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How to choose the best printer for your business

The classic monochrome laser business printer continues to sell surprisingly well, but the best printer for your business might be inkjet, laser, LED, or solid-ink; and it might be a multifunction or single-function model.

How do you decide which technology and function level are best for your business? How much can you afford to spend? Take time to think about what you print, how much you print, and whether you need extra features or room to grow. Remember to check the cost of consumables to make sure your ongoing costs will be bearable.

The Cheapest Printer for the Job

Of course, you don’t want to spend more than you can afford. But before you commit to buying the cheapest printer you can find, let’s examine what “cheap” really means, and why the cheapest printer may not be the most affordable printer.

The business model used by most printer vendors works like this: The lower the initial price tag of the printer, the higher the cost of replacement ink or toner. As a result, the only person likely to benefit from a low-cost printer with high-cost consumables is someone who prints very little, and thus stretches out the time between replacements as long as possible. Unless you are among the sparsely printing few, you would do well to check a printer's ink or toner costs before you buy, to avoid budget-busting surprises later. For a how-to, consult this guide to doing the math to determine ink and toner costs.

Inkjet, Laser, LED, Solid Ink...They're All Good (or Better)

Choosing a machine for its underlying technology is less problematic than it used to be, as differences in speed and output quality have narrowed. If you normally print plain text--letters, spreadsheets, documentation--with nothing more graphic than a simple logo or a few straight lines, a monochrome laser or LED printer should suit you just fine. The consumables for these printers tend to be the cheapest around, too. See our Top 10 Monochrome Laser Printers chart for a ranked list of our top-rated models.

Color laser or LED printers may seem like the natural evolutionary step forward from monochrome models, but the transition is happening slowly. One major reason is that color printers cost more to buy and resupply; as a result, businesses must manage access to color printing to avoid overuse or misuse. Another significant factor is photo quality: Most laser and LED printers struggle to print smooth-looking images. Check out our current favorites on our Top 10 Color Laser Printers chart.

Superior photo quality is only one reason that inkjet printers are worth considering for many businesses. Various office-ready models can deliver competitive speed and print quality, too. Media flexibility is another selling point, as some models can print on specially designed canvas, iron-on transfers, or even CD/DVD media. Check out our top-ranked models among single-function inkjet printers and multifunction inkjet printers.

Solid-ink printers, available only through Xerox, use a unique technology that melts waxlike blocks and then squirts the semiliquid fluid through tiny holes in a printhead onto paper. Unlike toner and ink cartridges, the ink blocks use no plastic packaging, and therefore impose less of a shipping, storage, and environmental burden. Photo quality is about the same for a solid-ink printer as for a laser or LED printer: adequate, but not quite as good as for a typical inkjet. This technology is worth considering for a small office or department that wants something faster than an inkjet, but less complicated than a color laser or LED printer. Because solid-ink printers compete most closely with lasers and LEDs, you'll find our top picks in this color laser chart.

Fit the Printer to Your Office Size and Volume

How much output do you need your printer to print--a few sheets a day, dozens, or hundreds? Are you the only person who'll be printing, or will your coworkers use the machine, too? To avoid getting stuck with too much printer or too little, you have to figure out which features are relevant to your needs.

Choose a personal inkjet or laser printer only if you'll be its only user and you plan not to print more than a few dozen pages a day. The machine will be slow; it will lack useful features such as automatic duplexing (two-sided printing); and it will likely have pricier consumables. USB is the typical connection type, but wireless is a forward-looking feature worth considering.

For a printer that multiple people will use, ethernet networkability is essential for easy sharing. Wireless networkability can be useful with smaller workgroups, but its speed and reliability tend to vary.

A simple way to evaluate the print volume you need is to ask yourself how often you want to refill the paper tray. For most people the answer probably is no more than once a day, if that. Track your paper usage for a few days and look for a printer whose standard input tray exceeds that average daily volume by a smaller or greater margin, depending on how often you want to refill the tray. Another rule of thumb is to keep your volume well below the printer's specified monthly duty cycle. This number represents a maximum stress-test level, rather than what the printer can handle comfortably on an ongoing basis.

How Much Speed Do You Need?

Your anticipated print volume also helps determine how much engine speed, processing power, and memory your printer should have.

It's wise to take engine-speed specifications with a grain of salt, as they may not reflect your usage pattern. Nevertheless, they provide some indication of what the printer could accomplish under optimal conditions. A printer with an print output speed of less than 20 pages per minute will probably be pretty slow; a range of 20 ppm to 40 ppm is adequate for most offices; and a speed greater than 40 ppm is ready for higher-volume use (and such printers are priced accordingly).

