A guide to buying a business printer

Of all the ways you can slice and dice printers into categories, the most significant distinction is between printers meant for the home and those meant for the office. Here are the key questions to ask when it comes to picking the right office printer.

Single function printer or an MFP?

Consider whether you'd rather have separate devices for faxing, copying, scanning, and printing versus a single machine that does it all. At a minimum, an MFP (multifunction printer) combines a printer and scanner and works as a copier as well. For an office MFP, you might also want one that also works as a standalone fax machine. Advantages of MFPs include cost and space savings, as well as integration of some features.

On the other hand, single function printers are optimised for certain tasks that your business may require. Laser printers for general office use are usually faster than comparably priced MFPs. Photo and graphic arts studios will certainly want a high-end photo printer, and probably a single function scanner as well. Road warriors may also want to get a portable scanner, for scanning business cards or receipts while away from the office. Of course, buying a specialised device doesn't preclude you from getting an MFP as well.

If you decide you want an MFP, you might also want to look for an email feature, which is potentially more useful than faxing. Most often, that means the AIO will launch an email message on your PC and attach a scanned document. Some AIOs can email scanned documents directly, however, and a few offer both choices.

Finally, if you are getting an MFP, you should demand an automatic document feeder (ADF) so that you can fax, copy, scan, or email multipage documents with minimal work.

Do you really need colour?

If you never print anything but letters and monochrome documents, there's no reason to spend money on colour. When considering whether you need colour, though, bear in mind that many colour lasers can print at a high enough quality to let you produce your own advertising hand-outs and trifold brochures. If you tend to print only a few hundred copies of this sort of output at a time, doing it yourself can save substantial amounts of money compared with printing small quantities via your local print shop or online service.

How big a printer are you comfortable with?

Just because something is called a desktop printer doesn't mean it's small enough that you'd want it on your desk. Even a printer with a small footprint can be tall enough for you to feel as if it's towering over you. Be sure to check out the size.

How are you going to connect?

Most printers designed for the office include both USB and Ethernet ports, but you may prefer a wireless connection, particularly in a home office. Keep in mind, though, that if you have a wireless access point on your network, you can print wirelessly from your computer to any printer on that network, whether the printer itself offers a wireless connection or not.

What level of output quality do you need?

Printers vary significantly in terms of output quality. Check out text, graphics, and photos separately, since high quality for one kind of output doesn't necessarily mean high quality for the others.

For office use, you probably want the kind of crisp, clean edges for text and line graphics that you can only get from a laser printer. But consider also whether you need graphics and photos that are merely good enough for internal business use, or whether you need a good enough quality to print your own marketing materials.

How much speed do you need?

If almost everything you print is one or two pages, you probably don't need a fast printer. But if you print a lot of longer documents, speed is more important. In that case, be sure you're judging speed by actual throughput. Most importantly, note that you can't compare claimed speeds for inkjets with claimed speeds for lasers. As a rule, laser printers will be close to their claimed speeds for text documents, which don't need much processing time. Inkjets often claim faster speeds than more expensive lasers, but don't live up to those claims.

How much do you print?

Figure out how much you print by how often you buy paper and in what amounts. Then pick a printer designed to print at least that much.

Unfortunately, this isn't as simple as it could be. Contrary to what most people think, a printer's maximum monthly duty cycle isn't the maximum you should be printing. It's the maximum you can print without damaging the printer. Some manufacturers state a recommended maximum in addition to a maximum duty cycle. For those that don't, you can follow the (very rough) rule of thumb of picking a printer whose maximum duty cycle is at least three times the number of pages you print per month.

Also consider input capacity. The rule of thumb here is to pick a printer with enough capacity to let you add paper no more than once a week.

There are other paper handling issues, too: Check the minimum and maximum paper size. And if you need to print on both sides even occasionally, make sure the printer has an automatic duplexer. (Many small business printers, even light duty models, now include one as a standard feature). Keep in mind, too, that the more people there are in your office, the more you may benefit from things like a stacker or sorter, to keep the print jobs separate from each other. Also consider whether you can benefit from a finisher to handle tasks like stapling and hole punching.

How much does it cost overall?

Finally, be sure to check out the running cost and total cost of ownership. Most vendors will tell you the cost per page. To get the total cost of ownership, multiply the cost per page by the number of pages you print per year, then multiply that by the number of years you expect to own the printer, and add the initial cost of the printer. Compare these totals for any printers you're considering, and you may well find that you'll save money in the long run by buying the printer with the more expensive price tag. Once you're armed with that information, you're ready to pick the best choice for your office.