Picking the perfect printer for your needs

No matter how digital our lives become, printers remain essential in any office and convenient at home for schoolwork, maps, fliers, and photos. No matter which kind of printer you’re looking for, here’s the information you need to make a well-informed purchase.

The Big Picture From inexpensive snapshot units and inkjets to high-end color lasers, printers are designed to do different jobs. Here’s how they stack up, feature by feature.

Key Specs Explained We unravel the mysteries of print speed, print quality, cost of ownership, and maximum resolution–and tell you which specs are really important.

Printer Shopping Tips Whether you want an inkjet to print documents and newsletters at home, a snapshot printer to output photos and postcards, or a laser printer to take care of the needs of your whole office, we have recommendations to make your purchase easier.

The Big Picture
The major printing technologies available–inkjet and laser/LED–are all capable of printing typical documents competently, but some differences remain. Inkjet printers excel at printing photos on many sizes and types of media, but they achieve their best results when using special papers.

Laser and LED printers both achieve crisp results on a wide array of papers, but they struggle with the subtler colorations of photos. Snapshot printers, which use either inkjet or dye-sublimation technology, are limited to printing photos of specific sizes.

Inkjet Printers Offer Versatility
Home and small-office users who print a light volume of pages but also a fairly wide variety–anything from a letter or driving directions to children’s vacation photos–will enjoy the versatility of today’s inkjet printers. While the truly low-end models can still be pretty slow, some high-end models can be impressively fast.

For the best print quality, you’ll need to invest in an assortment of papers, and you’ll have to learn your way around the printer’s driver settings. You can reduce how often you swap paper types by purchasing a model with two separate paper trays.

In the past, almost all inkjets had the same features: one paper tray (for 100 to 150 sheets and ten envelopes), minimal buffer memory, and no networking options. These days, inkjets sport an array of features, such as larger displays or touch screens, integrated Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and more paper-handling options. Makers of business-oriented inkjets are also offering higher-yield ink cartridges, optional paper trays, standard duplexing, expandable memory, and more features for networked environments.

The real cost of an inkjet printer lies in its replacement inks. Many of the less expensive, home- or student-oriented models have fairly low-capacity ink cartridges that can run out sooner than you’d think–and they cost nearly as much as the printer itself.

The tricolor cartridges that combine cyan, magenta, and yellow into one unit are also a bad deal: As soon as the cartridge runs out of one color, you have to replace all three. If your printing plans include tons of photos or lots of pages, look for a model that offers individual cartridges for each color, or high-capacity cartridges, which contain more ink and cost less per page.

It’s hard to discuss cost per page because of all the variables, including page content, paper type, driver settings, and more. Suffice it to say, the more complex and colorful the job, the more ink you’ll use–and paper can be expensive, especially with inkjets.

In tests of inkjet printers conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology on behalf of PC World, the cost per text page ranged from 2.1 to 7.7 cents per page. The cost per color graphics page ranged from 7.7 to 15.8 cents per page. For full-size (not snapshot) photo printers, the total cost (including paper) per 4-by-6-inch photo ranged from 46 to 97 cents.

Lasers Give You Speed and Loads of Features
If you print a lot of text, such as letters and business documents containing color graphics, a color laser printer is probably your best bet. Color models have become the de facto standard for laser printers, producing monochrome pages at a per-page cost that, depending on the unit, approaches that of monochrome lasers.

They’re fast, and they produce good-looking documents for as little as a penny for black text and 6 cents for color. (Per page, inkjets tend to be more expensive–on average 4.5 cents per page for black text and 12.6 cents per page for color–but some office-oriented models offer high-capacity cartridges that drop the prices to near-laser cheapness.)

Most color lasers produce photos that are adequate for many uses, such as real-estate brochures, invitations or greeting cards, and missing-kitty flyers. Nearly all models now let you use glossy paper that enhances images to look like real photos, but they still lack the color accuracy and print resolution to rival inkjet printers.

Because both monochrome and color laser printers achieve consistently good text quality, breadth of features is the major differentiator among models. Color lasers hold from about 150 to 1100 sheets, with corporate models frequently holding around 600 sheets standard. You can also add trays that hold as much as 3150 sheets.

Most high-end lasers include at least 128MB of RAM, with expansion options permitting up to a gigabyte of memory for queuing multiple, complex print jobs at once (for a busy office, equip your laser with at least 256MB to 384MB of memory). Many come with duplexing functions as standard or optional.

They also have more built-in networking support–Wi-Fi is starting to show up as well–and permit easier remote management. More and more laser printers offer optional hard drives that you can use to save complex forms or to store passwords for confidential print jobs. Some recent lasers have other convenient features such as the ability to print directly from a USB flash drive.