Host-based printers lack their own image-processing power. Instead, they depend on a connected PC to handle the job for them. For any printer that has a dedicated processor, the higher the megahertz (MHz), the faster the machine can receive, interpret, and print a job.

The number and size of expected jobs will dictate how much memory your printer should have. A typical amount for a business printer can be anywhere from 64MB to 256MB. Higher-end models have room for expansion.

Paper-Handling Choices Abound

The printer you choose should offer the paper-handling capabilities appropriate for what you do now--and it should be expandable to accommodate subsequent growth. Some entry-level business printers have a standard input capacity of as little as 150 pages, which may suffice for a small, low-volume workgroup; unfortunately, most such models aren't expandable. The more typical minimum capacity is 250 pages. Some printers provide a slot or secondary tray for feeding envelopes and other thicker media, or let you add input trays or feeders at additional cost. If you feed more than one kind or size of media regularly, having a dedicated tray for each type will save you time and aggravation.

Automatic duplexing (two-sided printing) is a feature to seek on your next printer. Using this feature can slow print jobs somewhat, but the money and trees you'll save by halving your paper usage are likely to outweigh any time lost.

Is there a kind of document that you'd like to be able to print but currently can't? Modern printers can handle envelopes, labels, and index cards virtually trouble-free, thanks to straighter paper paths on most inkjets and some lasers, and to manual-feed slots that bypass the toughest turns on others. High-end laser printers even offer special feeding and finishing units for collating, stapling, and stacking envelopes or postcards. A wide-format printer lets you print in a larger size than the typical letter (8.5 by 11 inches) and legal (8.5 by 14 inches) dimensions.

Next page: Should you get a multifunction? What about ink and toner?


Single-Function or Multifunction?

If all you do is print your own documents, you might not need a multifunction printer (MFP)--sometimes referred to as an all-in-one. But if you want to digitize paper-based files or share documents with other people, you can use an MFP to make photocopies, create electronic images of documents, and store or send them via e-mail. MFPs for business should have an automatic document feeder (ADF) for simpler scanning of multipage documents.

Though MFPs appear to be the wave of the printing future, they have some limitations. If your office is very busy, forcing a single machine to juggle everyone's printing, copying, scanning, and faxing demands could overwhelm it--and frustrate your users. Also, if you have a long-term need to scan hundreds or thousands of pages of documents, a dedicated document scanner with its own ADF will simplify that job considerably.

Ink and Toner Costs: Do the Math

Forget the initial cost of your printer or MFP: Over time, you’ll exceed its price in replacement ink or toner supplies. To ensure that your consumables costs are in line with what your budget can bear, research their pricing carefully. A good rule of thumb is that the lower the printer's sticker price, the higher the price of its ink or toner. Our printer reviews provide details for each model, but you can calculate the relevant figures yourself by follow the simple steps enumerated below.

If you're thinking about refilling ink cartridges to save a dime, check out our "Portrait of a Serial Refiller" series, which details options at Costco, Office Depot, and Cartridge World.

In Video: How to Choose the Right Printer

1. Get the current price of each cartridge from the vendor's own Website. If the vendor doesn't sell cartridges directly to consumers, we average the prices collected from three or more major online retailers. Check to see whether a printer offers high-yield cartridges, which are often cheaper.

2. All inkjet printer vendors publish yield data for their ink and toner cartridges, estimating how many pages a cartridge can print before it runs dry. Most vendors' yields are based on an industry-standard measuring tool--a specific suite of documents printed at specific settings--so the results are comparable across different models. Finding the yields can require a little digging, but feel free to explore, and don't hesitate to bug the vendor for guidance if you can't easily find what you're looking for.

3. For each color, divide the price of the cartridge by the total page yield to obtain a figure for the cost per color per page. Be aware that your mileage will vary depending on what and how much you print from day to day.

One more tip: Check the information on "what's in the box" to see whether you're getting full-size ink or toner cartridges or lower-capacity, "starter"-size supplies.Often, lower-end laser and LED printers come with starter-size supplies, forcing you to buy a full set of replacement cartridges almost immediately. It's getting harder to avoid this vendor trick, but at least you'll be aware of it.

Where to Buy a Printer

If you're shopping on your own rather than relying on an IT professional to help you find a printer, most big-box retailers will have what you need. We surveyed the offerings at 10 big retailers and found that one stood out when it came to shopping for a printer. In addition, you may want to consider retailers that offer specialty services for small businesses, including additional support or discounts.

The Best Printer Fits Your Needs and Your Budget

Finding the best printer for your business doesn't have to be difficult or expensive. All of the available technologies work adequately or better, so it's more important to focus on the features and capabilities you need. After identifying several printers that seem suitable, check their ink or toner pricing to minimize your ongoing costs.

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