How to Buy a Printer

The Big Picture

The major printing technologies available--inkjet and laser/LED--are all capable of printing typical documents competently, but some differences remain. Inkjet printers excel at printing photos on many sizes and types of media, but they achieve their best results when using special papers. Laser and LED printers both achieve crisp results on a wide array of papers, but they struggle with the subtler colorations of photos. Snapshot printers, which use either inkjet or dye-sublimation technology, are limited to printing photos of specific sizes.

Inkjet Printers Offer Versatility

Home and small-office users who print a light volume of pages but also a fairly wide variety--anything from a letter or driving directions to children's vacation photos--will enjoy the versatility of today's inkjet printers. While the truly low-end models can still be pretty slow, some high-end models can be impressively fast. For the best print quality, you'll need to invest in an assortment of papers, and you'll have to learn your way around the printer's driver settings. You can reduce how often you swap paper types by purchasing a model with two separate paper trays.

In the past, almost all inkjets had the same features: one paper tray (for 100 to 150 sheets and ten envelopes), minimal buffer memory, and no networking options. These days, inkjets sport an array of features, such as larger displays or touch screens, integrated Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and more paper-handling options. Makers of business-oriented inkjets are also offering higher-yield ink cartridges, optional paper trays, standard duplexing, expandable memory, and more features for networked environments.

The real cost of an inkjet printer lies in its replacement inks. Many of the less expensive, home- or student-oriented models have fairly low-capacity ink cartridges that can run out sooner than you'd think--and they cost nearly as much as the printer itself. The tricolor cartridges that combine cyan, magenta, and yellow into one unit are also a bad deal: As soon as the cartridge runs out of one color, you have to replace all three. If your printing plans include tons of photos or lots of pages, look for a model that offers individual cartridges for each color, or high-capacity cartridges, which contain more ink and cost less per page.

It's hard to discuss cost per page because of all the variables, including page content, paper type, driver settings, and more. Suffice it to say, the more complex and colorful the job, the more ink you'll use--and paper can be expensive, especially with inkjets. In tests of inkjet printers conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology on behalf of PC World, the cost per text page ranged from 2.1 to 7.7 cents per page. The cost per color graphics page ranged from 7.7 to 15.8 cents per page. For full-size (not snapshot) photo printers, the total cost (including paper) per 4-by-6-inch photo ranged from 46 to 97 cents.

PC World's Top Inkjet Printers chart ranks our current favorites.

Lasers Give You Speed and Loads of Features

If you print a lot of text, such as letters and business documents containing color graphics, a color laser printer is probably your best bet. Color models have become the de facto standard for laser printers, producing monochrome pages at a per-page cost that, depending on the unit, approaches that of monochrome lasers. They're fast, and they produce good-looking documents for as little as a penny for black text and 6 cents for color. (Per page, inkjets tend to be more expensive--on average 4.5 cents per page for black text and 12.6 cents per page for color--but some office-oriented models offer high-capacity cartridges that drop the prices to near-laser cheapness.)

Most color lasers produce photos that are adequate for many uses, such as real-estate brochures, invitations or greeting cards, and missing-kitty flyers. Nearly all models now let you use glossy paper that enhances images to look like real photos, but they still lack the color accuracy and print resolution to rival inkjet printers.

Because both monochrome and color laser printers achieve consistently good text quality, breadth of features is the major differentiator among models. Color lasers hold from about 150 to 1100 sheets, with corporate models frequently holding around 600 sheets standard. You can also add trays that hold as much as 3150 sheets. Most high-end lasers include at least 128MB of RAM, with expansion options permitting up to a gigabyte of memory for queuing multiple, complex print jobs at once (for a busy office, equip your laser with at least 256MB to 384MB of memory). Many come with duplexing functions as standard or optional. They also have more built-in networking support--Wi-Fi is starting to show up as well--and permit easier remote management. More and more laser printers offer optional hard drives that you can use to save complex forms or to store passwords for confidential print jobs. Some recent lasers have other convenient features such as the ability to print directly from a USB flash drive.

The least-expensive color lasers we've seen so far now cost about $300. You'll still find a large selection of monochrome lasers on store shelves, with prices starting as low as $99. We're reluctant to recommend purchasing a monochrome laser when you have the option of inexpensive color, but if you need to print text exclusively, a monochrome laser offers an unbeatable value.

PC World's Top Color Laser Printers chart ranks our current favorites.