The least-expensive color lasers we’ve seen so far now cost about $300. You’ll still find a large selection of monochrome lasers on store shelves, with prices starting as low as $99. We’re reluctant to recommend purchasing a monochrome laser when you have the option of inexpensive color, but if you need to print text exclusively, a monochrome laser offers an unbeatable value.

Snapshot Printers Do One Thing Very Well
The slowest of the three types of printers, snapshot printers are designed specifically to make photographs. These portable printers are typically inexpensive to purchase, and they let you print directly from the printer rather than via your PC. Some even have carrying handles and optional battery packs for taking the unit to a party or picnic.

All models print on the most common, 4-by-6-inch media; some can also print on panorama or 5-by-7-inch paper. The price per photo is relatively high (from 25 to 29 cents per page) compared with that of inkjet and laser output, but you’re paying for the convenience and fun factor of on-the-spot photo printing.

All snapshot printers have several things in common: a single paper tray that holds up to 20 sheets of photo paper; a color LCD that allows you to select photos and sometimes apply special effects; and media card slots that permit you to print sans a computer. They have no options for larger media, networking, or memory upgrades and the like; if you need to print anything other than photos, you’re better off with an inkjet instead of one of these one-note printers.

Snapshot printers range widely in price, currently from $99 to about $249. The printer’s price usually indicates how much you can do with the printer, such as how many on-board editing options you have and how many sizes of paper it can take. What the price doesn’t say is how fast the printer is (models we’ve tested can take anywhere from 50 to 120 seconds to print the same photo), how good the quality is, and how much the ink will cost you. Our reviews look more closely at actual performance.

Many snapshot models use inkjet methods, but others employ dye-sublimation technology. Dye-sublimation printers use what looks like colored film (one film each for cyan, yellow, magenta, and black) rather than the more familiar powder toner or liquid ink. When the thermal printhead applies heat to the film, the dye embedded in the film vaporizes and affixes to the paper. The process repeats for each of the remaining colors, until the final image is complete.

Because dye-sublimation printers use multiple layers of film to print each single page, the amount of waste is relatively high. The paper also moves through the printer four times, extending several inches out the back and front during each pass. This process is both slow and risky, inviting premature grabbing of the print. In our reviews, we have yet to see a real advantage to using this technology, in ease of use or the quality of results.

What About Wi-Fi?
Many inkjet printers and a few lasers are starting to come with integrated Wi-Fi. This means that, other than a brief USB connection during setup, you can stash the printer anywhere in your home or office and let multiple users access it–a boon for space-starved or cable-clogged environments. The manufacturers of printers we’ve tested with this feature have put a lot of work into making the installation as painless as possible. If your wireless network is functioning properly in the first place, adding such a printer to your setup shouldn’t be a problem.

Don’t despair if the printer you’re interested in doesn’t come with Wi-Fi. You can connect any printer to your wireless network by purchasing a wireless print server for about $75. The printer will still need to be tethered to your wireless router via the print server (which is likely smaller than your router), but it will be accessible from any wireless-capable PC or handheld (and even some mobile phones) within range of your network.

You can also purchase a Bluetooth adapter for your printer for about $60. Note that many Bluetooth adapters do not support multifunction printers, so check with the adapter manufacturer prior to making your purchase.

Multifunction Printer, or Separate Printer and Scanner?
An MFP combines print, copy, scan, and sometimes fax capabilities into one device. While there’s very little an MFP can do that a separate printer and scanner couldn’t do, an MFP saves space and offers more-coordinated functionality. This combination is especially attractive for personal use, for small or home-based businesses, and even for busy satellite or executive offices.

Early models tended to look clunky, but currently available choices can be as sleek or as burly as you wish. A standard inkjet model should be adequate for home, student, and small-office use; a laser unit (either monochrome or color) or a high-end inkjet model will address an office’s need for speed and flawless text quality. Laser models, especially the color ones, still tend to cost a great deal more.

Office-oriented MFPs have an automatic document feeder (ADF) for scanning multiple pages as a single task, and they often have a built-in fax machine and ethernet or Wi-Fi networking. Photo-oriented models sometimes let you scan slides and negatives, and they usually have built-in media slots for reading from digital camera memory cards.

It’s usually a good idea to give yourself room to grow if you can: Spend the extra bucks for a model with a larger paper tray, or splurge on a unit with an ADF so you aren’t stuck feeding multiple pages onto a flatbed scanner.

PC World does not test an MFP’s fax features. Such functions add to the price, and many documents are now acceptable as e-mailed PDFs. If you don’t need to fax, don’t pay for these features.

Key Buying Considerations
Here we discuss the top buying criteria for the three most popular types of printers: inkjet, snapshot, and color laser printers.

