One of the earliest uses for a network was to be able to share printers, back when printers cost as much as a small car. But as prices dropped on printers and GM goes into bankruptcy, there are still compelling reasons and plenty of different models to choose from.
As your business grows - assuming that at some point our economy is going to turn around - you need to reassess your printer fleet. You probably will be spending too much on desktop printers and can justify replacing a few of them with more expensive network printers, based on the operating cost savings. There are various tools that can help you calculate these sorts of things, as well as manage your entire printer fleet, including
HP's Web JetAdmin, Toshiba's Encompass, Konica's PageScope NetCare and Xerox's Office Document Assessment. But these are largely designed to handle homogeneous printer populations from the vendor that has created their tool. An alternative is from the large distributor Synnex called Printsolv, which is sold through its VARs and partners.
Once you have some understanding of your printer fleet, you might want to start shopping around for a new printer. The printer market these days has three basic price points: under $150, around $300-$500, and then over $1000. Forget the lowest priced printers: they are typically ink jets and you will pay a lot for their consumables.
The mid-tier has some interesting buys right now because vendors are making monochrome lasers that are quite capable, don't come with high-priced consumables, and operate for years without problems. I am partial to the Lexmark E series, such as the E260DN, for $250. A similar model is reviewed here.
There are several nice things about these Lexmark printers. First, they are quiet and compact and run for years with no trouble. They also come with a built-in wired network adapter (unlike the Dell model that was reviewed by PC World, which doesn't have one and also costs more too), and the software setup is relatively simple.
But they are monochrome. If you need color prints, you are going to have to spend more and here is where it makes a more compelling case to network your printers, especially as the per-page cost for color is about three to five times the monochrome prints. My favorite series of printers are the Xerox Phasers that use solid ink sticks that look a bit like crayons: if you hit the right time of year, Xerox offers "free black" sticks so you can use the printers for all of your needs. The latest model, the 8560N, goes for $700.
With both of these printers you will have to spend more if you want to attach them to your wireless network, typically $150 or so for the right adapter. I would recommend a wired connection if your office permits it: you don't really want your wireless network bogged down with a lot of print jobs, and anyway you also want your printer to stay in one place too.
What about HP's line of printers? I used to be a big fan of the Laserjet line, back when they were made mostly of metal and built to last. I was just over a friend's home the other day and he had a 15 year old Laserjet 4 that still had a parallel port on it. It was still running just fine. Today's models are cheaply made and have all sorts of software that you don't need.
What about multifunction printers that can also scan and fax, and do the dishes when you aren't looking (just kidding about the dishes)? Again, they are fine for consumers with light demands, but for office uses you are better off getting individual machines for each task, unless you are in the highest price points.
David Strom is a former editor-in-chief of Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com and an independent network consultant, blogger, podcaster and professional speaker based in St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.