Printers for vintage computers

For many vintage computer enthusiasts, printing is a curiosity. But it can be nice to be able to print from a vintage machine. And there are relatively modern printers that work with vintage computers without the hassle of finding ribbons. The key is to find a laser printer that can emulate older Epson FX-series dot matrix printers. This takes some legwork and some research, but it’s doable.

Some people consider using a modern LCD cheating, but I don’t think using a laser printer is. Laser printers existed in the 1980s. They were just expensive. This means you can team up your vintage computer with a compatible laser printer to build what would have been a dream outfit when your retro computer was new.

How to find an Epson-compatible laser printer

printer for vintage computers
This Brother HL-5250 can emulate an Epson FX-850 dot matrix printer, which makes it a great printer for vintage computers, not just new ones.

Up until a few years ago, Brother made laser printers that could emulate an Epson dot-matrix printer. You won’t find these in stores anymore, but they’re still fairly easy to find on the secondary market.

Search your favorite secondary marketplace, whether that’s Craigslist, Nextdoor, or Facebook Marketplace, for a Brother laser printer with a parallel port. That’s the easy half of the puzzle.

The second half of the puzzle is finding out whether any of the printers you found can emulate an Epson FX-850. Brother HL, HLL, MFC and DCP-series printers often can. Printers that start with those letter codes are good candidates.

I recommend doing a Google search on the printer model you found, plus the words “Epson FX.” This should turn up documentation that shows whether the printer can emulate an Epson, and also the sequence of buttons to push to enable Epson emulation on this printer.

The other thing I recommend you check before you buy the printer is to check to make sure they still have supplies for that model of printer. I’ve found 4inkjets to give the best balance of price, quality, and selection when it comes to toner cartridges for older printers. They’re good for supplies for newer printers too, of course.

Finally, how much should you pay? Probably less than $50. These printers weren’t expensive to begin with, and they’re used.

Using Brother laser printers with older computers

With IBM PCs and clones running DOS, it’s easy. All you have to do is connect the Brother laser printer via a parallel cable and select an Epson printer driver in your application. Epson FX-850 is best. But if that isn’t an option, you can fall back on other Epson FX-series models. Or for very old software, choose the Epson MX-80. Depending on the age of the software, it may support HP’s PCL language, in which case you can use HP emulation mode and pick an HP Laserjet or Deskjet option.

Amigas work very much like PCs, printer wise. Connect it to the parallel port with a parallel cable, and choose an appropriate driver. Typically you can get by with HP emulation mode, but if not, you can fall back on Epson FX emulation.

For Commodore 8-bit computers, you’ll need a Centronics printer interface if you don’t have one already. These interfaces generally can work in transparent mode, where the printer functions like an Epson. For software that supports an Epson printer, use transparent mode for the best graphics capability. You can also switch the interface to emulate a Commodore 1525 or 801 printer.

For Apple II computers, you’ll need a parallel interface card if you don’t have one. Although many Apple owners used Imagewriter printers, Epson printers were also common on Apples, so many Apple programs will work with a Brother laser printer in Epson emulation mode.

Laser printers existed in the 1980s, but they were very expensive, so not many people had one. Being able to use a relatively recent Brother laser printer with them allows you to build what would have been a dream computer setup in the late 1980s. In 1989, printers less capable than these Brother laser printers cost over $2,500.

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