How to Choose a Printer For Your Needs
Essays. Coupons. Last-minute directions to Grandma’s house. Whatever you need to print, there’s a home printer that can do it. And intense competition among competitors such as HP, Epson, Canon, and others has forced prices to such absurd lows that you can now walk into a store — even your local supermarket — and walk out with a new printer for $60 or less.
But selecting a home printer can be tough given the sheer number of options on the market, not to mention the convoluted terms that only seem to complicate the process. With that in mind, we’ve put together a quick-and-dirty buying guide for selecting a home printer, with simple explanations of some of the most common terms and recommendations that will serve the majority of users.
Inkjet or laser?
The first question all printer buyers must tackle comes down to a simple matter of what and how much you plan on printing. Inkjet printers use cartridges of ink that are applied wet to the paper and rapidly dry, while laser printers use toner, a type of ink dust that bonds to the paper for fast results and efficient resource use.
Color inkjet printers comprise the bulk of the market simply because they can print just about anything: Essays, pie charts, or glossy photos, you name it. And today’s inkjet printers and all-in-ones are fast, often with print speeds that rival or surpass their laser counterparts.
Laser printers are still a good bet for office settings when most of the printing that you need to do is in monochrome. For the most part, monochrome laser printers can be purchased at affordable prices, offer good print speed, and in most cases, provide prints at a lower cost per page than a color inkjet. But you have to decide whether to give up the flexibility that a color inkjet printer offers. Color laser printers are another option, but they generally have a higher cost per page printed than a color inkjet.
In the past, laser printers have offered a higher page yield per cartridge than an inkjet printer. That’s changing, however, with some newer inkjet printers offering as many as 10,000 printed pages from a monochrome ink cartridge and 7,000 pages or more from each color cartridge. That translates into a lower cost per page, and less frequent cartridge changes.
A multifunction printer is a printer that can also scan and fax as well as print. They come in both inkjet and laser varieties, and are usually called “all-in-ones.”
For home use, a multifunction unit makes a lot of sense, not only because it’s cheaper than buying a printer and a standalone scanner, but also for the sake of saving room. Since all-in-ones are extremely common and manufacturers rarely charge much of a premium for them (you can often find some for as little as $50-$60), we highly recommend them for home users.
Scanning is particularly useful as part of your printer, since it makes it easy to scan documents directly to your computer. Faxing features are hit or miss: They’re more likely to be used in the office, but even then faxing has largely faded out of the business world except in a few select industries, so the added value isn’t great.
If you’re more interested in preserving family photos on paper than printing off homework assignments and pie charts, consider a dedicated (single function) photo printer. Though they lack the flexibility of multitaskers, the quality of prints is typically better, and often rivals or exceeds the quality of what you would receive from a kiosk or mail-order service like Shutterfly. The price you’ll pay for this kind of convenience comes out in the print cost, however.
Many of the printers sold only for dedicated photo or graphic use are small-size units capable of printing photos up to 4 x 6 inches in size, or wide format models designed to print media up to 24 inches wide. Supplies for these specialty printers are also generally more expensive than those for the typical multifunction printer. Both Canon and Epson have models that print 8.5 x 11 inches and use five or six colors of ink to produce photos with greater color accuracy. And many all-in-one devices are capable of turning out photos up to 8.5 x 11 inches in size when you use the right paper.
Speed, resolution, and color claims
It used to be fairly easy for a printer manufacturer to make outrageous claims about how fast their printers were or what you could expect as far as page yield from an ink or toner cartridge is concerned. Today, nearly all vendors use a standardized set of tests developed and licensed to them by the International Standards Organization. The ISO test protocols provide a level playing field — all the claims and ratings are developed using the same document sets and the same test procedures. Important specs include:
PPM: This means “pages per minute” and is a guide to how fast a printer can print pages. That seems simple enough, but ppm can quickly grow complex. For example, printers have very different ppms for black-and-white versus color, so it’s common for many printers to provide two different ppms if they are color-focused. PPM isn’t especially important for home printers unless you find yourself under time pressure for a print job, or need to print a lot at once. Average black-and-white ppm is around 15-20 pages. Color tends to be less, at around 10-15 pages per minute.
DPI: This refers to “dots per inch” or how many dots of ink the printer can apply to a square inch of paper. This spec is useful in studying just how good a printer is at creating high-resolution, high-detail images. However, it’s also a little outdated: Newer printing methods and software can enhance the resolution of a printed image without changing the DPI, so don’t let it be the ultimate deciding spec.
Duty cycle: This number is how many pages per month a printer can reasonably be expected to print. You want your expected number of pages per month to be well below this number, so your printer doesn’t experience as much wear and tear. It’s an important number for a busy office with lots of printing needs, but it’s less important for the typically less-intense home use.
Use these specs as a basis for comparing one device with another, but remember that they aren’t all-encompassing factors, especially if you have other features that you’re looking for.
Remember the mantra “give away the razor, sell the blades”? That century-old business model is still alive and well in the printer business, where many companies entice consumers with unimaginably low prices on their budget printers, knowing they can milk them over and over again when it comes time to replace the ink cartridges.
