The Tech Specs That Matter

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The Printer Specs That Matter

When you're buying a printer, it makes sense to think long-term. Pay attention to issues like the page yield of the cartridges your printer uses and whether it can automatically print on both sides of a sheet of paper. Doing your homework about those specs will make sure that the printer you think is cheap won't cost you an arm and a leg over time.

Printers: Specs That Don't Matter

Printer ink
Photograph by Robert Cardin
Engine speed: The engine-speed numbers that most vendors quote are supposed to be indicators of how fast a big print job will take, but printer makers usually calculate them using methods that do not reflect real-world usage. For instance, the printer may be in its faster "draft" mode for speed tests, even though most people print in default mode. Or vendors might omit the first-page-out time (how long the first page takes to exit the printer) from their engine-speed calculations, because it includes an image-processing delay. Unfortunately, that delay is an unavoidable part of any print job that a regular person does.

An example of a more realistic engine-speed indication is the ISO/IEC 24734 "Laser Quality Print Speed" standard, which prints in default mode and includes first-page-out time. Related: How to Fix and Avoid Printer Paper Jams

Printers: Specs That Sometimes Matter

Monthly duty cycle: This number is an indication of how durable a printer is, so it's an important metric for businesses or other heavy-duty use cases. Some lower-volume printers, such as the one you probably use at home, will not even have a duty-cycle number.

If a printer has a monthly duty cycle of, say, 20,000 pages, it's built to take a fair amount of punishment. However, just as you wouldn't want to run your car at full bore all the time, you wouldn't want to run that much paper through the printer constantly. The actual volume of printing that you should realistically expect to do should be a small fraction--maybe 10 to 25 percent--of a printer's duty-cycle number. Related: How to Choose the Best Printer for Your Business

Print resolution: A printer's true resolution has become less important as vendors have manipulated dot size, shape, and placement to improve image quality without increasing the actual dots per inch beyond the most-common 600 by 600 dpi. Resolution specs with a qualifier such as "optimized," "interpolated," or "up to" are manipulated resolutions. If you come upon a printer with true 1200-by-1200-dpi resolution--such a thing is still something of a rarity--you will notice that it is capable of remarkably smooth, sharp text and images. Related: How to Print Digital Photos

Scan resolution: Similar to print resolution, scan resolution can be interpolated. Look for the "optical resolution" as the true measure, and also note that for most scanning purposes, 300 dpi is a sufficient resolution. Going higher will result in a really slow scan time, a much bigger image-file size, and a resulting image that isn't necessarily any sharper. Resolution specs with a qualifier such as "optimized," "interpolated," or "up to" are manipulated resolutions. Related: Top 10 Inkjet Multifunction Printers

Printers: Specs That Always Matter

Automatic duplexing: A printer that can duplex (print on both sides of the page) automatically saves paper. That's good news for both trees and your budget. Manual duplexing--usually with on-screen prompts to walk you through turning over the paper--is better than nothing, but it's probably too much of a hassle for most people. Related: The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing

Page yield: All ink and toner cartridges have a page-yield spec that indicates how many pages the cartridge can print before it runs dry. This spec used to be all over the map, but ISO/IEC industry standards have helped make most cartridges' page yields directly comparable. That said, your mileage will vary depending on what you print and how much you print. Related: How Much Ink Is Left in That Dead Cartridge?

Starter-size cartridges: Some low-end laser and LED printers ship with "starter-size" toner cartridges that have a lower page yield than the usual sizes (and are not for sale otherwise). The starter-size cartridge will run out faster than a standard-size cartridge will, forcing you to buy a replacement sooner. Related: Which Ink Refills Can Save You the Most?

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