Web Apps Expand Reach
The Web is expanding printers' horizons with new applications and connectivity. Though cloud-based printing is still in its infancy (HP and Lexmark are the only printer vendors that currently offer cloud-based apps), it's getting more interesting all the time.
HP's Web-based apps typically emphasize home and family use, focusing on kids' activities such as coloring pages and paper dolls, as well as coupons, maps, and tickets that you can print through free, downloadable apps from HP's website. An MSNBC app lets you choose among news categories ranging from business to entertainment to sports, and print a digest of current stories.
Lexmark's Web-based apps are part of its SmartSolutions platform of customizable apps, which allow you to automate tasks that you perform regularly, such as scanning or faxing a specific form to a specific destination.
Unlike HP's apps, not all of the SmartSolutions options require you to print something out. For instance, you can set up an RSS, weather, or news feed to appear on the LCD; the news feeds supply headlines from the BBC, ESPN, or MSNBC. You can also monitor your Twitter feed or your Facebook page, and print photos posted to your Facebook wall.
Cloud Printing's Promise
Cloud-based printing aspires to work someday with pretty much every printer out there. Who wouldn't want to be able to print from their cell phone or tablet without driver or connectivity hassles?
Hewlett-Packard's ePrint is the first cloud-printing service to launch, though you'll need an ePrint-enabled HP printer to enjoy it. Newer models of HP printers that have ePrint capability are tied to a specific e-mail address to which you can send e-mail messages or jobs to be printed. While traveling, you may find ePrint-enabled public printing locations in hotels, airports, and copying shops. In our initial tests of HP ePrint, however, it fell a bit short on reliability. When we sent jobs via ePrint from various phones, e-mail services, and computers, only about 9 out of 10 of them actually printed. The corporate version, called ePrint Enterprise, is supposed to be a more ironclad program, but we haven't tested it.
Google's Cloud Print was announced about year ago, but it remains in beta at this writing. The service aims to let you send jobs remotely to any printer linked to a Web-connected PC. We tested Google Cloud Print earlier this year; though it's still very limited, its goal of admitting even older printers to the cloud-printing club bodes well for future adoption.
Paper Savers and Time Savers
Automatic duplexing (two-sided printing) halves paper usage, saving both trees and money, but it does slow printing speed somewhat, because the printer has to turn the paper over to print on its other side. In addition, the printer has to be slightly larger to accommodate the duplexing mechanism. Assisted manual duplexing--where on-screen or control-panel prompts show you how to refeed the pages so you can print on the back--is better than nothing, but it's still a hassle, especially for longer documents.
You can't miss an MFP that's equipped with an automatic document feeder. This awkward-looking mechanism sticks out the top of the device (or sometimes folds neatly into the top when it's not in use). It makes all the difference when you need to scan or copy multipage documents, however; some models even scan in duplex. Most ADFs have a dedicated, second scanning head (usually a slim bar located to one side of the main scanner platen) for scanning legal-size documents via the ADF.
With regard to faxing, if you regularly send faxes and will continue to do so, buy a multifunction printer with fax capabilities. If you don't send faxes now but wonder whether you might need to someday for some reason, you needn't worry. Scanning documents to PDF and then e-mailing them has replaced a great deal of faxing; it's faster and more secure than faxing, and it saves paper.
Remember the Ink Costs
Ink costs are as important a factor to consider in choosing an MFP as the price of the machine itself. The majority of the six MFPs that we used for real-world testing have reasonable ink costs. The only models that require a little caution here are the HP Envy100, whose standard and high-yield inks are expensive across the board; and the two Lexmarks--the Genesis and the Pinnacle Pro901--whose standard-size cartridges are exorbitant, but whose high-yield options are reasonable. The Pinnacle Pro901, especially, is notable for its high-yield, penny-per-page black (a truly budget-friendly cost).
Since MFPs can't multitask (at the inkjet level, anyway), a printer that is constantly churning out jobs can't stop to make a copy or scan to PDF. So if you do a lot of any one thing, even printing, consider buying a dedicated machine for that particular function.
On the other hand, most home, student, and small-office users who want a printer that can branch out and do a few other things, too, can probably find more than one very serviceable inkjet multifunction printer that meets their needs.