Printer Buying Guide: Major Printer Types Explained

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Want to buy a new printer? You have some decisions to make. Do you need only monochrome printing, or color capability? Do you prefer laser, LED, inkjet, or solid-ink technology? What about extras, such as wireless networking or multifunction copy/scan/fax features? Your choices will depend on what you want to do with the printer, how much printing you do, how many other people will also use the printer, and, of course, how much you can spend--for the printer itself and for the replacement ink or toner.

We'll help you figure everything out. In this article, we'll describe the major types of printers available, so you know what your options are. In another portion of this printer buying guide, we'll explain important printer specs to help you figure out which models would best fit your needs. And when you hit a brick-and-mortar store or a Website, our printer shopping tips will make your purchase easier.

Cloud/Mobile Printing Takes Off

As smartphones and tablets proliferate, so does the desire to print from those devices. That’s why we’re hearing so much now about cloud printing or mobile printing, two terms that mean more or less the same thing: sending a job to a nearby printer, or even a printer at another location, without installing a driver.

The concept isn’t exactly new. On the low end, many apps allow you to send a photo from your phone to a printer. On the high end, enterprise-level offerings for mobile printing have been around for years, most notably those from EFI and HP. Now, however, cloud/mobile printing is a universal function that could someday do away with the printer driver as we currently know it.

Such print jobs use one of two transit methods. You can send a mobile print job directly from your device to a printer, over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. A cloud print job takes a slight detour, usually passing through an email server, with the printer having its own assigned email address to receive the job.

During this early stage of cloud/mobile printing technology, you can find several platforms that perform similar tasks, all carrying some limitations as to which devices and printers are compatible, or which file types you can print.

AirPrint, ePrint, Google Cloud Print

Apple’s AirPrint and HP’s ePrint both came out in late 2010. AirPrint supports iOS devices and a small but growing number of printers--currently, all from Canon and HP. ePrint works only on certain HP printers, mostly consumer and small-office models. ePrint-enabled printers have their own internal email address; you send a job as an email attachment from your device to the printer’s address, going through HP’s proprietary email servers along the way.

Google announced its Cloud Print beta in April 2010. The service is distinctive for its ability to work with any printer. If the printer is what Google calls a “legacy printer,” you must connect it to a computer that is powered on and has Internet access. On that computer, you have to install Google’s Chrome browser so that you can use the Google Cloud Print connector in Chrome to print. You also need to create a Gmail account if you don’t already have one. To skip the "legacy" process, you can purchase one of the new “Cloud Ready” printers from Epson or Kodak; in addition, Kodak offers a version of the Google Cloud Print connector to enable cloud printing on its older printer models. HP’s ePrint-enabled printers are also Cloud Ready.

As you look into mobile and cloud printing, keep three things in mind. First, make sure that the service you choose will accommodate your devices and printing needs. Second, prepare to be patient, as a print job sent through the cloud could come out immediately, later, or possibly not at all. The final thing to watch out for is file formatting: Users are accustomed to their print jobs' looking exactly like what they’ve prepared in the application, but taking the driver out of the equation means taking out that guarantee. If your fonts print out funny-looking, for instance, or if text runs off the page, don’t worry: It’s all part of living on the cloud-printing frontier.

Web Apps: The Other Cloud Printing

Web-based printer apps offer a different approach to cloud printing. In this regard, HP and Lexmark continue to lead. These additional functions can be useful or fun, and a few of them even improve the experience of printing. If you're inclined to buy a Web-app printer, however, just make sure that you still like the underlying machine as much as you do the apps.

HP’s Web-enabled printers feature an ever-growing collection of cloud-based apps, all developed by HP and (not surprisingly) focused on providing something for you to print. Home-oriented apps let you print greeting cards, wrapping paper, movie tickets, coupons, and even signage; for kids, you can print puzzles, activity pages, papercrafts, and even storybooks. You can print preselected article feeds from major news sources, print maps, or print images from online photo sites. Although you won't save any paper or ink with HP’s Web-enabled models, they might make your home life a little easier.

Lexmark printers offer the company’s SmartSolutions programmable apps, which let you do everything from automating a series of tasks (such as scanning and emailing invoices to your accountant) to going on the Web and scanning documents into, say, your Evernote account or getting an RSS feed from a news site. Large LCDs on newer Lexmark printers can display the news, weather, or even your Facebook and Twitter accounts, making the printers into a kind of media device. And unlike HP, Lexmark doesn’t force you to print just to enjoy these functions.

The Web-based functions on these newer models can give you more to do with your printer, or give your printer more to do in your daily life. Is that something everyone needs? Right now it’s more of a convenience than an essential. In the long term, however, it’s probably a good idea for printers to connect to the cloud--because that’s where everything else seems to be headed.

A Look at Printer Types

The major printer technologies on the market today are inkjet, laser and LED (which are very similar), and solid-ink. Snapshot printers might also use less common technologies, such as dye-sublimation and thermal printing.

Inkjet Printers: The Thrills, the Costs

An inkjet printer squirts liquid ink through extremely small holes in a printhead to create an image. The primary reason to choose an inkjet printer is for the photo quality: Inkjets are still the best at blending colors smoothly. (The other purposes for which you'd want color output--invitations, flyers, brochures--turn out just as well with other printer technologies. Our reviews of color laser and LED printers have identified a few that can rival an inkjet printer's photo quality, but they are mostly high-end, graphics-oriented machines. If you want a compact device dedicated to photo printouts, take a look at our snapshot printer reviews.)

The other reason to choose an inkjet is because it can print on a wide variety of media. Many inkjet models can print on specially designed canvas or on iron-on transfers; others can print on banner-size or wide-format papers. You don't need to worry about baking your labels or scorching your nice stationery on an inkjet; these printers will gently print on almost anything.

For a more detailed look at some models, check out our top picks for single-function inkjet printers and multifunction printers (MFPs).

Inkjets: Speed and Print Quality Will Vary

With an inkjet, what you get in versatility, you lose in speed: Most inkjet printers have slow to average output speeds. Business-oriented models will generally offer higher speeds than home models.

The print quality you get from an inkjet will differ depending on whether you print on plain paper, coated inkjet paper, or glossy photo paper. Inkjets have improved a great deal over the years, but some models still produce gray, 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 your cost per page.

The kind of ink a printer uses can affect print quality. A dye-based (colored liquid) ink, just like watercolors used for painting, 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 nicely as dye-based inks will. Not surprisingly, photo-oriented printers normally use dye-based inks, while business-focused printers typically use pigment-based inks. Some printers offer both: pigment-based ink for text, and dye-based inks for color images.

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

Because the replacement inks for a color inkjet can be expensive, it pays to shop carefully. Our printer reviews provide details for each model, but you can figure out the cost for yourself, too. (See "Ink and Toner Costs: Getting a Handle on the Numbers" for more on how we calculate it.)

In general, lower-end inkjets might use tricolor cartridges, the kind that have cyan, magenta, and yellow contained in one package. These are generally a bad deal, because once you deplete a single color you have to replace all three.

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

Next: Laser and LED Printers

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