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How to buy the right printer

Picking the right printer can be tough, given that there are so many variations in features, and individual printers with almost any possible combination of those variations available. Here are some questions to help you home in on both the right type of printer for your needs, and the correct printer model within that type.

What type of printer do you need?

The three most useful ways to categorise printers are by purpose (general or special), intended use (home or office), and technology. Define your needs by all three categories, and you're well on your way to finding the right printer.

Most printers – including most inkjets that manufacturers market as photo printers – are general purpose printers, meant for printing text, graphics, and photos. Special purpose printers include portable printers, dedicated (and near-dedicated) photo printers, and label printers. If you're looking for a printer to print, say, photos, consider whether you want to print only photos, or if you want a printer that can also print other kinds of output.

General purpose printers tend to focus on photos if they're intended for home use, or on text if they're intended for the office. An increasing number of multifunction printers (MFPs) are meant for the dual role of home and office printer (particularly for home offices), but generally favour one role over the other. Consider how you plan to use the printer, and pick a printer designed for that role.

The two most common technologies – laser and inkjet – increasingly overlap in capabilities, but there are still differences. The most important are that all lasers (and laser-class printers such as solid ink and LED-based printers) print higher quality text than any inkjet, and almost any inkjet prints higher quality photos than the overwhelming majority of lasers. Ask yourself whether text or photos are more important, and pick a technology accordingly.

Do you need a single-function printer or an MFP?

Consider whether you simply need to print, or whether you might need other features as well. For a photo printer, for example, an additional capability could be enough memory to store hundreds of photos, so you can bring the printer with you, show off your photos, and print them there and then.

For a general purpose printer, additional capability means choosing an MFP, also known as an all-in-one or AIO. Additional functions include some combination of scanning, copying, faxing from your PC, standalone faxing, and scanning to email. Office printers also typically add an automatic document feeder (ADF) to scan, copy, and/or fax multi-page documents.

Some MFPs offer additional printing options as well. Web-enabled printers, both home and office models, can connect directly to the Internet via Wi-Fi to access and print out selected content without needing to work through a computer. Many Wi-Fi models let you print documents and images from handheld devices. Some models let you email documents to the printer, which will then print them out.

Do you really need colour?

For a home printer, you probably need colour, but for an office printer, if you never print anything but letters and monochrome documents, there's no reason to spend money on colour. Bear in mind, however, that many colour lasers can print at a high enough quality to print your own advertising hand-outs and trifold brochures, which could save you money compared with paying a third party to print these out for you.

What size printer do you want?

Be sure to look into the printer's size. Even some home printers can be uncomfortably large to share a desk with, and even a printer with a small footprint can be tall enough to feel like it's towering over you.

How are you going to connect?

In addition to a USB port, most office printers and an increasing number of home printers include Ethernet ports, so you can share the printer easily. Many also include Wi-Fi capability. Even if they don't, bear in mind that if you have a wireless access point on your network, you can print wirelessly to any printer on that network, whether the printer itself offers a wireless connection or not. Also, if your printer supports Wi-Fi Direct, it can connect directly to most Wi-Fi-enabled devices.

What level of output quality do you require?

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. If you can’t see the printer working in person before you buy, then you can always look at reviews online (we regularly review printers at ITProPortal, with a full breakdown of output quality – in fact, here’s one we reviewed earlier today).

Do you need a fast printer?

If almost everything you print is one or two pages, you probably don't need a fast printer. If you print a lot of longer documents, speed is more important, which means you probably want a laser printer. 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 usually don't live up to those claims. Inkjet printers have been getting faster, however, and a few recent high-end models can hold their own speed-wise against comparably priced lasers.

How much do you print?

If you only print a few pages a day, you don't have to worry about how much a printer is designed to print – as defined by its recommended (not maximum) monthly duty cycle. If you print enough for the duty cycle to matter, however, don't buy a printer that doesn't include that information in its specifications. You can 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, obviously enough.

Also consider minimum and maximum paper size, and whether you need a duplexer to print on both sides of the page. For input (paper tray) capacity, a useful rule of thumb is to get enough capacity so you shouldn’t need to add paper more than once a week.

How much does it cost?

Finally, be sure to consider the total cost of ownership, not just the retail price. Most manufacturers will tell you the cost per page of their printer, and many give a cost per photo.

To work out the total cost of ownership, calculate the cost per year for each kind of output (monochrome, colour document, photo) by multiplying the respective cost per page of each output type by the approximate number of those pages you print per year. Add the three amounts together to get the total cost per year. Then multiply that by the number of years you expect to own the printer, and add the retail price of the printer. Compare the total cost of ownership figures between printers to find out which model will be cheapest in the long run.