Printers are essential peripherals, performing a critical role as they render electronic information into tangible records or material output. You’re simply not using your computer to its fullest potential if you are unable to print reports, presentations, letters, photos, or whatever it is you need to output. Choosing a printer can be confusing, however, in today’s competitive, ever-changing landscape. This buying guide rounds out some of the more important criteria to consider before you make that all-important purchase decision.
This is the biggest decision to make before anything else. Your choice should be based on how you work and the kind of output you will be expecting from the printer.
o Inkjet: Inkjet printers can deliver stunning color, so this is the way to go if you are mostly concerned with printing photos. Inkjets can be used for printing text, but the print speed is too slow if the primary purpose of the printer is document printing. To obtain more photo-realism, choose inkjets with an expanded range of colors that includes light cyan and light magenta in addition to the standard four-color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The extra colors deliver more subtle color gradations in blue skies and skin tones. And if you print a great deal of black-and-white photos, consider photo printers with more than one variation of black ink or with gray inks. Many photo printers use color inks to produce a composite black, resulting in a muddy tint. A second black-ink cartridge and different shades of gray help maintain a neutral tone, with the gray ink allowing for subtle shading and thus improving the quality of black-and-white photos.
o Dye-sublimation: Dye-sub printers can print continuous tones and a superior range of colors that laser printers are unable to, making them ideal for more demanding graphic applications or color printing. Dye-sub prints are also less prone to fading and distortion over time than dye-based ink prints. In addition, many consumer-based dye-sublimation printers can printer drivers print directly from digital cameras and also accept memory cards. They are, however, more limited in the range and size of printing media that can be used — usually letter-size paper or smaller.
o Laser: Laser printers are the perfect choice if you need to print large amounts of text documents. They print faster than inkjets and have a lower cost of operation over the long-term — even though they may cost more to buy initially. There are trade-offs, however. Monochrome laser printers produce crisp black-and-white text but cannot be used for color printing. Color lasers deliver excellent text and graphics but are much more expensive and can be costly to maintain.
Some printers are good for general printing, while others are better at specialized tasks or combine several functions into one machine.
o Photo: If you take lots of pictures, consider getting a photo printer. Photo printers can be in the form of photo inkjets — which can print both photos and text; snapshot photo printers — for outputting small 4×6-inch prints; or professional photo printers — for large, tabloid-size photos and often including network connections to enable printer sharing. Most consumer and professional photo printers use inkjet technology, while most snapshot photo printers that print 4×6-inch prints rely on dye-sublimation technology. Regardless of the type or technology that is used, the most important thing to look for in a photo printer is photorealistic quality. Everything else is secondary.
o General Purpose: As the name implies, general purpose printers can be used for printing almost anything, including text and photos. Choose a general printer with a laser format if you print more text than photos; and choose an inkjet format if you print more photos than text.
o Multifunction: Multifunction printers (MFPs) combine in one device several functions such as printing, scanning, faxing, and copying. MFPs cost less than buying separate stand-alone devices and cut down on the hassle of setting up individual machines. If you are strapped for budget or space, consider these all-in-one devices. Take note, however, that a malfunction with one component takes down the whole device, and individual components may not be upgradeable. MFPs are available with either laser printers to emphasize speedy text printing and the occasional graphics output; or they are available with inkjet printers for vibrant photo printing.
Environment and Applications
When deciding on a printer, think about where and how you plan to use it. The home user will have different printing needs from that of the office worker, photographer, or traveler.
o General/Basic home use: Versatile, affordable printers are the best choices here, and inkjets usually satisfy the printing needs of most home users looking to output photos from their digital camera or for other light printing needs. Ink cartridges can be expensive, so look for inkjets with separate cartridges for each color. This way, you need not throw out entire cartridges — simply because one color has been used up ahead of the others — but replace only the ones that run out.
o Home office: An MFP may be a great device to have in your home office, especially if it comes with an automatic document feeder that can process multipage documents unattended. Extra onboard memory increases efficiency and allows for processing of larger graphics and documents with ease. And if scanning and photocopying are important to you, get an MFP with a higher resolution.
