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Buying Guide

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Printer Buying Guide

Finding the Right Printer

These days, many documents and photos live on laptop drives or on cloud services. But you still need a great printer to make your vacation snaps or quarterly reports into physical realities you can hang on a wall or hand out at a meeting. Printers have become less expensive and increasingly tricked-out over time. You can pick up a basic inkjet for well under $100, or spend $400 for some models that come packed with additional features. Here’s how to find the best printer for your needs. 


Finding the Right Printer


Choose the Right Style: Plain or All-in-One

A plain printer’s only function is to print. So if you don’t need to scan, copy, or fax—or you own other machines to do those tasks—one of these is best for you. Models start well below $100. 

You can get a printer that also provides scanning, copying, and (sometimes) faxing capabilities. Many all-in-ones cost no more and take up little more space than a plain printer. And an all-in-one can be less expensive than several separate devices added together. Note that most all-in-one printers have fewer features than stand-alone scanners, copiers, and fax machines. If you need to do very sophisticated scanning, for example, a separate scanner will have more options. And speaking of scanners, always look for a model with a flatbed design, as opposed to one that scans through the paper feed. This will allow you to copy not only documents but also book pages and photos. A few all-in-one printers have built-in duplexers to automatically print on both sides of the page.



Choose Between Inkjet and Laser

Depending on what you print most frequently, your second choice is between an inkjet and a laser printer. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.


If you typically print a combination of text, graphics, and photos, an inkjet is the way to go. Most can print almost anything, and they particularly excel at photos.

Most inkjets output black-and-white text at 3 to 13 pages per minute, but are much slower for color photos. Models we tested took from 1.5 to 10 minutes or more for a single high-quality 8x10.

The cost of a color 8x10 photo ranges from $1 to $2 or more. Printing a black-text page with an inkjet varies, but typically falls between 2 and 7 cents.

Some inkjets can also make borderless prints, most commonly on 4x6 paper. If you plan to do this often, look for a printer with a 4x6-inch or second paper tray, which makes it easier to feed paper this size.

Printing a 4x6 snapshot can take less than a minute, and cost as little as 25 cents.


If you'll print only black and white text documents–and a lot of them–a laser printer makes the most sense.

Laser printers produce sharp black-and-white text, but are not well suited for printing photos. Even models that print in color aren't intended for use with glossy photo stock or other specialty papers, and the photo quality is quite poor.

Lasers typically can’t accommodate unusually sized papers (such as 4x6 or greeting cards), either.

Laser printers usually outperform inkjets in terms of speed, cranking out black-and-white text at a rate of 12 to 20 pages per minute.

Black-and-white lasers generally cost about as much as mid-priced inkjet models. Laser cartridges, which cost from about $50 to $100, can print thousands of black-and-white pages for 2 to 5 cents per page. 


Get Connected

Your printer can now be as connected as your other electronics equipment, communicating with devices across the room or anywhere in the world. Some printers allow you to print online content directly; you may also be able to send documents to your home printer from a remote computer.

Share Without Cables
Most home printers allow for wireless printing through Wi-Fi, and some printers have Bluetooth and/or infrared wireless connectivity, as well. That allows you to print from a laptop or phone without even getting on your Wi-Fi network.

Print Without a Computer
A printer with PictBridge can connect directly from a digital camera, and some models can print and download photos right from your camera's memory card.

Print From Anywhere
This new technology allows you to connect your printer directly to the web. You can give permission to anyone you choose to make prints on your home or office printer. Google Cloud Print and Apple AirPrint work from your phone, tablet, notebook, PA, and any other web-connected device.


Factor in Ink Costs

Printer ink may be one of the most expensive liquids you buy, especially when you consider that a lot of it never ends up on the page—printers use up ink for routine maintenance. To find out which models make the most of this precious commodity, check out the "Maintenance Ink Use" column of our printer ratings.

Illustration: Chris Philpot