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Printers

Printer buying guide

Last updated: September 2015

Getting started

Inkjets have become the standard type of printer for home-computer use. They can turn out color photos nearly indistinguishable from lab-processed photos, along with stickers, transparencies, T-shirt transfers, and greeting cards. Many produce excellent black-and-white text. And some very good models sell for less than $200, much less than laser printers.

However, laser models still have their place in home offices. If you print reams of black-and-white text documents, you probably will prefer the quality, speed, and low per-copy cost of a laser printer.  

Before you start shopping you have two major choices to make. First, do you want an inkjet or a laser model? Second, you need to decide whether you want a plain printer or an all-in-one unit that can also make copies and perform other functions. Here's a rundown on the factors that might go into those decisions. 

Choice one: inkjet or laser?

Text only. If you'll print only text, a laser printer is your best choice. The best inkjets can match lasers' excellent text quality and cost per page of printing, but not their speed.

Color text and graphics. For printing graphics or text in black and color, go with an inkjet. Though you can find color laser jets for less than $250, they are still more expensive than their monochrome counterparts. And unlike black-and-white laser printers, they use four toner cartridges that can result in costs higher than that of an inkjet, even considering the greater capacity of a laser's toner cartridge.

Text, graphics, and photos. 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.

Choice two: plain or all-in-one?

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.

Printing only. For the money, plain inkjets are the best choice for printing text and color photos. Most can print almost anything, including photos, text, and oddly sized items such as greeting cards.

Printing, copying, scanning, and faxing—black text only. Here you might want an all-in-one laser printer for its superior print quality and speed. Most have feeders for multipage copying.  

Printing, copying, and scanning text, graphics, and photos. Inkjets excel at printing photos, so if you need to go beyond plain text, choose an all-in-one inkjet. The best models can produce excellent color photos and text, and most will print photos without a computer, by accepting a memory card. A few can fax as well as copy and scan. However, most all-in-one printers have fewer features that stand-alone scanners, though.

Printing photos only. We haven't mentioned these yet, but one category of printers specializes in printing photos. So-called snapshot models are convenient, small, and fast, with speeds as quick as a minute per 4x6 photo. Some run on batteries, making them 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. However, most models can only print small photos, and in our testing snapshot printers didn't provide the photo quality of the best plain inkjets. At $100 to $200, they don't represent a cost-savings, either. Most users will like an inkjet better.

More factors to consider

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.

Consider connections

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.

Types

We've already told you how to choose between inkjets and laser printers; here are details on how each technology works.

Inkjet printers

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.

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

Printing a 4x6 snapshot can take less than a minute, and cost as little as 25 cents. The cost of printing a color 8x10 photo can range from $1 to $2 or more, including ink and paper. The cost of printing a black-text page with an inkjet varies considerably from model to model, but it typically falls between 2 and 7 cents. Printer prices range from just $30 to $400.

Laser printers

Laser printers 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 20 ppm. Black-and-white lasers generally cost about as much as midpriced inkjets. Laser cartridges, about $50 to $100, can print thousands of black-and-white pages for a cost of 2 to 5 cents per page.

Lasers that can be networked start at around $150.

All-in-one laser printers add scanning, copying, and sometimes fax capability.

Color lasers are slower than black-and-white models. They cost as much to use as the better inkjet models, and they're not a good choice for printing photos. They're also very bulky. They cost $250 and up.

All-in-one printers

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 start below $100.

In our tests, inkjet all-in-ones and plain inkjets performed similarly, cost about the same to use, and printed at similar speeds. A few inkjet all-in-ones and plain inkjets printed a color 4x6 in under a minute, and a few relatively frugal ones printed the photo for as little as 25 cents.

Whether you choose an inkjet or a laser all-in-one, look for one with a flatbed design, so you can copy books, photos, and similar items.

Features


USB port

The way a printer connects to a computer depends on what kind of connectivity it has. All printers have USB ports.

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or infrared wireless

Typically, printers have optional Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and/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.

Memory-card reader

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.

LCD viewer

Many printers incorporate a built-in LCD screen for viewing and editing images from a memory card. A few printers have screens that are 4 inches or more in width, but most are smaller.

Ink monitor

Most inkjet printers have an ink monitor to warn when you're running low, but accuracy varies.

Networking

Networking lets you print from any computer in either a wired or wireless home network.

Internet connectivity

Some all-in-one printers can communicate directly with the Internet, running apps that enable you to print online content directly, or to send documents to your home printer from a remote computer.

Double-sided printing

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.

Recycled parts

Companies are finding new uses for recycled plastics. HP, for example, has designed the print head on one of its photo printers using 55 percent recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) plastic derived from ink cartridges collected through its HP Planet Partners recycling program.

You can also buy printer cartridges that have been recycled, refilled, or rebuilt.  

Brands

Brother arrow  |  Canon arrow  |  Dell arrow  |  Epson arrow  |  HP arrow  |  LG arrow  |  OKI arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Samsung arrow

Brother

Brother produces both laser and inkjet printers for a variety of consumers at different price points.

Canon

Canon offers every type of printer for different target audiences at all price points.

Dell

Dell, a well-recognized computer brand, offers laser printers from low to high price ranges.

Epson

Epson has recently replaced some old brand lines with new naming conventions. Available at all price ranges, their printers accommodate all types of consumer needs.

HP

HP continues to have the largest market share in this category. With a plethora of products announced throughout the year, its offerings target all types of consumers.

LG

Currently LG has a mobile bluetooth printer available. It's a niche product.

OKI

OKI specializes in mostly commercial printers but the company does offer some printers with LED technology for small workgroups.

Panasonic

Panasonic offers laser printers for the small business/home office market.

Samsung

Samsung offers laser printers for office environments.

How to save on printing costs

Choosing your ink and paper

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 that per-page costs are often comparable. You can save on ink by use draft, or low-quality, modes for early versions of a document; save your best printing mode for the final product.

Another way to save money is to avoid using glossy photo paper for anything other than photographs. The paper costs about 25 cents to $1 a sheet. (We got the best results using the recommended brand of paper. You may be tempted to buy a cheaper brand, but lower-grade or incompatible paper can reduce photo quality.)

Avoid blank pages

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.

Print fewer pages

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 have a built-in duplexer to print on both sides of the page.

Power it down

Many of today's printers conserve power, especially during periods of inactivity. The power scores in our printer Ratings (available to subscribers) indicate which models do so most effectively. But you can always turn off your printer to save on energy.

Seek efficiency

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 the Energy Star website: www.energystar.gov.

Recycle cartridges

Programs to recycle used ink and toner cartridges reduce waste and can save money. Some are easy to take advantage of.

At Brother's website, 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 small financial credit for Dell, HP, and Lexmark cartridges.

   

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