Consider supply costs as well as price
High ink- or toner-cartridge costs can make even bargain-priced printer a bad deal in the long run. Printers use ink in two ways—one is to produce documents, while the other is to do maintenance on the print heads. That means that even if you rarely use your printer, the machine will be consuming ink. Our testing takes both kinds of ink usage into account.
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.
Also consider whether an inkjet has a single or separate color cartridges. Those with a single color cartridge usually have a separate black cartridge for text. But some have individual color cartridges. Depending on how often you print photos, and what they look like, separate color cartridges may be more economical.
Another way to save money is by using plain paper and low-quality printing modes for works in progress and saving the good stuff for your final results. And this is particularly useful if you are planning to print photos. Glossy photo paper costs about 25 cents to $1 a sheet. We got the best results using the recommended brand of paper. You might be tempted to buy a cheaper brand, but lower-grade paper can reduce photo quality.
Do you want to print photos without a computer?
Features such as a memory-card reader, support for PictBridge (a standard that allows a compatible camera to be connected directly to the printer), and 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.
Weigh convenience features
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 8½x11-inch paper.
All printers have a USB port for connecting to a computer. Most 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.
Understand memory requirements
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.
Be skeptical of vendor specs
When shopping for a printer, you'll notice that brands publish 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.
In particular, print speed varies depending on what you're printing and at what quality, but the speeds you see in ads are generally higher than what you'll get in normal use. Once again, methods for arriving at sprint speeds vary. At Consumer Reports, we run identical tests on all models, printing both text pages and photos to put together our printer Ratings.
Don't get hung up on resolution
A printer's stated resolution, expressed in dots per inch, is a potential source of confusion. All things being equal, the more dots a printer puts on the paper, the more detailed the image will be. But dot size, shape, and placement also affect quality, so don't base your choice solely on the resolution spec.