o Photography: Photo printers are the obvious choice if printing photos is your main thing. Choose either the smaller, snapshot photo printer that produces 4×6-inch prints; or choose larger-sized, professional photo printers that are capable of delivering tabloid-size 11×17-inch prints — even up to full-bleed 13×19-inch prints that include a border to allow room for registration marks.
o Text printing: If printing large amounts of text is what you’ll be doing most, monochrome standard laser printers are your best bet — as they can turn out page after page of crisp text fairly rapidly. These printers are ideal for printing black-and-white text and simple graphics, so you may need to get a separate inkjet or photo printer in order to print color photos – unless you wish to invest in the more expensive color lasers that can print both black-and-white and color documents.
o Small network: A workgroup laser printer can be what you need if your home office or small office is built around a network. Workgroup lasers pack faster print speeds and have more memory to handle multiple print jobs. They also offer more advanced handling capabilities such as larger trays, and may offer duplex (double-sided) printing, sorting, and stapling. More expensive than standard laser printers, the majority of workgroup lasers are monochrome — designed for printing text and simple graphics.
o Traveler: For the businessperson on the go and looking to print, portable printers provide the solution with their compact size (small enough to fit into a briefcase), light weight (less than 5 lbs.), and handy power (operates on batteries or with a car charger). Newer models can print wirelessly — making it a non-issue if you forget your USB cable at home. Some portables offer great extras such as a sheet feeder for automatic page feeding, are able to handle transparencies and envelopes, and even support an optional scanner cartridge that replaces the ink cartridge and turns the printer into a scanner. Portable printers are more expensive and print more slowly than standard printers, but convenience is what you’re paying for.
With something called PictBridge support, photo printers do not need to be connected to PCs to be able to print photos. PictBridge is a standard adopted by manufacturers of printers and digital cameras for PC-free printing, allowing photos to be printed straight from the digital camera to the printer by simply connecting them through a USB cable — as long as the printer and digital camera are compatible. A variation to this idea is the ability for printers to read memory cards directly from a digital camera or other image-storing device by simply inserting the cards into designated printer slots.
Once the camera is connected to or the card is inserted into the printer, photos can be reviewed in a number of ways, depending on the printer model. Some may feature a built-in LCD screen that allows shots to be reviewed, edits to be made, and the ones to be printed chosen directly from the screen. Other models may let you create an index sheet — similar to a contact sheet in film printing — so you can mark the ones you choose for printing and rescan the sheet. Other printer models let you decide which shots you want to print straight from the digital camera. Many types of memory cards are available on the market today, so make sure the printer accepts the kind used by your camera for you to enjoy card-direct printing of photos.
Paper is obviously an important issue in printing. Here are some important tips on paper handling for printers:
o When buying a printer, make sure that it’s equipped to accommodate all the paper sizes and types that you’ll be using. If you need to print on heavy stock, for instance, make sure the printer can handle the heaviest paper you use. For this purpose, a printer’s paper path can give an indication of how it handles paper: Inkjets generally use straight-through paper paths, while lasers use S-shaped or U-shaped paths. Generally speaking, the straighter the path, the thicker the media that can be used. However, the curved paths typical of laser printers also makes it possible to have more flexible configurations for input and output trays.
o Using the correct type of paper will also make a difference to your printing. Inkjets can print on a variety of matte or glossy photo paper, but make sure you choose the right kind of paper for your printer to obtain optimal print results. For example, matte papers are suitable for both pigment and dye-based inks, while luster finishes are generally more suitable for dye-based inks.
o In terms of size, most inkjets and lasers can handle printing of letter and legal sizes. If you need to print larger prints, however, consider a printer that can handle sizes like 11 by 17 inches. You may also consider getting a printer with multiple paper drawers if you’ll be switching between different paper sizes on a regular basis. For a laser printer, multiple output trays, duplexing (double-sided printing), collating, and automatic stapling can be additional useful features.
o If you plan to use third-party paper, make sure it works well with your printer. Before you buy a large quantity of third-party paper, try a few samples by printing the same photos on both the printer manufacturer’s paper and the third-party paper, and then compare the results.
