Smart Shopping: Printers
If you'll print only text, a laser printer is your best choice for fast, low-cost, top-quality black-and-white text. The best inkjet can match lasers' excellent text quality, but not their speed or cost.
For printing graphics or text in black and color, go with an inkjet. Though you can find them for less than $250, color laser printers are still more expensive than their monochrome counterparts. And unlike black-and-white laser printers, they use ink that results in costs higher than that of an inkjet, even considering the greater output of a laser's toner cartridge.
While tops for text, lasers aren't well-suited for printing photos. Even models that can print in color aren't intended for use with glossy photo stock or other specialty papers, and photo quality is poor. Inkjets offer excellent print quality for photos and text, and accept a variety of paper types and sizes. Most can print photos directly from a digital camera. But keep in mind that ink cartridges don't last long, so supply costs can be high. Inkjets also print slower than lasers do.
Inkjet and laser printers are available either as plain printers or as all-in-one (multifunction) models. Besides printing, all-in-ones copy, scan, and sometimes fax. A space-saving all-in-one can be less expensive than buying several separate devices.
For the money, plain inkjets are the best choice for printing text and color photos. Most can print almost anything, including photos up to 8.5 x 11 inches or larger, text, and graphical items such as greeting cards. You can use various types and sizes of paper, from business cards to banners.
If you don't need to print or scan color photos, an all-in-one laser provides superior quality, faster print speed, and a lower cost per page. Most have a feeder for multipage copying. The downside of any multifunction device, whether inkjet or laser, is that if one function breaks, you have to repair or replace the whole unit.
Inkjets excel at printing photos, so if you need them, go with an all-in-one inkjet. The best can produce excellent color photos and text, and most will print photos without a computer. A few can fax as well as copy and scan. They may have fewer features than stand-alone scanners, though.
Snapshot printers are convenient, small, and fast, with speeds as quick as a minute per 4x6 photo. Some have handles and run on batteries, handy for use on the road. All can print photos from a digital camera without requiring a computer. Many models use dye-sublimation technology to make prints that are more water-resistant than those from inkjets. The drawback is that snapshot printers can print only small photos; they're not intended for text or graphics. In our tests, most didn't provide the photo quality of the best plain inkjets, and at $100 to $200, they cost about the same as a full-sized printer.
High ink- or toner-cartridge costs can make a bargain-priced printer a bad deal in the long run. Shop around for the best cartridge prices, but be wary of off-brands. We have found that brand-name ink cartridges have better print quality and fade-resistance, and per-page costs are often comparable.
This saves you an extra step and a little time. Features such as a memory-card reader, PictBridge support (a standard that allows a compatible camera to be connected directly to the printer), or a wireless interface are convenient. Without the computer, though, you lose the ability to tweak image characteristics such as size, color, and brightness. You can do some editing on a printer that has an LCD screen, but your options will be very limited.
Inkjets can make borderless prints like those from a photo finisher. That matters most if you're printing to the full size of the paper, as you might with 4x6-inch sheets. If you plan to use 4x6-inch paper regularly, look for a printer with a 4x6-inch tray or a second paper tray, which makes it easier to feed paper this size. With those small sheets, though, the cost per photo might be higher than combining a few images on 81/2 x 11-inch paper. With some models, to use the photo inks to get the best picture quality, you must remove the black-ink cartridge and replace it with a photo-ink cartridge. Then, to print text or graphics, you must reinsert the black cartridge. Models that hold all the ink tanks simultaneously eliminate that hassle.
All printers have a USB port for connecting to a computer. Many also offer wired or wireless networking, which lets you print from any computer on your network. You can share a printer that lacks this feature, but the computer it's connected to must be turned on in order to print from a different computer.
While inkjet printers use a computer's memory to process the print job, laser printers have their own onboard memory, which must be large enough to hold full pages of the most complex graphics you need to print. If you print large files with a lot of graphics or have multiple users on your network, look for a laser with at least hundreds of MB of onboard memory, or the ability to add more.
When shopping for a printer you'll notice a number of specs, such as print speed and resolution. Those numbers are not all that useful, even for comparison purposes, because each company performs its tests in a different manner.
Print speed varies depending on what you're printing and at what quality, but the speeds you see in ads are generally higher than you're likely to get in normal use. You can't reliably compare speeds for different brands because each company uses its own methods to measure speed. We run identical tests on all models, printing text pages and photos that are similar to what you might print. Thus the print times in our Ratings are realistic and can be compared across brands.
A printer's resolution, expressed in dots per inch, is another potential source of confusion. All things being equal, the more dots a printer puts on the paper, the more detailed the image. But dot size, shape, and placement also affect quality, so don't base your choice solely on resolution.
Inkjets use droplets of ink to form letters, graphics, and photos. Some have one cartridge that holds the cyan (greenish-blue), magenta, and yellow inks, plus a second one for black. Others have a separate cartridge for each color. For photos, many inkjets have additional cartridges that contain lighter cyan and magenta inks, or gray ink, which can give a smoother look in light areas of a photo.
These work much like plain-paper copiers, forming images by transferring toner (powdered ink) to paper passing over an electrically charged drum. The process yields sharp black-and-white text. Laser printers usually outrun inkjets, cranking out black-and-white text at a rate of 12 to 18 ppm. Black-and-white lasers generally cost about as much as midpriced inkjets, but they're less expensive to operate. Laser cartridges, about $50 to $100, can print thousands of black-and-white pages for a cost of 2 to 3 cents per page.
