Printer Buying Guide: Major Printer Types Explained

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Color, Networking, Multifunction, and Other Key Options

Printers come in every shape and size these days. Here are key characteristics to consider before you buy.

Color or Monochome?

Do you print lots of text, lots of graphics, or a mix? Knowing the answer to this question will help you decide between a monochrome printer and a color model.

Monochrome laser or LED printers continue to sell well, especially in the business world. If all you need to do is print plain text--letters, spreadsheets, documentation--with nothing more graphic than a simple logo or a few straight lines, a monochrome printer will suit you just fine. The consumables for these printers tend to be the cheapest around, too. Our Top 10 Monochrome Laser Printers chart shows our current favorites.

For anything beyond plain text and minimal graphics, a color printer is the better bet. At home or school, color dresses up papers and invitations--and of course, printing snapshots is another plus. On the business side, you can use color to jazz up your reports with pie charts or photography, or print forms on demand. You can also print marketing material in-house in small quantities. (Note that for bigger jobs of hundreds or thousands of pages, it would be worthwhile to compare the cost and capabilities of an outside printer.)

Once you decide that you want a color printer, you need to think about the technology. Do you want a color laser printer, or an inkjet printer? (By design, all inkjet printers can produce color output.) Is a snapshot printer all you need? Finally, shop carefully to make sure your model offers reasonably priced consumables (read more on that in "Ink and Toner Costs: Getting a Handle on the Numbers").

Personal vs. Business Printers: How Many Pages, by How Many People?

How much do you need your printer to print? Is it a few sheets a day, dozens, or hundreds? Is it just you, your family, or your coworkers, too? Don't get stuck with too much printer, or too little; before you buy, decide between lower- and higher-end models, as well as between personal and business printers. Remember that if you choose a printer with new capabilities, you might end up printing more on it than you did on your previous model.

A personal inkjet or laser printer is designed to handle a lighter volume of dozens of pages a day, for one person or a family. On one end you can find bare-bones models priced at $50 to $100; at the other end you'll see $400 or $500 hot rods that you can show off to the neighbors. Speed is not necessarily a priority; most personal printers offload the image-processing burden to your computer, which makes them less expensive but also slower. Paper handling generally ranges from 100 to 150 sheets in a single tray, but some inkjet models will have a second tray for photo paper or other media. Automatic duplexing is available on some printers, and others offer on-screen prompts to walk you through manual duplexing. A USB port is a given for a single connection, but wireless capability is increasingly popular for the multicomputer home.

A business-oriented inkjet or laser printer is ready for more people and more printing--potentially hundreds of pages a day. Models range from basic $100 models to $1000-plus workhorses that will print as much as you can throw at them. Speed is money, so you should expect to pay more for a faster engine or sufficient memory. Paper handling starts with a regular, 250-sheet main input tray and a manual-feed slot or multipurpose tray, but the sky's the limit: Higher-end business printers will include second or third input trays in their standard configuration or offer them as upgrades. Automatic duplexing is available on many models; we recommend avoiding business printers that do not have it, since saving paper is good for maintaining your budget as well as for eliminating waste. Ethernet is a given for an office network, but wireless capability is starting to crop up, on the low end in particular.

Software and other capabilities can vary widely. A personal printer will often bundle software that helps you with common tasks, such as printing a photo or creating special layouts for an invitation or a greeting card; or it will have editing options available through its control panel. A low-end business printer might have some of the same features. Higher-end business printers will be designed for security and job management, with features such as password-protected printing, access controls for the unit's color capabilities or its front panel, and internal Web pages that show the status and supply levels and allow IT staff to adjust settings remotely.

Is there a kind of document you'd like to print that you can't currently? Envelopes, labels, and index cards are largely trouble-free now, thanks to straighter paper paths on most inkjets and some lasers, and manual-feed slots that bypass the toughest turns on others. High-end lasers even offer special feeding and finishing units for stapling and collating, or for stacks of envelopes or postcards. Now we're on to bigger and better things: Many color inkjets and a few color laser/LED printers can print on banner-size paper, for instance. While almost any printer can create a decent photo, some come with media slots, large displays, or on-board editing options to make the process even easier and more fun. A wide-format printer lets you print in a larger size than the typical letter or legal. Most inkjet printers can print on special fabric or canvas, and a few can print on specially coated CD or DVD media.

When Should You Get a Multifunction Printer?

Do you want your printer to do other things besides print? If all you do is print your own documents, you might not need a multifunction printer (MFP)--or all-in-one, as they are sometimes called. But if you want to digitize paper-based files or communicate a lot with other people, an MFP would be a perfect choice. In one space-saving box, you can get a printer, scanner, copier, and fax machine-with little compromise. You can copy, create electronic images of documents, and send them via e-mail or other means.

MFPs are available for as little as $100 in inkjet form and more for monochrome- or color-laser/LED MFPs, usually with somewhat lesser speed compared with a like-priced single-function printer. Personal multifunction models might have a simple flatbed scanner, but their business-oriented cousins will add an automatic document feeder (ADF) for simpler scanning of multipage documents.

You might want something other than an MFP if any of your scanning needs are high-volume or specialized. For instance, 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 make that job a lot easier. If you want to be able to scan slides or to create superhigh-resolution electronic images of old photos, a dedicated photo scanner will have the resolution and adapters you need. If your office is a very busy one, forcing one machine to juggle everyone's printing, copying, scanning, and faxing demands could overwhelm it--and frustrate your users.

Wide-Format Printers: Poster and Publishing Heaven

Most printers print on letter- and legal-size paper, up to 8.5 inches wide. Wide-format printers can print on paper sizes up to 11 inches wide and 17 inches long (called tabloid or ledger, depending on orientation). If you want to print posters, or if you'd like to create a letter-size brochure with a fold in the middle (rather than stapled pages), a wide-format printer can do it for you. But such a printer will cost more and be naturally bigger and heavier than a regular-size model. Printing a bigger page will take longer, so engine speed and internal memory will be more important.

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