Printer Specs and Key Features
Printers feature various specifications, so navigating the spec sheet intelligently requires familiarity with what each specification entails according to the printing technology involved or for the type of usage planned for the printer.
o Resolution: For laser printers, 300 dpi is adequate if all you need is to print black-and-white text, but choose at least 1200 dpi for photorealistic grayscale or color printing. For inkjets, choose one featuring 1200-dpi or higher resolution with a droplet size of 4 picoliters or smaller for sharp, clean output. With photo printers, resolution varies according to technology: Output at 300 dpi by photo printers using dye-sublimation technology is comparable to photo printers using inkjet technology outputting at 1200 dpi or higher.
o Speed: Speed ratings vary greatly, and the print speeds cited by manufacturers usually refer to printing in draft mode or at the lowest resolution. For laser printers, a more accurate way of measuring actual print speed is to time just how long it takes from the minute you hit “Print” — to the time that it takes the printer to warm up, spool the job into the print queue, and for the printed output to finally come out. For inkjets, print speed is not one of its stronger suits; so don’t be overly concerned with this spec.
o Memory: Extra memory will come in handy for laser printers to enable them to handle large graphics and documents more easily. Check the maximum upgradeable memory allowed for your printer, if it features a hard drive with similarly upgradeable memory, and if the printer can use generic memory or needs the manufacturer’s brand. In the case of inkjets, memory is built-in and not upgradeable, but this is not an issue inasmuch as processing occurs on the side of the computer — so there’s no need for large amounts of installed RAM to begin with on inkjets.
o Connectivity: Most printers today no longer support the older parallel connection but feature instead USB 1.1 or Hi-Speed USB (USB 2.0) — either of which should work fine with USB computers. For printers to be used on a network, it will need to have an Ethernet port to enable printer sharing. For more flexible printing options, you may want to look for printers with infrared input/output ports that allow wireless printing from notebooks or other devices with infrared ports. And if high-speed or long-distance printing is what you need, consider printers with a FireWire port.
Consumables and cost per page
The purchase price of the printer is just the beginning of its overall cost because over time, the hidden cost of ink or toner, paper, and parts will add up. These “hidden costs” are the consumables; dividing the total cost of consumables by the number of pages that can be produced from the consumables gives you the cost per page. Laser printers offer the lowest cost per page, using relatively inexpensive toner and normal-weight, uncoated paper. On the other hand, cost per page for inkjets can be four or five times as much, depending on how much ink you use and the cost of the paper — normally more expensive, coated, glossy paper for higher-quality color output. The tank configuration for inkjets should also be taken into consideration. Inkjets with a single cartridge for the colored inks will incur higher replacement costs because the cartridge must be replaced as soon as one color runs out — even if the cartridge still contains plenty of ink for the other colors. To save costs, get an inkjet with separate cartridges for black and each individual color.
All the specs and fancy features in your printer won’t mean a thing if you don’t have good, solid print quality — whether of text or photos — to back it up.
o Text: Text should be smooth and crisp. At the smallest font sizes, the individual letters should be clearly readable, and they should not bleed into one another. Medium-size fonts should have no fuzzy edges, and the largest fonts — especially bold ones — should be filled with solid black, not a muddy brown or bluish tone. You should also be able to see well-formed and well-rounded counters (the openings) in letterforms; if you don’t, it’s usually a sign of the printer laying down too much ink. (Remember, however, that inkjet printers will display some wicking on plain, 20-lb. paper, as the ink bleeds along the paper fibers.)
o Graphics: For color printing, look for gradients — or areas where a color goes from dark to light. Color should transition smoothly, and you should not see any color banding, where distinct bands progress from dark to light. On a test page, you will likely see a gradient bar that goes from black to white through a series of progressively darker gray shades; the transition from shade to shade should be smooth without a noticeable line. Also, look for a nice balance of colors in color-graphic printing — something that’s not overly saturated nor flat and washed out.
o Photo: A good photo print should like the original photo. Colors should be accurate and balanced, vivid but not oversaturated. Good detail should be present in all areas, with no jagged lines or pixels or any other visual artifacts. Good contrast should exist between shadow and highlight areas — not muddy or flat and without color. You may not always be able to tell the difference from one great print to another, but almost everyone can recognize a bad print when they see one. Trust what you see.