The Best Holiday Printers Offer Something Extra

Not just any old printer will do for a holiday gift. This shopping season, look for a model that offers something extra useful--or better still, extra fun. Unless you know that your gift recipient wants a plain-vanilla monochrome laser, inkjets--especially multifunction models--offer the most interesting choices.

What to Look For

Epson Artisan 835 inkjet multifunction printer
Touchscreens: Out with buttons, in with color LCDs that have on-screen controls, as well as panels offering context-sensitive, backlit "buttons" that light up only when needed. Recent products with this feature include the Epson Artisan 835 and the Canon Pixma MG8120.

HP Photosmart e-All-in-One inkjet multifunction printer
Web access: HP and Lexmark both offer models with Web connectivity, stretching the boundaries of what a printer can do. HP's e-printers provide canned apps for printing specific content from HP's prefabricated corner of the cloud, including coupons, movie tickets, news briefs, and activity pages. The HP Photosmart e-All-in-One is a recent example of the company's Web-friendly printers. Lexmark's programmable SmartSolutions--available in the Lexmark Platinum Pro905 and other models--give users the ability to view RSS news feeds on the printer's LCD, to see Facebook and Twitter updates, or to upload content to cloud-based apps such as Evernote.

In Video: Lexmark's Platinum Pro905 Printer is Suitable for a Small Office

Canon Pixma iP4820 inkjet printer
More features than you'd expect: The Canon Pixma iP4820 might look like any other home-oriented color inkjet printer, but it has two input trays and automatic duplexing, plus reasonable ink costs. For more on such models, see "Inkjet Printers: Versatility, Quality" on the next page.

Epson PictureMate Show snapshot printer
Integrated digital frames: Does your gift recipient have photos that they love? The Epson PictureMate Show snapshot printer can print those images--or show them on a huge 7-inch LCD. For more, see "Snapshot Printers: Easy Photo Printing" on the third page.

In Video: Epson Combines a Photo Printer With a Digital Frame

Inkjet Printers: Versatility, Quality

An inkjet printer squirts liquid ink through extremely small holes in a printhead to create an image. The primary reason to choose one is for the photo quality: Inkjets are still the best at blending colors smoothly. (The other purposes for which your gift recipient might want color output--invitations, flyers, brochures--turn out just as well with other printer technologies.) For a look at some of the best current models, check out our top picks for standard inkjet printers and inkjet multifunction printers.

In Video: Two Sub-$200 Printers for Your Home or Home Office

Our reviews of color laser and LED printers have identified a few that can rival an inkjet printer's photo quality, but for the most part they are high-end, graphics-oriented machines; see our extensive printer buying guide for more on laser and LED models. If you have your eye on a dedicated snapshot printer, see the next page for a discussion of these specialized models.

HP Officejet 7000 wide-format inkjet printer
The other reason to choose an inkjet is because it can print on a broad variety of media. Some models can print on specially designed canvas or iron-on transfers; others (such as the HP Officejet 7000) can print on banner-size or wide-format papers. No need to worry about baking labels or scorching nice stationery on an inkjet--it will print gently on all kinds of items.

Speed and Print Quality Will Vary

With an inkjet printer, what you get in versatility, you lose in speed: Most inkjet printers are slow to average in their output rate. Business-oriented models generally offer higher speeds than personal models do.

Your gift recipient will also see a difference between how prints look on plain paper and how they appear on coated inkjet paper or glossy photo paper. Inkjets have improved a great deal over the years, but some models still produce gray and fuzzy text or grainy, oddly colored graphics on plain paper. Such results might be acceptable for a school report or a flyer, but not for business purposes--and buying special paper to improve the output will add to the cost per page. To get the lowdown on print quality for a specific model, consult our reviews of inkjet printers and inkjet multifunction printers.

The kind of ink used can affect print quality. A dye-based (colored liquid) ink, just like watercolors used for artwork, is best for blending colors; the trade-off is in the precision of text and fine lines. A pigment-based ink--particles of color suspended in liquid--will generally create crisper-looking text and lines, but it won't mix colors as well as dye-based inks will. Not surprisingly, photo-oriented printers tend to use dye-based inks, while business-focused printers tend to use pigment-based inks. Some printers offer both: pigment-based ink for text, and dye-based ink for color images.

Ink Costs: Do the Math and Don't Get Reamed

Kodak ESP 7250 inkjet multifunction printer
Because the replacement inks for a color inkjet can be expensive, it literally pays to shop carefully. Our printer reviews provide ink-cost details for each model, but you can figure it out for yourself. Turn to our extensive printer buying guide to see how we calculate ink costs.

Some general tips:

* Lower-end inkjets might have tricolor cartridges, with cyan, magenta, and yellow contained in one package. These are generally a bad deal, because once the user depletes a single color, they have to replace all three.

* Inkjets that use separate cartridges for each ink are more efficient; models that separate the ink tank from the printhead can also save money. Some printers have high-yield cartridge options, which offer a lower cost per page compared with standard-size cartridges. If your gift recipient prints fairly little to begin with, however, having a large, expensive cartridge sitting forever in their printer isn't any better for them or the ink.

In Video: Is That Ink Cartridge Really Empty?

Snapshot Printers: Easy Photo Printing

Although any color printer can print an adequate (or better) photo, a snapshot printer creates nothing but photos--and is well worth considering for families with lots of pictures to share. Check out our snapshot printer reviews to learn about current models.

The following questions will help you decide whether your gift recipient really needs a dedicated photo printer, or whether a regular color printer would be a better choice. (Looking for the absolute best? High-end photo inkjet printers, which PCWorld does not review, are for enthusiasts or professionals who are willing to pay more to create truly gorgeous images.)

Does your gift recipient like small devices? Snapshot printers are small and boxy, so they can fit pretty much anywhere. Most have carrying handles for portability, and a few even have battery options.

In Video: Snapshot Photo Printers

Is their media covered? Look for a model with a media slot that accommodates the camera storage-card type your gift recipient uses, or a model with a PictBridge port for connecting a camera using a cable. Some PictBridge ports also take USB thumb drives; a printer's specs should indicate whether its port does.

Do they want to preview their photos? A color display lets the user view and select photos for printing. Such screens vary in size, but obviously bigger would be better (and more expensive). A few displays are also touch-sensitive, an interface that feels more natural for navigating on-screen options.

Canon Selphy CP790 snapshot printer
Does the gift recipient prefer fast gratification over editing freedom? All snapshot printers are capable of printing a photo without being connected to a PC. As a rule, the less-expensive models offer just basic editing, such as red-eye removal and maybe clip art, sepia tone, 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 think the recipient will really use them. If the person habitually fiddles with their photos in editing software before they print, then they'll still want to hook it up to their PC so that they can use full-fledged applications.

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

Does the printer's technology matter? The major snapshot printer vendors use two technologies: the commonly known inkjet, and dye-sublimation, which involves transferring ink from a continuous roll to paper. We've tested both kinds of printers, and we recommend buying an inkjet model. Dye-sublimation technology creates a lot of wasted ink film, with no noticeable advantage in image quality or speed.

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