in the hands of other resellers who adapted them for other purposes. I can absolutely confirm this. I used an IBM PC Compact Printer with my Commodore 64 in the mid-1980s, and I remember the circumstances.

The IBM 5181’s alias: The Protecto Big Blue Printer

IBM Compact Printer model 5181

Protecto sure did their best to hype up this surplus low end IBM printer in this vintage 1987 ad. They offered interfaces for many popular computers of the era. And they sold it for up to $70 less than Computer Reset charged.

We got our first computer, a Commodore 64, in December 1984. Its story is here if you’re interested. The printer had a short warranty and broke soon after, and wasn’t worth repairing. We didn’t know how much we would use a printer, so we opted to replace it as cheaply as we could while we figured out how much we would actually print.

Protecto Enterprizes, a large mail order dealer near Chicago, had just the thing. They called it the Big Blue Printer. It cost $40 when we got it and it sounded like a miracle. It was made by Canon for the IBM PC and PCjr, and they had an adapter to make it work with other computers, including a Commodore. The adapter cost around $20. So for $60, you had a printer.

Considering the printer originally retailed for $199, according to the ad, it seemed like a great deal. Brutman says it retailed for $175, and I’m inclined to believe him. The retail prices in Protecto ads needed to be taken with a grain of salt sometimes.

The printer was rebadged IBM 5181. Protecto put their own rectangular label over the area where the IBM badge went. A sticker on the back revealed the original model number of 5181001, FCC ID AZD9MA5181001, and stated it was made in Japan, though there was no mention of IBM.

Even with the adapter, this was the cheapest printer on the market in the mid 1980s. We’re talking 1/2 to 1/3 the price of almost anything else you could find, including other no name closeout specials.

I remember the price varying, and I remember them advertising the thing like crazy. Sometimes they raised the price to $50, and sometimes they would lower it to $30, especially as the decade wore on. And yes, the inventory did last several years.

Since it took years to sell through the inventory at a fraction of its original cost, there must have been a catch. I can verify, indeed there was a catch, and not just its slow 50 character per second print speed, which was half to 1/3 the speed of typical printers in the 1980s.

Print quality

I don’t have any surviving printouts, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but the resolution was around 70 dots per inch. The text was readable, and unlike some printers it competed with, characters like the lowercase g and lowercase y did extend below the baseline, rather than sitting awkwardly elevated on the baseline. The text wasn’t really acceptable by modern standards but for 1984 or 1985, it was fine.

The paper

The other catch was the paper. The IBM PC Compact printer/Big Blue Printer used thermal paper, just like an early fax machine, or a cash register. The paper had ink impregnated in between its layers, and heat would activate it, making it visible. It meant you didn’t need ribbons or toner or any other kind of ink in the printer itself. The ink was part of the paper. The catch was the paper was expensive. It cost twice as much as fanfold paper for the more conventional printers of the day. It could use rolls like a fax machine and could hold a roll inside. But IBM offered perforated sheets as well. Protecto continued that, and they probably made more money on the paper than on the printers.

The other catch was the paper was very sensitive. If you exposed it to heat, it could turn completely black. And the ink would break down over time. After a few years, the ink would fade and no longer be readable.

The printer was cheap to buy, but if you used it a lot, the economy wasn’t great.

The verdict?

IBM 5181 compact printer

The IBM 5181 would work work a PC or an Apple II with a simple passive adapter cable. For use with Commodore and Atari computers, Protecto sourced interfaces that converted RS232 to those machines’ bespoke serial buses.

Mike Brutman is right, it wasn’t a bad printer. It was a reasonable deal for the money, especially if you got one on sale for $30 later in the decade. Other cheap printers like the Leading Edge Gorilla Banana and the Commodore 1525 gave worse print quality. They were cheaper to operate, but they looked just as unprofessional.

And it was reliable. We used it for several years, and the printer never broke. I sold it in the early ’90s at a computer swap meet. It still worked, it just wasn’t useful for much at that point.

These printers do turn up from time to time, but there isn’t a lot of demand for old printers, and most people who want a vintage printer already have more than they want or need.

Asking prices are all over the place. The last time I saw one sell, it sold for $50. That’s more than they were worth in 1987. At least if you ignore inflation. I’ve seen people ask for $100 or even $150 for one, and that’s too much.

Compatibility

IBM PC Compact printer

Protecto hyped up this printer more than even IBM had.

The printer had a non-standard RS232 connector, but with a simple cable, it could connect to a serial port on an IBM PC or Apple computer. Printing plain text wouldn’t have been a problem, as long as your software could print to the serial port. Graphics may have been a problem. Its graphics mode was similar to Epson printers, but I don’t know if it was compatible.

Protecto sourced adapters to make it work with other machines, including Commodore and Atari. The Commodore adapter converted the RS232 to Commodore’s weird IEC serial interface. The Atari adapter presumably converted RS232 to Atari SIO. The Commodore adapter emulated a 1525 printer, including ASCII to PETSCII translation and graphics translation. This allowed it to work with popular software of the time, including every word processor and programs like Print Shop.

They sold the printer separately and bundled with other computers. They would frequently bundle a Commodore 64 or Laser 128 with whatever monitor they had in stock and this printer.

If you wonder why every other IBM PC jr accessory seemed to be more readily available at Computer Reset than the IBM PC Compact Printer, this would be why. Protecto bought most of them. I found some IBM 5181s in a 1992 Computer Reset catalog, priced at $99. So that tells me Computer Reset had a supply of them too at some point. But they didn’t get all of them.