Research the cost of replacement supplies before you buy any printer to know what you’re in for when the initial cartridges finally run dry. Depending on how often you plan to print, it can actually be worth it to purchase a more expensive printer in order to buy into a cheaper line of cartridges. Also, look into the possibility of refilling your own cartridges, which can cost dramatically less than buying new cartridges every time. Keep in mind, however, that printer vendors now add tiny chips to their cartridges that track ink or toner life to make refilling more difficult.
Finally, investigate new models and ink plans. HP offers an Instant Ink program that automatically sends you cartridges when your ink runs low, and promises a fixed number of pages for a fixed monthly fee. Both Canon and Epson now offer “ink tank” models which you can fill from small bottles of ink, providing a very economical cost per page, while Brother has a number of printers with multiple cartridges in the box so you needn’t run out to buy refills for quite some time.
One feature that’s becoming very common, and that we consider a big plus, is automatic duplexing. Duplexing refers to printing or scanning both sides of the page without requiring that you manually flip the page over. On a printer, duplexing is accomplished by printing the first side of the page, pulling the page back through the printer, flipping it over, and printing the other side.
Many all-in-one devices with an automatic document feeder (ADF) for the scanner also have duplexing, allowing you to scan both sides of the page as the document feeds through the ADF. An all-in-one without an automatic document feeder can’t duplex scan without you turning the page over on the scan glass.
Duplex scanning is a major convenience if you frequently scan two-sided pages, like those torn from a magazine. And duplex printing is almost a must these days, helping you save paper when single-side printing isn’t necessary.
Today, nearly every printing device offers multiple connectivity options. USB has been the standard interface for years, and every computer has several USB ports. Because USB is generally a short, direct connection, it requires that the printer or AIO be located near the PC or laptop. There are some wireless routers outfitted with USB ports, however, which you can use to connect to a printer and thus enable wireless printing on a home network.
But most modern printers can now be shared by multiple devices via a network. That could be via Ethernet, where you connect a cable to the router or switch in your network. Ethernet also makes for a faster connection. However, this wired setup is more common in an office environment than in the home, so few low-end models will have a built-in Ethernet port.
More common is Wi-Fi, which has become the most popular method of home networking, and just about every new printer sold for the home or small business has Wi-Fi capabilities. Many even offer one-button wireless setup — if the router it’s being connected to supports it — making network pairing a snap. A newer option called Wi-Fi Direct also lets you connect your printer directly to a device, as seen in technology like Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print.
NFC (Near-Field Communication) is also available on some models, letting you connect your printer to a smartphone or tablet by simply touching the device to a specified area on your printer.
Memory card slots, PictBridge, and the cloud
If you plan to print a lot of photos, consider a printer with built-in memory slots, Bluetooth capabilities, PictBridge, or cloud-based support. All will allow you to print photos directly from a camera or smart device, preventing you from having to transfer them to a computer first. Memory cards can be popped out of the camera and into a slot on your printer. Some printers even have a multi-format card reader, while some support only the more popular Secure Digital, or SD, format.
PictBridge-enabled cameras, on the other hand, can be plugged into a printer with the same USB cable you might use to connect to a PC — assuming your printer is equipped with a PictBridge-capable USB port — while cloud-based connectivity allows you to send photos directly from Google Cloud Print, Dropbox, and other internet-based services. Just don’t overestimate the usefulness of these convenience features. You may still want to transfer your photos to a computer in order to empty your memory card, and most photographers will want to examine their prints on a bigger screen before printing them.
Many fully featured printers, particularly AIOs, now offer internet-based features that let you access photos stored on sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox, and Google Drive, as well as remote printing and access to arts and crafts you can print out. Keep in mind that if your printer isn’t connected to the internet, you won’t be able to access said services or print to it remotely from devices such as a smartphone or tablet.
Every printer will feed on a fat stack of 8.5 x 11 paper, but what about legal envelopes, index cards, and glossy stock? Thankfully, many printers now include dedicated feed trays for printing on specialty papers with unusual sizes or different weights, which can make them easier to deal with them. Also consider the size of the input tray. Smaller trays, for instance, will require you to add paper all the time, while a 250-page hopper can make it a once-a-month affair.
Some models targeted at the home office user also offer an optional second tray, which lets you use a different paper stock, check stock, or just double the paper capacity so you don’t have to refill the paper supply as often.
Printers for the modern paperless home
Many printer buyers in the 2020s face a conundrum of a different sort: Their homes are largely paperless, and most of their work is digital. However, they still need a printer around for the occasional photo art project or scanning and sending in a signature. To buyers like these, a big printer may not be worth it, especially when it comes to the space they take up and their ink cartridge maintenance.
A new type of printer has risen in popularity in response — compact, often-portable home printers that are made for the odd job here and there without taking up any space or effort. One example is the Canon Pixma iP110 wireless printer. Another choice is the highly portable HP Tango X. Printers like these are designed to work right from your phone or laptop and can fit nearly anywhere.