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A guide to the different types of printer on the market

The different types of printers available to buyers can be dizzying: From pint-sized portable photo printers to giant office printers that copy, scan, fax, staple, collate, and more; and everything in between. Do you wish there was a guide to lead you through the wilderness of printing types and technologies? That's where we come in.

The best way to understand printers is to take a close look at the main ways they are categorised: By venue (home or office), technology (inkjet or laser); single function or multifunction printers (MFPs), colour or monochrome; general purpose or specialty. We'll examine the characteristics of each of these classifications to give you a better idea of their characteristics. Almost any printer can be classified along each of these lines – for example, the HP Officejet Pro X576dw MFP is an office colour inkjet multifunction printer.

Home and office printers

The most common way to distinguish printers (or MFPs) is between home and office models. Office printers are built to meet the higher volume printing demands of a workplace, where one printer may be used by a workgroup or an entire office. Printers designed for the largest offices may have duty cycles (the maximum number of pages you can print in a month without risking damage to the printer) in the hundreds of thousands of pages.

Office printers tend to be larger than home models and more expensive upfront, but offer better text quality and faster speeds, and the cost of consumables (ink or toner, etc.) is generally lower. They include features such as faxing, an automatic document feeder (ADF), Ethernet, and duplexing or two-sided printing; some have extras such as a hard drive, large format printing capability, or the ability to collate, sort, staple, and finish documents.

Home printers tend to be smaller and cheaper than office models, and built for lighter duty use. They're often restricted to printing on A4-sized paper. Many offer Wi-Fi instead of Ethernet, while some are limited to USB. Most are inkjets. They often have photo-friendly features such as a photo-paper tray, a colour LCD, extra ink tanks, or the ability to print from memory cards or USB sticks.

Many inkjet MFPs combine features suitable for both home office and home use, but are usually geared primarily towards one or the other.

Inkjet and laser printers

Most home printers sold today are inkjets. You'll find inkjets in small, micro, and home offices as well. Inkjets are often very inexpensive upfront – as low as £50 – but you may end up paying many times more than that in ink costs over the printer's lifetime. (Generally, the lower a printer's sticker price, the higher the cost per printed page). Inkjet printers usually print in colour, and often use multiple colour ink cartridges. Their photo quality is almost always superior to laser printers, while the reverse is true of text quality.

Laser and laser-class printers print faster than inkjets, and produce higher quality, crisp text. Unlike inkjets, which print pages one line of text at a time, true laser printers apply ink to large portions of the page at once. Many laser printers print just in black and white (monochrome), but colour laser printers, which offer colour printing of graphics and photos as well as text, are also common.

While laser-class printers may use lasers, LEDs, or solid ink in the printing process, some inkjets are considered laser class due to their laser-like speeds. Two good examples are Memjet and HP's Officejet Pro X Series, which both employ print heads that extend nearly the width of a page, eliminating the need of the print head to move horizontally across a page, thus enabling much faster print speeds.

While lasers tend to be more expensive than inkjets, it helps to remember that the cost of a printer is not just the sticker price. Because each toner cartridge may yield thousands of pages instead of the handful you can print with an inkjet cartridge, it may be more cost effective to spend more money upfront for a printer if it offers a lower cost per page. That’s why when we review a printer, we always publish and discuss the cost per page figures in relation to the retail price.

Laser printers have come down enough in price that we're seeing affordable, compact laser printers for home or home office use, or for personal use in a larger office.

Monochrome and colour printers

If your workplace churns out text documents, you may want to consider a monochrome printer. Because they only print in black and white, they're best for text and for graphics that can translate well to black and white, but they seldom print photos well. Today's monochrome printers are all laser or LED based.

If your printing needs ever venture beyond black and white, a colour printer may be a wise investment. The inclusion of colour expands one's printing options, opening the door for full-colour graphics and photos. Many home users will want a colour inkjet to print photos, and colour lasers that can print high quality photos and graphics may be suitable for businesses to bring the printing of their own marketing materials in house. Unlike monochrome printing, which requires only one ink colour (black), colour printers utilise multiple ink or toner cartridges.

Single function and multifunction printers

Printers that can only print, without any additional functionality, are considered single function printers. While that's enough for many users, you may also want to scan documents, make photocopies, or send faxes. Enter the multifunction printer (MFP), also called an all-in-one (AIO) printer. With an MFP, you get scanning and copying, and (frequently) fax capability, saving money when compared to buying separate devices for each function. Many business MFPs offer the ability to scan over a network, to multiple destinations, and other advanced workflow features. Many home printers sold these days are MFPs, as are many office printers.

Specialty printers

While the printers described above are general purpose models, others focus on specialised tasks such as printing photos, labels, or mobile printing.

Portable document printers

You may find you need a printing solution that is as portable as your laptop or camera. When it comes to printing on the go, not all portable printers are created equal. Some can print wirelessly from mobile devices. Some print at A4 size, while many are restricted to a smaller sized output. Some pack their own battery power – either a rechargeable battery pack or they use normal batteries – while others need to be plugged into a wall outlet for power.

Label printers

You may want to invest in a printer for your organisational and postal needs. You can purchase many small printers which are built to print labels, envelopes and even postage. While many document printers and MFPs have special printing modes for labels and envelopes, a dedicated device may be a better fit for your home office or company mailroom. Hand-held label printers are also available, to help you tag items you own (so no one ever steals your milk in the fridge again – or that’s the theory).

Photo printers

Photo printers fall into two quite different groups, one for casual consumers, the other geared to serious amateur as well as professional photographers.

Portable photo printers are also called small-format photo printers, as most are limited to prints up to 4 x 6in. They print strictly photos, and thus are sometimes called dedicated photo printers. Like portable document printers, you will find that "portable" sometimes means battery powered, but sometimes it just means small. Some are inkjets, while others use thermal dye technology which has a higher cost per print. A few permit direct printing from a mobile phone when placed in the printer's dock.

If photography or graphic design is your passion, portable snapshot printers won't cut it. Advanced amateurs or pros will want a high-end or near-dedicated (capable of printing text, though seldom used for that) photo printer. These inkjets may have up to 12 ink tanks for more exacting colour reproduction. Most print in large format, offering professional quality prints at up to 13 x 19in; some print at banner size as well.

There, in a nutshell, are the main ways in which printers are classified. Once you have a grasp of these categories and their characteristics, you are out of the wilderness and in a better position to make an informed choice about what sort of printer will suit your needs.

Once you’ve decided on that, be sure to check out our reviews section for the verdict on the latest printers. A good starting place would be with the models that impressed us the most last year, which we pick out in our best printers of 2013 article.