Inkjet Printers
Important consideration: print quality. While price doesn’t always indicate the print quality of an inkjet printer, there is some correlation. Before deciding on a specific model, check our Top 10 Inkjet Printers chart to see how recent inkjets stack up in our print-quality tests.

Important consideration: ink replacement cost. For inkjets, the cost of ink has the biggest impact on the overall cost of the printer over time. Before plunking down your cash, find out how much the replacement ink cartridges cost and how many pages each cartridge can print. Vendors generally charge $10 to $40 for a three-color cartridge and $5 to $35 for an individual color or black cartridge. Usually, the cheaper a cartridge is, the less ink it holds; yields range anywhere from 100 to 1000 pages per cartridge, though a few models now yield up to 2000 pages per cartridge.

Worthy of consideration: multiple black ink cartridges. Some inkjets, notably models from HP such as the Photosmart D5460, use dual black cartridges: one for laser-quality text (often called “pigment black”) and the other for printing photos on glossy paper (sometimes called “photo black” or “dye black”). Pigment black ink is optimized for printing text on plain paper. If you splurge on the printer manufacturer’s recommended paper, all the better. Dye-based black ink is optimized for printing on photo paper but can also print text.

Worthy of consideration: maximum print resolution. The resolution is the number of dots per square inch that a printer can spit out onto a sheet of paper. More dots give you a finer level of detail, which is especially important with graphics but negligible with text. Inkjet printers generally have a maximum color resolution of 4800 by 1200 dots per inch (dpi).

Many printers also use software to interpolate an image and to smooth out patches of color, fill in gaps, and sharpen more-detailed sections. Such enhancements can affect print quality as much as the printer’s resolution. The best way to determine print quality is not to look at the resolution specs but to print out a sample and judge for yourself.

Worthy of consideration: paper tray capacity. If you print just a few pages at a time, the single input tray found on most inkjet printers won’t bother you. If you print longer documents, share the printer with other users, or like to have a few different kinds of paper loaded at one time, look for a model with a second paper tray or a dedicated tray for photo media.

Worthy of consideration: color LCD. A front-panel display makes navigating menus or selecting photos from a media card easier.

Minor consideration: PictBridge. Many mainstream photo-oriented inkjets include a feature called PictBridge, which is a dedicated USB port for connecting your digital camera directly to the printer.
A few lasers, such as the HP Color LaserJet 2605dtn and Konica Minolta Magicolor 2430DL, have media slots or a PictBridge port for printing from a digital camera.

Minor consideration: media card slots. Many inkjet printers have media slots for printing from your camera’s memory card or for transferring the images to your PC. Check that your digital camera’s specific media type (SD Card, Memory Stick, xD-Picture Card, and so on) is supported.

Snapshot Printers
Important consideration: print quality. Though price doesn’t always reflect a snapshot printer’s output quality, there is some correlation. Before deciding on a model, check our Top 5 Snapshot Printers chart to see how recent snapshot units stack up in our print-quality tests.

Important consideration: ink replacement cost. As with inkjets, before you buy, be sure to check the cost of a snapshot printer’s replacement cartridges and how many pages each cartridge can print. Vendors generally charge $28 to $38 or more for a three-color cartridge (at this point, snapshot printers don’t use individual color or black cartridges). Yields range from about 108 to 150 pages per cartridge, or a cost per page ranging from 25 to 29 cents, which is more than twice the cost per page for inkjets. See “Refilling the Tank” in “Printer Shopping Tips” on the next page for more.

Major consideration: media card slots. Many snapshot printers have media slots for printing from your camera’s memory card or transferring the images to your PC. It’s also a good idea to make sure that your digital camera’s removable media (SD Card, Memory Stick, xD-Picture Card, and so on) is supported.

Major consideration: color display. A good-size LCD on the printer is worth having if you intend to print directly from a memory card. It lets you view and even edit photos without having to use your PC.

Laser Printers
Important consideration: text and graphics print speeds. This is the rate at which the printer can output full pages of text or graphics. Vendors’ quoted engine speeds frequently exceed what we experience in our tests or what you’ll experience in real life, sometimes by a wide margin. Take the vendor’s numbers with a grain of salt.

Important consideration: print quality. Both color and monochrome lasers print text extremely well. Color lasers print color charts and other two-dimensional graphics well, but they still can’t quite match inkjets in handling glossy photograph prints–yet.

Minor consideration: maximum print resolution. The resolution refers to the number of dots per square inch (dpi) that the printer can output. More dots provide a finer level of detail, which is especially important with graphics (but a negligible factor with text). Resolution mattered more when early laser printers could manage only a chunky-looking 300 dpi.

