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  • How to Buy a Printer

A Guide to Printer Purchasing

When it comes to printers, there are so many choices it can be overwhelming. Laser or ink jet? All-in-one or standalone? This simple guide breaks it down for you so that you can easily select the printer that fits your needs.

Before we get started, it’s helpful to know that most manufacturers include the same legend of letters or characters that identify a printer’s features. When you see one of the following letters in a printer’s item number or description, now you’ll know what it refers to. Here’s a short, but useful list:

  • MFC or MFP = Multifunction Machine Printer
  • N = Network Ready Printer
  • T = Additional Tray
  • W = Wireless Network Ready
  • X = Duplex, Tray, and Networkable

 Your printing needs

And that’s the first step. To pick the right printer you have to understand how you’ll use it. This checklist will help you think it through and you can view these two situations to see how the process works.

√ Do you print large volumes of black-and-white text?

√ What are your print volumes for other kinds of documents?

√ How often do you print photos?

√ Do you print 4” x 6” photos or full-page ones?

√ If you print photos or graphics often, are they in a range of colors or predominately one or two colors?

√ Do you also frequently scan, copy and fax?

√ If you scan often, is it text or also photos?

 

Printer types

Now that you understand how you’ll use your printer, we’ll look at definitions and the pros and cons of different types of printers.

 

Laser printers

Definition: Laser printers transfer powdered ink, called toner, to paper. You can buy one that prints only in black and white (B&W), or one that also prints in color. The printer can be all-in-one (including copy, scan, and sometimes fax capabilities) or standalone.

 

B&W laser printer

Pros Cons
Print quality – text Excellent-quality, sharp B&W documents.
Print quality – photos Prints poor-quality photos and doesn’t accept glossy photo paper or other specialty papers.
Print quality – graphics Fine for B&W charts, graphs, line drawings
Speed Faster than inkjet printers— usually 12 to 18 pages/minute for standalone models; all-in-one models are slower.
Cost A range of prices, starting around $150 for a standalone. Usually more expensive than inkjet printers.
Ink/toner cost Less expensive than inkjet cartridges and last longer/ print more pages. Cost/page is around $.03.
Other Can be networked. Tend to last longer than inkjet printers. Bulkier than inkjet printers.

 

Color laser printer

Pros Cons
Print quality – text Excellent-quality, sharp B&W and color documents.
Print quality – photos Prints poor-to-average quality photos and doesn’t accept glossy photo paper or other specialty papers.
Print quality – graphics Fine for B&W and color charts, graphs, line drawings  
Speed Almost as fast as B&W laser models for text documents. All-in-one models are slower than standalone, but both types are faster than inkjet printers.
Cost A range of prices, with standalone models starting around $300.
Ink/toner cost At high volumes, the cost per page for color documents is lower than with inkjet printers. The lowest-cost printers use the most expensive toner, often as costly and low capacity as inkjet cartridges or more so.
Other Can be networked. Tend to last longer than inkjet printers. All-in-one models are often quite bulky.

 

Inkjet printer

Definition: Sprays drops of ink onto paper. Ink cartridges come in B&W and color, and some printers use separate color cartridges for blue (cyan), magenta and yellow. Some also use additional cartridges for other colors.

 

Pros Cons
Print quality – text Quality isn’t quite as sharp as with laser printers.
Print quality – photos Excellent. Similar in quality to professional photo labs.
Print quality – graphics Excellent.  
Speed Slower than laser printers, about 2 to 9 pages/minute for text. Much slower for color photos.
Cost Less expensive than laser printers, ranging from about $30 to $400.
Ink/toner cost At low volumes, the cost per page to print color documents is lower than with laser printers. More expensive than toner for B&W laser printers—and some high-end color laser printers—and cartridges print far fewer pages.
Other Most can hook up directly by cable to a digital camera through a PictBridge connection or print directly from a camera’s photo (SD) card. Tend not to last as long as laser printers.

 

Compact photo printers

Definition: Small printers that use inkjet or dye sublimation to print 4” x 6” photos on glossy photo paper. A few models can print 5” x 7” photos.

 

Pros Cons
Print quality – text N/A N/A
Print quality – photos Excellent. Similar in quality to professional photo labs.
Print quality – graphics N/A N/A
Speed Considerably slower than laser printers.
Cost $100 to $200
Ink/toner cost More expensive than toner for B&W laser printers—and some high-end color laser printers—and cartridges print far fewer pages.
Other Most can hook up directly by cable to a digital camera through a PictBridge connection or print directly from a camera’s photo (SD) card.

