Printer Buying Guide: Major Printer Types Explained

Snapshot Printers: Easy Photo Printing

Though any color printer can output an adequate or better photo, a snapshot printer does nothing but churn out images--and as a result, such a model is well worth considering for families with lots of photos to share. To learn more, check out our snapshot printer reviews.

Do you need a dedicated photo printer? Consider the following questions to decide between a photo printer and a regular color printer. (If you're looking for the absolute best results, high-end photo inkjet printers, which we do not review, are for enthusiasts or professionals who are willing to pay more to create truly gorgeous images.)

Do you like your devices small? Snapshot printers are compact and boxy, so they can fit pretty much anywhere. Standard inkjet printers tend to be twice their size or bigger. Most snapshot printers have carrying handles for portability, and a few even have battery options.

Is your media covered? Snapshot printers are designed for photography, so typically they have a full complement of media card slots for your camera's flash memory. Usually they also have a PictBridge port for connecting your camera with a cable. Some PictBridge ports also take USB flash drives; if that's the case for the printer you're considering, its specs should say so. Even if a single-function inkjet printer can handle photo output, it may not have the necessary slots or PictBridge connectivity.

Can you preview your photos? Since photo printers can function without a PC connection, they all have a color LCD screen for you to view and select photos for printing. The display will vary in size from model to model. A larger screen is more desirable for easier navigation and larger image previews, but you'll also pay more for that benefit. A few displays are also touch-sensitive, an interface that feels more natural as you navigate on-screen options. By contrast, single-function inkjet models typically don't have a display.

Are you prepared to trade editing freedom for fast gratification? All snapshot printers are capable of printing a photo without being linked to a PC. As a rule, the less-expensive models offer just basic built-in editing functions, such as red-eye removal and maybe clip art, sepia-toning, or borders. Higher-end models also let you add captions or draw on the image, print layouts such as albums or calendars, and more. Don't pay for the additional features unless you're really going to use them (or you want to impress the neighbors). If you habitually fiddle with photos in editing software before you print, you'll still want to hook the printer up to your PC so that you can take advantage of your full-fledged applications.

What paper sizes do you want to use? All snapshot printers can create a standard 4-by-6-inch print; in addition, HP's snapshot models can print on 5-by-7-inch and 4-by-12-inch photo paper. If you want to print on more sizes, consider a full-size inkjet printer or even a wide-format model.

Do you care which technology the printer uses? The major snapshot printer vendors use two technologies: inkjet and dye-sublimation. The latter involves transferring ink from a continuous roll to paper. We have tested both kinds of printers, and recommend buying an inkjet-based model. Dye-sublimation technology produces a lot of wasted ink film, and offers no noticeable advantage in image quality or speed. Thermal color printing is another, newer technology; instead of ink, it uses heat to create color reactions on special paper. Right now, it's too early to tell whether thermal printing models will be viable competitors.

Next: Key Characteristics to Consider

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