A guide to buying the right MFP

Multifunction printers (MFPs) go by an assortment of names: All-in-ones (AIOs), multifunction copiers (MFCs), multifunction devices (MFDs), and more. By whatever name, however, they have one thing in common: They print (and nearly all copy and scan as well), and they perform other tasks, too. The complication is that the other stuff they can do varies, and you want an MFP with the right stuff for you. Asking yourself these questions can help you get it.

What category of MFP do you need?

The single most useful way to categorise MFPs is by their intended use: Home, office, or both. If you're looking for a home MFP, you probably care about photo quality, which means you want an inkjet. Beyond that, if photos are your primary interest and you're looking for a way to print them from virtually any source – memory cards, USB memory sticks, cameras, slides, strips of film, and original photographic prints – you need a photo-lab MFP. There are only a few choices in this subcategory: You can spot them by their ability to scan slides and strips of film, a feature most MFPs leave out.

If you're looking for an MFP strictly for an office, you probably care more about text than photos, which means you'll want a laser or laser-class printer (including LED and solid ink printers). You probably also want it to fax, email, and include an automatic document feeder (ADF) to scan, copy, fax, and email multi-page documents.

If you want a printer for the dual role of home and home-office printer, finally, you'll want an inkjet for its photo quality, but one equipped with office-centric features like an ADF and fax modem.

Which MFP functions do you need?

Getting beyond generalities about home and office MFPs, it's useful to make a list of the functions and features you actually need.

Printing, scanning, and copying is a given, but even these basics aren't as straightforward as you might think. Some MFPs are limited to scanning over a USB connection. If you plan to connect over a network, make sure the scanning works on a network. The ability to scan transparencies (slides and strips of film) is unusual enough that it's often listed as a separate function. Be sure to check the sizes the MFP can handle; transparencies are often limited to 35mm.

Some MFPs need a computer for copying. If you want to copy with the computer off, make sure the MFP will work as a standalone copier.

A fax feature almost always includes standalone faxing, which you control through the MFP's keypad. However, it doesn't necessarily include a PC Fax function – faxing documents directly from your PC without having to print them first. PC Fax can be in the form of a fax utility, a fax driver that you use like a print driver, or both.

Email features also come in two forms. Direct email scans and sends an email directly to your Internet service provider (ISP) or an in-house email server on your network. The more common choice for low-end MFPs is to open an email message on a PC and add the scanned document as an attachment. Any given MFP can offer either or both kinds of email. Note that some direct email features won't work with all ISPs, so be sure to find out if they will work with your ISP before buying.

Most MFPs include flatbeds suitable for scanning photos or single sheet documents. An automatic document feeder (ADF) will let you easily scan (plus copy, fax, and email) multi-page documents.

Some ADFs can also duplex (scan both sides of a page). If you deal with many two-sided documents, this feature is obviously well worth looking for. Most MFPs that support duplex scanning do so by scanning one side of the document, turning it over, and then scanning the other side, but some provide one-pass scanning – scanning both sides of the page at once – which is much faster. If the MFP includes a print duplexer as well, the combination will usually let you copy both single and double-sided originals to your choice of single or double-sided copies.

Do you really need colour?

If you never print in colour, then there's no reason to spend money on it. However, keep in mind that many colour lasers can print at high enough quality to let you print your own marketing materials, which could be cheaper than printing small quantities at your local print shop.

How large a printer are you comfortable with?

MFPs tend to be bigger than single-function printers, and even some home MFPs can be tall enough to make you feel like they're towering over you if they’re on your desk. Be sure to check out the MFP's size, and its weight as well, though chances are you won't be moving it very often.

How are you going to connect?

In addition to a USB port, many MFPs include Ethernet and/or Wi-Fi connections for easy sharing. If you prefer Wi-Fi, keep 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 Wi-Fi or not.

What level of output quality do you need?

In addition to checking out the print output quality, you may need to check scan quality. It's not an issue for offices, because virtually any scanner can scan documents at sufficiently high quality. For photos, however, you'll want to take a closer look, particularly for transparencies.

How much speed do you need?

If almost everything you print is one or two pages, you probably don't need a fast printing MFP. 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 an MFP 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 an MFP 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 you should choose an MFP designed to print at least that much, obviously enough.

Of course, when you're calculating the duty cycle and input capacity you'll need for an MFP, remember to add copies and incoming faxes to the total number of pages you'll print.

How much does it cost?

Finally, be sure to check the total cost of ownership. Compare the retail price of each MFP you're considering, and their relative running costs, to find out which will be cheapest in the long run.

Now that you've considered these questions, you should be in a much better position to find the MFP with the right mix of features for your needs and budget.