Once 600 dpi and higher resolutions became available, image quality improved across the board. Many vendors enhance the true resolution to make it look even better. Color lasers usually have a maximum resolution of either 2400 by 1200 or 2400 by 600 dpi. Even those fairly modest resolutions for lasers suffice for printing sharp text and simple grayscale graphics.

Major consideration: memory. Low-end lasers in a home or small office can rely on the host PC for all or most of the needed memory, but networked printers require their own to perform efficiently. More memory lets you print more documents more quickly, or upload fonts for higher-quality text. Most high-end lasers include at least 64MB of RAM, with expansion options permitting up to a gigabyte of memory for queuing multiple print jobs at once. For a busy office, equip your laser with at least 128MB to 256MB of memory.

Major consideration: connections. A USB port is all that most home or small-office users need to connect a printer to a single PC. Business users or those with home networks will want an ethernet port or Wi-Fi capability. Some high-end business models have an infrared (IrDA) port option, which allows laptop or PDA users to print by pointing their infrared ports at the printer, or a USB port for printing from a USB-connected flash drive.

Major consideration: paper tray capacity. Make sure the printer can hold enough paper to accommodate all your users without excessive refilling. For home and small-office users, low-end lasers’ 100-sheet to 150-sheet main trays are adequate. Lasers designed for a networked office usually start at 250 or 500 sheets standard, with additional paper trays for greater quantities or different sizes of media.

Printer Shopping Tips
Shopping considerations include the cost of cartridge or toner refills. We’ll also list things to watch out for when shopping for an inkjet or a laser printer.

Refilling the Tank: Ink and Toner Cartridges
Some people suggest that you can save significantly on the cost of printing each page by buying ink and toner made by a company other than your printer’s manufacturer. That’s fine, if you want just the cheapest possible printing for short-lived documents. If print quality is paramount, however, you’re taking a risk.

For example, at the temperatures applied by your printer’s engine, generic toner may not fix to the paper as well as the manufacturer’s compound. The result could be poorly shaped characters and gray banding across the page–and that’s not a great way to impress a potential customer.
There are several ways to spend less on ink and paper for your printer.

Several laser printer manufacturers sell toner cartridges at a discount if you return empty cartridges for recycling. Lexmark, for instance, charges $115 for each 3000-page color cartridge for its C534n model if you return it, but a nonreturnable version costs $145. In part, this policy is intended to discourage customers from refilling the cartridges, but it can also help save the environment.

Other manufacturers have programs for recycling their inkjet and toner cartridges. For example, HP includes postage-paid shipping materials with most of its printers for returning used cartridges, but you can also order them from its Web site. Brother and Oki offer similar programs through their Web sites. Konica Minolta includes prepaid shipping labels with its new cartridges for returning the used part.

Your local school or charity may participate in a collection program that helps it raise funds. You can also look for an office supply store that pays you a small sum or offers a discount in exchange for refillable cartridges. Check out our report for other tips on staying green.

Inkjet Printer Considerations
Speed: Manufacturers often list faster print speed specifications on their packaging than we see in testing.

Photo printing: If you plan to print mostly photos, look for inkjets with features such as media card readers, a paper tray that fits photo paper, and an LCD panel that allows you to view and print an image without using your PC. Also look for bundled image editing software.

Laser Printer Considerations

Text only? If you print lots of text-only documents, consider buying an inexpensive monochrome laser printer. They’re very simple and affordable to operate, and these days even the least-expensive monochrome lasers consistently pass our rigorous tests for quality output and performance.

High-yield cartridges: When buying toner for laser printers, seek out high-yield cartridges. Many manufacturers produce cartridges for the same printer that come in larger capacities at a better price.

Print speed: PC World tests consistently find that color laser printers generate color graphics more slowly than the manufacturers claim they do. If print speed is a factor for you, always check the speeds on the latest Top Color Laser Printers chart listed at PC World’s Printers Info Center before deciding on a model.

Recyclability: Most printer vendors accept spent toner cartridges for recycling. Make sure your vendor has a recycling program in place, or explore options through your local office store or recycling center.

Snapshot Printer Considerations

Speed: You buy these printers for fun rather than for speed. If you need faster output, buy an inkjet with a paper tray that fits photo paper. Manufacturers often list faster print speed specifications on their packaging than we see in testing.

Features: Look for a bright, well-designed LCD panel with menus that allow you to select and print your photos easily without a PC. Make sure the printer you’re interested in has a slot for your specific media card.

Overall value: Look for snapshot printers that handle paper sizes up to 5 by 7 inches and have a lower cost per page; the lowest we’ve seen recently is about 25 cents per photo.

Paul Jasper, Dave Johnson, Melissa Riofrio, and Susan Silvius contributed to this buying guide.

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