Printers haven’t changed much, but the tech world around them sure has. People print less frequently, and they’re just as likely to send a job from a smartphone or a tablet as they are from a traditional computer. Today’s printers are keeping up as best they can, with mobile printing options and wireless connectivity, and a few models offer new technologies such as NFC (near-field communication).
Before you shop for a printer, sort out who will be using it and for what purposes—and of course, how much you can spend—so you can find the best model for your needs.
Who needs what kind of printer?
Printer users generally fall into one of three categories.
Home users can be individuals, families, or students. They may not print much, but what they do print could be anything from a homework assignment to photos to an art project. Typically they’re looking for the versatility and lower purchase price of a color inkjet printer.
Home-office and small-office users may print a little or a lot, but they’re always seeking professional-quality output. Some of these people may think they need a laser printer, but in many cases a similarly priced color inkjet will be more capable and will likely have cheaper ink.
Small workgroups in a business environment will require a workhorse printer that can juggle tasks and handle heavier demand. There's one supercharged inkjet from HP, the HP Officejet Pro 576dw, that can satisfy this crowd. Aside from that model, however, laser remains the best printer technology for this group.
The most important printer features
No matter what shape or size of printer you choose, these are the most important specs.
Inkjet versus laser: While laser printers have tremendous cachet among office users, inkjets have a legacy of mediocrity to overcome. But today’s inkjet printers are much, much better than their predecessors were, and good models are available for both home and office users. I especially encourage small-office and home-office users to consider an office inkjet over a cheap laser. For the same price, the inkjet will be better—faster, with more features and a lower cost per page.
Multifunction models: It’s hard to find a printer that just prints anymore—but why would you want one? A multifunction printer that includes a scanner makes it easy for you to create copies or digitize documents. Unless you’re super-duper-sure that all you want to do is print, get a multifunction printer for the versatility.
Connectivity: All printers can connect to a computer via USB, and office-oriented models have an ethernet port for wired networking. Wi-Fi is a must on almost any class of printer these days, for ease in a home setting but also for working with mobile devices in an office setting. Even if the printer is going to serve just one person in a home with no sharing, think twice before skipping Wi-Fi as a feature.
Mobile printing: Even the most corporate-focused printers have capitulated to the demands of mobile devices and offered some way of letting them print. Look for apps that work with Android, iOS, and other mobile devices for direct printing, or seek out a way to print via email (such as HP’s ePrint or Google’s Cloud Print), or a third-party technology such as Apple’s AirPrint. In addition, the relatively untried near-field communication technology has popped up in a few Brother and Samsung printers. Through NFC, you can pair a mobile device to a printer, then use an app to send the print job (using local Wi-Fi).
Paper handling: The number of sheets your printer can take should exceed the number of pages you print per day—ideally by a lot, to minimize paper loading. A personal printer typically holds 100 to 150 sheets of paper in a single tray. Some models have a dedicated photo tray, which cuts down on paper swapping. A business printer can hold 250 sheets of paper at a minimum, but higher-end models typically accommodate 500 to 1000 pages in their standard or upgraded configurations. A busier office will want a printer that can support multiple paper trays.
Duplexing: Two-sided printing, or duplexing, can cut your paper costs in half and spare some trees. Some printers offer manual duplexing, a mode that produces prompts telling you how to rotate and reload the paper to print the second side. This approach is better than nothing, but it’s a hassle if you want to duplex all the time.
Other useful features
Displays: Many personal printers and some business printers have small displays on their front control panels to aid you in selecting menu options or to communicate printer status. While the typical display may consist of one or two lines of character-based messages, higher-end and photo-oriented printers might have a full-color LCD, possibly with touch capability. In general, it’s preferable to have any kind of display, rather than inscrutable, blinking lights.
Media-card slots and USB/PictBridge ports: If you want to print photos on your inkjet, a model with integrated media slots or a PictBridge port provides convenience. But if you already have such ports on your computer, of course, you needn’t bother duplicating them on your printer. A USB port (sometimes combined with a PictBidge port) lets you print documents directly from a key drive, but that can be a security risk. (An IT friend of mine glues USB ports shut in her office—secure, but difficult to undo!)
Read on for what to expect at different price points, and how to figure out whether a printer’s ink or toner is too expensive.