How to Buy Multifunction Printers

We're all busy tackling several projects at once, so naturally we expect our machines to multitask as well as we do. That's why multifunction printers (MFPs), sometimes called all-in-ones or multifunctions, are growing in popularity.

An MFP combines print, copy, scan, and sometimes fax functions in one occasionally large or odd-looking package. This combination--long a staple of the PC universe and increasingly common in the Mac market--is especially attractive for personal use, small or home-based businesses, and even busy satellite or executive offices.

Today's MFPs perform better than ever, and they're becoming more acceptable for people who want a graceful, versatile, and integrated printer, scanner, copier, and fax machine but who don't have the money and space for separate single-function machines.

When you shop for an MFP, keep one thing in mind: What an MFP provides in convenience, it sometimes lacks in capabilities. A particular MFP may excel at faxing but may offer only lackluster printing, or vice versa. In any case, color is the way to go.

About Inkjets

Inkjet MFPs represent the largest and most popular category of all-in-ones on the market. They cost less initially--the models we review here cost between $100 and $400--and until recently, they were the only option for color output in this price range. They're compact and easy to move around, which is useful for the small office-home office crowd. Print quality has improved over time as well; you can print crisp text (though special paper usually plays a supporting role) and nice-looking images. And inkjets can produce lab-quality photos, something laser printers can't quite match.

However, inkjets MFPs tend to print slowly, and quality often suffers when you print lower-resolution images through the copy, scan, or fax functions. Also, the cost of replacement inks can quickly overtake the cost of the unit, making an inkjet best suited for lower-volume use (say, for an individual or a very small office).

Laser Pros and Cons

Color laser MFPs may cost more, but they address many of the shortcomings of inkjet multifunctions. They're generally faster and have better print quality overall, especially on copies and prints of scanned images. They're also designed to handle higher volumes--thousands of pages per month, as opposed to hundreds on an inkjet.

While these machines cost more up front, replacing toner and other consumables usually costs less over time. But even if price is no object, space or logistics might be. Color laser MFPs are much bigger and heavier than inkjets, and they could easily overwhelm a closet-size office or a cubicle. However, for high-volume use, they are the better choice.

Function, Not Price

Because MFPs vary widely in how well they handle certain tasks, decide which are most important to you and then shop accordingly. If you need the absolute best and most fully featured printer or scanner, for example, you may be better off getting a stand-alone unit.

All MFPs print capably and accommodate standard paper sizes (letter and legal, as well as envelopes and other small pieces). Two-sided printing, or duplexing, features vary: Some printers handle it manually; some, automatically; and a few, not at all. If you print documents that have more text than images, or roughly a 50-50 mix, you might be better off with a laser printer. Its text quality will be better than that of an inkjet, and its image quality, while not quite on a par with what you'd expect from a photo lab, will probably be quite pleasing. An inkjet may give you better-quality photos, but inkjets are slower at this task than lasers. Volume is the final factor; the more pages you print per month, the more you need a laser.

When it comes to copying, it's about letter versus legal, as well as volume. Most MFPs come with a flatbed scanner that takes only letter-size documents (the machines with legal-size flatbeds are wider), but some models have a second scanner head that works with an automatic document feeder (ADF), so you can make a copy of a legal-size contract, say. If you make only occasional low-volume, letter-size copies, then you can probably do without an ADF.

Pay For What You Need

The typical office scanner's functions--scanning to fax, copy, or e-mail, or to send through an OCR (optical character resolution) app to get editable text--involve resolutions ranging from 200 dots per inch to 600 dpi, well within the optical resolutions of most MFPs' scanners. What's more, some of these scanners' interpolated resolutions are sometimes as high as 19,200 dpi (though 9,600 dpi is more common), which is more than enough for scanning photos, maps, and other detailed images. All the MFPs offer some variety of scanning, OCR, or photo-editing software, ranging from rudimentary to full-fledged. Don't base your purchase on the bundle; you can always buy your own applications.

E-mail and the Web have certainly cut into fax traffic. Even though you might talk yourself into wanting a fax machine just in case you need it someday, think seriously about whether you'd use it enough to justify the cost. If you'd use it only for faxing signed documents a few times a year, you might be OK visiting a local copy shop and paying a dollar or two per page.

If you know that you need a fax, then you're in luck: many MFPs, especially laser ones, are highly fax-capable and usually offer an abundance of features. Conveniences include programmable speed dial--some machines will let you store dozens or even hundreds of numbers. For businesses that rely heavily on faxing, fax transmission during off-hours can save time and phone charges, while polling (one fax machine asks--or polls--another fax machine to send it a fax) and forwarding (that is, sending incoming faxes automatically to another fax machine) make managing incoming and outgoing fax traffic easy. Fax storage capacity lets you hold faxes until you want to print them, preventing incoming faxes from spilling all over the place. Color faxing is a fairly new and fun feature, but of course it works only if the recipient has a compatible color machine.

Photo-Card Support

Many of the inkjet MFPs, and some color laser models, come with slots for digital camera memory cards. These slots simplify the transfer of digital photos to your computer, where you can use software (bundled with the MFP) to fine-tune your images. Some models even have control-panel LCDs so you can preview and print photos without your Mac. If you're really picky about your photos, choose an inkjet MFP, which will give you better over-all results.

Color MFPs are even more enticing now that laser models are available. While many people might be content with a smaller, simpler inkjet machine, the speed and higher-volume capabilities of lasers are giving busy offices better options than they've ever had before.

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