Snapshot Printers Do One Thing Very Well

The slowest of the three types of printers, snapshot printers are designed specifically to make photographs. These portable printers are typically inexpensive to purchase, and they let you print directly from the printer rather than via your PC. Some even have carrying handles and optional battery packs for taking the unit to a party or picnic. All models print on the most common, 4-by-6-inch media; some can also print on panorama or 5-by-7-inch paper. The price per photo is relatively high (from 25 to 29 cents per page) compared with that of inkjet and laser output, but you're paying for the convenience and fun factor of on-the-spot photo printing.

All snapshot printers have several things in common: a single paper tray that holds up to 20 sheets of photo paper; a color LCD that allows you to select photos and sometimes apply special effects; and media card slots that permit you to print sans a computer. They have no options for larger media, networking, or memory upgrades and the like; if you need to print anything other than photos, you're better off with an inkjet instead of one of these one-note printers.

Snapshot printers range widely in price, currently from $99 to about $249. The printer's price usually indicates how much you can do with the printer, such as how many on-board editing options you have and how many sizes of paper it can take. What the price doesn't say is how fast the printer is (models we've tested can take anywhere from 50 to 120 seconds to print the same photo), how good the quality is, and how much the ink will cost you. Our reviews look more closely at actual performance.

Many snapshot models use inkjet methods, but others employ dye-sublimation technology. Dye-sublimation printers use what looks like colored film (one film each for cyan, yellow, magenta, and black) rather than the more familiar powder toner or liquid ink. When the thermal printhead applies heat to the film, the dye embedded in the film vaporizes and affixes to the paper. The process repeats for each of the remaining colors, until the final image is complete. Because dye-sublimation printers use multiple layers of film to print each single page, the amount of waste is relatively high. The paper also moves through the printer four times, extending several inches out the back and front during each pass. This process is both slow and risky, inviting premature grabbing of the print. In our reviews, we have yet to see a real advantage to using this technology, in ease of use or the quality of results.

PC World's Top Snapshot Printers chart ranks our current favorites.

What About Wi-Fi?

Many inkjet printers and a few lasers are starting to come with integrated Wi-Fi. This means that, other than a brief USB connection during setup, you can stash the printer anywhere in your home or office and let multiple users access it--a boon for space-starved or cable-clogged environments. The manufacturers of printers we've tested with this feature have put a lot of work into making the installation as painless as possible. If your wireless network is functioning properly in the first place, adding such a printer to your setup shouldn't be a problem.

Don't despair if the printer you're interested in doesn't come with Wi-Fi. You can connect any printer to your wireless network by purchasing a wireless print server for about $75. The printer will still need to be tethered to your wireless router via the print server (which is likely smaller than your router), but it will be accessible from any wireless-capable PC or handheld (and even some mobile phones) within range of your network. You can also purchase a Bluetooth adapter for your printer for about $60. Note that many Bluetooth adapters do not support multifunction printers, so check with the adapter manufacturer prior to making your purchase.

Before you decide on a printer, check out PC World's top printers charts at our Printer Info Center. Look for a model that provides the speed and quality you need, and that fits your budget.

Multifunction Printer, or Separate Printer and Scanner?

An MFP combines print, copy, scan, and sometimes fax capabilities into one device. While there's very little an MFP can do that a separate printer and scanner couldn't do, an MFP saves space and offers more-coordinated functionality. This combination is especially attractive for personal use, for small or home-based businesses, and even for busy satellite or executive offices. Early models tended to look clunky, but currently available choices can be as sleek or as burly as you wish. A standard inkjet model should be adequate for home, student, and small-office use; a laser unit (either monochrome or color) or a high-end inkjet model will address an office's need for speed and flawless text quality. Laser models, especially the color ones, still tend to cost a great deal more.

Office-oriented MFPs have an automatic document feeder (ADF) for scanning multiple pages as a single task, and they often have a built-in fax machine and ethernet or Wi-Fi networking. Photo-oriented models sometimes let you scan slides and negatives, and they usually have built-in media slots for reading from digital camera memory cards. It's usually a good idea to give yourself room to grow if you can: Spend the extra bucks for a model with a larger paper tray, or splurge on a unit with an ADF so you aren't stuck feeding multiple pages onto a flatbed scanner.

PC World does not test an MFP's fax features. Such functions add to the price, and many documents are now acceptable as e-mailed PDFs. If you don't need to fax, don't pay for these features.

PC World's Top Inkjet Multifunction Printers chart ranks our current favorites.

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