Printers are essential peripherals, performing a critical role as they render electronic information into tangible records or material output. You're simply not using your computer to its fullest potential if you are unable to print reports, presentations, letters, photos, or whatever it is you need to output. Choosing a printer can be confusing, however, in today's competitive, ever-changing landscape. This buying guide rounds out some of the more important criteria to consider before you make that all-important purchase decision.
This is the biggest decision to make before anything else. Your choice should be based on how you work and the kind of output you will be expecting from the printer.
•Inkjet: Inkjet printers can deliver stunning color, so this is the way to go if you are mostly concerned with printing photos. Inkjets can be used for printing text, but the print speed is too slow if the primary purpose of the printer is document printing. To obtain more photo-realism, choose inkjets with an expanded range of colors that includes light cyan and light magenta in addition to the standard four-color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The extra colors deliver more subtle color gradations in blue skies and skin tones. And if you print a great deal of black-and-white photos, consider photo printers with more than one variation of black ink or with gray inks. Many photo printers use color inks to produce a composite black, resulting in a muddy tint. A second black-ink cartridge and different shades of gray help maintain a neutral tone, with the gray ink allowing for subtle shading and thus improving the quality of black-and-white photos.
•Dye-sublimation: Dye-sub printers can print continuous tones and a superior range of colors that laser printers are unable to, making them ideal for more demanding graphic applications or color printing. Dye-sub prints are also less prone to fading and distortion over time than dye-based ink prints. In addition, many consumer-based dye-sublimation printers can print directly from digital cameras and also accept memory cards. They are, however, more limited in the range and size of printing media that can be used - usually letter-size paper or smaller.
•Laser: Laser printers are the perfect choice if you need to print large amounts of text documents. They print faster than inkjets and have a lower cost of operation over the long-term - even though they may cost more to buy initially. There are trade-offs, however. Monochrome laser printers produce crisp black-and-white text but cannot be used for color printing. Color lasers deliver excellent text and graphics but are much more expensive and can be costly to maintain.
Some printers are good for general printing, while others are better at specialized tasks or combine several functions into one machine.
•Photo: If you take lots of pictures, consider getting a photo printer. Photo printers can be in the form of photo inkjets - which can print both photos and text; snapshot photo printers - for outputting small 4x6-inch prints; or professional photo printers - for large, tabloid-size photos and often including network connections to enable printer sharing. Most consumer and professional photo printers use inkjet technology, while most snapshot photo printers that print 4x6-inch prints rely on dye-sublimation technology. Regardless of the type or technology that is used, the most important thing to look for in a photo printer is photorealistic quality. Everything else is secondary.
•General Purpose: As the name implies, general purpose printers can be used for printing almost anything, including text and photos. Choose a general printer with a laser format if you print more text than photos; and choose an inkjet format if you print more photos than text. •Multifunction: Multifunction printers (MFPs) combine in one device several functions such as printing, scanning, faxing, and copying. MFPs cost less than buying separate stand-alone devices and cut down on the hassle of setting up individual machines. If you are strapped for budget or space, consider these all-in-one devices. Take note, however, that a malfunction with one component takes down the whole device, and individual components may not be upgradeable. MFPs are available with either laser printers to emphasize speedy text printing and the occasional graphics output; or they are available with inkjet printers for vibrant photo printing.
Printer Specs and Key Features
Printers feature various specifications, so navigating the spec sheet intelligently requires familiarity with what each specification entails according to the printing technology involved or for the type of usage planned for the printer.
•Resolution: For laser printers, 300 dpi is adequate if all you need is to print black-and-white text, but choose at least 1200 dpi for photorealistic grayscale or color printing. For inkjets, choose one featuring 1200-dpi or higher resolution with a droplet size of 4 picoliters or smaller for sharp, clean output. With photo printers, resolution varies according to technology: Output at 300 dpi by photo printers using dye-sublimation technology is comparable to photo printers using inkjet technology outputting at 1200 dpi or higher.
•Speed: Speed ratings vary greatly, and the print speeds cited by manufacturers usually refer to printing in draft mode or at the lowest resolution. For laser printers, a more accurate way of measuring actual print speed is to time just how long it takes from the minute you hit "Print" - to the time that it takes the printer to warm up, spool the job into the print queue, and for the printed output to finally come out. For inkjets, print speed is not one of its stronger suits; so don't be overly concerned with this spec.
•Memory: Extra memory will come in handy for laser printers to enable them to handle large graphics and documents more easily. Check the maximum upgradeable memory allowed for your printer, if it features a hard drive with similarly upgradeable memory, and if the printer can use generic memory or needs the manufacturer's brand. In the case of inkjets, memory is built-in and not upgradeable, but this is not an issue inasmuch as processing occurs on the side of the computer - so there's no need for large amounts of installed RAM to begin with on inkjets.
•Connectivity: Most printers today no longer support the older parallel connection but feature instead USB 1.1 or Hi-Speed USB (USB 2.0) - either of which should work fine with USB computers. For printers to be used on a network, it will need to have an Ethernet port to enable printer sharing. For more flexible printing options, you may want to look for printers with infrared input/output ports that allow wireless printing from notebooks or other devices with infrared ports. And if high-speed or long-distance printing is what you need, consider printers with a FireWire port.
Consumables and cost per page
The purchase price of the printer is just the beginning of its overall cost because over time, the hidden cost of ink or toner, paper, and parts will add up. These "hidden costs" are the consumables; dividing the total cost of consumables by the number of pages that can be produced from the consumables gives you the cost per page. Laser printers offer the lowest cost per page, using relatively inexpensive toner and normal-weight, uncoated paper. On the other hand, cost per page for inkjets can be four or five times as much, depending on how much ink you use and the cost of the paper - normally more expensive, coated, glossy paper for higher-quality color output. The tank configuration for inkjets should also be taken into consideration. Inkjets with a single cartridge for the colored inks will incur higher replacement costs because the cartridge must be replaced as soon as one color runs out - even if the cartridge still contains plenty of ink for the other colors. To save costs, get an inkjet with separate cartridges for black and each individual color.