 

 

Mobile printers

Definition: Smaller, portable versions of inkjet printers.

 

Pros Cons
Print quality – text Quality isn’t quite as sharp as with laser printers.
Print quality – photos Excellent. Similar in quality to professional photo labs. Include memory card readers so can print directly from cameras.
Print quality – graphics  
Speed Slower than full-size inkjet printers and laser printers.
Cost $50 – $300
Ink/toner cost More expensive than toner for B&W laser printers—and some high-end color laser printers—and cartridges print far fewer pages, usually 300 – 1,000.
Other Most have a built-in battery in addition to power cord. Lightweight and can fit in a briefcase.

 

General considerations

Now let’s get to some general selection considerations. Depending on your print needs, you may need some or all of these additional features.

 

Connecting to your computer

All printers have USB ports to connect to your printer by cable, but some also have WiFi, Blue Tooth or infrared wireless options.

 

Connecting to other computers

Networking lets you print from other printers in a wired or wireless environment.

 

Connecting to your camera

A PictBridge connection lets your computer connect directly to a camera by cable. A memory card reader lets you print directly from your camera’s memory (SD) card.

 

Editing images

Many printers have a small limited-capacity LCD screen that lets you edit images.

 

Printing from elsewhere

Some printers have Internet connectivity that lets you print directly from online or send print jobs to your location remotely.

 

Printing on both sides of the paper

Some printers include built-in “duplexers” that automatically print on both sides.

 

Printing CD on DVD labels

Some printers let you print labels directly on CD/DVDs.

 

In a nutshell

We’ve looked in detail at printer types for different usage levels and print needs. Now let’s outline a few broad scenarios and their printer solutions.

 

  1. You print high volumes of B&W documents, some of which include charts or graphs. You rarely print photos. The best printer for you: A B&W laser printer.
  2. You print high volumes of B&W documents that usually include colored graphics and charts. You occasionally include photos in these plain-paper documents. The best printer for you: A color laser printer.
  3. You print a low to average volume of B&W documents that often include color images and you print high-quality photos fairly frequently. The best printer for you: An inkjet printer.
  4. You print a high volume of B&W documents and print high-quality photos fairly often.  The best printer(s) for you: A B&W laser printer and either an inkjet printer (if you print full-page photos) or a dedicated photo printer (if 4” x 6” photos work for you).
  5. You print a high volume of photos but rarely print documents.  The best printer for you: A photo printer.
  6. You visit clients and/or travel frequently and need to print documents, images and photos while doing so.  The best printer for you: A mobile printer.

Tips for low-cost usage

  • The cost of buying a printer is only one component of the total cost. You also have to consider the cost of ongoing usage, including paper and ink/toner. Here are some ways to help minimize those.
  • Print draft images on plain paper. Save the expensive, glossy paper for the final version.
  • Print in “draft” or “fast, inexpensive” mode unless you need top-quality documents.
  • Before you print documents or web pages, review them to ensure you don’t print blank pages. There’s a free program called GreenPrint (printgreener.com) that analyzes web pages and skips printing blank ones.
  • Look for a printer that duplexes, or prints on both sides of pages, or manually print odd-numbered pages only, then turn the pages over and print the even-numbered ones on the reverse sides.
  • Look for a printer that efficiently goes into “sleep” mode to save power.
  • Recycle printer cartridges—some stores offer a credit for doing so.

 

Other tips

Consumer Reports and other organizations compare and rate printers and test them against manufacturers’ claims. Here are a few of their findings.

 

  • Off-brand printer and toner cartridges tend to yield poorer print quality and fade faster than name-brand ones, often at comparable prices.
  • Depending on the types of photos you print, single-color ink cartridges may be more economical than tricolor ones (e.g., if you have a blue logo, you may use up your blue ink before other colors—you can replace just the blue with single-color cartridges).
  • Manufacturers’ specs for items such as printers’ speed and resolution are often inaccurate, and can’t be used for comparisons between brands because each manufacturer tests differently.
  • Print resolution—the number of dots per inch—shouldn’t be a primary comparison criterion. Generally, the higher the number of dots, the better the quality, but the size, shape and placement of the dots also affects quality.


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