You can also get printers with scanning, copying, and sometimes fax capability. Many all-in-ones cost no more and take up little more space than a plain printer. What's more, all-in-ones are actually getting less expensive and more versatile. They cost $60 and up.
For printing photos at home, a speedy snapshot printer can be more convenient than a full-sized model. Most are limited to 4x6-inch snapshots, but a few models can also print on 5x7 paper. Snapshot printers use either inkjet or dye-sublimation technology, in which a waxy ink is fused to paper from a roll of plastic film.
These smaller versions of inkjet printers are good for executives -- or others -- on the go. Most have a built-in battery in addition to an external power cord. And they come equipped with memory card readers so you can print photos without a computer. What they lack in speed, they make up in portability. They're lightweight and can fit into a briefcase or backpack.
The way a printer connects to a computer depends on what kind of connectivity it has. All printers have a USB port that lets them connect to Windows or Mac computers.
Many printers have optional Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or infrared wireless connectivity. A printer with PictBridge can connect directly to a camera, and some models can print and download photos right from your camera's memory card.
This feature lets you print image files from a digital camera's memory card without using a computer. You can also transfer the files to a computer.
Many printers incorporate a built-in LCD screen for viewing and editing images from a memory card. The screen is small, usually only 1 to 3.5 inches, and editing capability is very limited.
Printers differ in the detail they can produce. Resolution, expressed in dots per inch (dpi), is often touted as the main measure of print quality. But other factors, such as the number of inks and the way dot patterns are formed on the paper, are also important.
Most inkjet printers have an ink monitor to warn when you're running low, but accuracy varies.
Networking lets you print from any computer in either a wired or wireless home network.
For double-sided printing, you can print the odd-numbered pages of a document first, and then flip those pages over to print the even-numbered pages on a second pass. A few printers make this process easier by incorporating built-in duplexers for automatically printing on both sides.
Offerings include standard black-and-white and color laser printers, and all-in-one inkjets and lasers. For the widest selection at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection also has a wide range of choices, and Amazon, Costco, and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices.
Its line of Pixma inkjets are available as all-in-one and standard models. You'll find plenty of choices in range of functionality and price, with costs ranging from about $50 to $400. Canon's imageClass multifunction laser models start at about $200. Canon Selphy printers are for snapshots. For the widest selection of Canon printers at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection and PCMall also have a wide selection, while Amazon, Costco, and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices.
Offerings include all-in-one lasers and inkjets, plus standard laser and inkjet models. The company's Web site is the best place for buying its printers, with better-than-average selection.
The PictureMate line of snapshot printers includes the Dash and Zoom models. Stylus printers are geared toward home users, while the WorkForce line targets small and home-based businesses. Both include standard and all-in-one models. A new series, Artisan, will replace the Stylus models. For the widest selection of Epson printers at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection and PCMall also have a wide selection, while Amazon, Costco, and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices.
Its Photosmart printers are ink-jets for those whose emphasis is on printing photos. The Officejet line, also an ink-jet brand, is geared more toward home offices and small businesses. Laserjets are laser printers available as black-and-white and color models in standard and all-in-one configurations. The Deskjet line is for simpler tasks, while the Business Inkjet is a higher-priced professional model. The Designjet series is for high-end graphics printing. For the widest selection of HP printers at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection, PCMall, and HP's own Web site also have a broad selection, while Amazon, Costco, and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices.
Lines include several all-in-one EasyShare printers and a couple of snapshot printers. For the best selection of Kodak printers, try PCConnection.
Offers several lines of standard and all-in-one inkjets, as well as lasers, in a broad price range. The "Z" series is a group of compact plain inkjets that starts at $35. It also has a line of color lasers. Two new lines are the Professional and the Home & Student series. For the widest selection of Lexmark printers at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection's site also has a wide selection, while Tiger Direct offers better prices.
Before printing Web pages, preview them to avoid generating lots of blank pages. Some printer manufacturers, such as HP, offer software that helps you cut paper use. A free program called GreenPrint (www.printgreener.com) analyzes pages you want to print and skips those with little or no content.
You can use more of a page by decreasing a document's margins, using a smaller font size, or avoiding double line spacing. Also, some printers, including the Canon Pixma MP610 inkjet all-in-one that we recommend, have a built-in duplexer to print on both sides of the page.
Many printers have more than one quality setting. Figure out which is best for you. If you're not printing photos, which should be printed at the best quality setting, consider using a lower, or "draft," mode, which should use less ink. Note that we don't recommend cheap off-brand inks for performance reasons.
Many of today's printers conserve power, especially during periods of inactivity. The power scores in the Ratings indicate which models do so most effectively.
When choosing a printer we haven't rated, look for an Energy Star label. The Environmental Protection Agency recently toughened qualifications for the label. To be awarded one, a printer must consume very little power when not printing. For details, go to www.energystar.gov.
Programs to recycle used ink and toner cartridges reduce waste and can save money. Some are easy to take advantage of. At Brother's Web site, for example, you can print a prepaid shipping label to send your used cartridge back to the company. HP also offers free cartridge recycling. Office Depot, OfficeMax, and Staples let you drop off used cartridges at local stores and offer a $3 credit for Dell, HP, and Lexmark cartridges.