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Printers

Printer buying guide

Last updated: August 2014

Getting started

Inkjet printers have become the standard 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. With some very good models selling for less than $200, it's no surprise that inkjets account for the vast majority of printers sold for home use.

Laser printers still have their place in home offices. If you print reams of black-and-white text documents, you probably need the quality, speed, and low per-copy cost of a laser printer. Printers use a computer's microprocessor and memory to process data. The latest inkjets and lasers are so fast partly because computers have become more powerful and contain much more memory than before.

Before you start shopping, decide whether to get an inkjet or a laser model, and a plain printer or an all-in-one. You can base your decision on what you'll be printing. This printer guide will help.

Inkjet vs. laser

Text only. 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 and cost, 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 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 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. 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.

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 up to 8x10 inches or larger, text, and graphical items such as greeting cards. You can also use various types and sizes of paper.

Printing, copying, scanning, and faxing black text

If you don't need to print or scan color photos, an all-in-one laser provides superior quality and faster print speed. 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.

Printing, copying, and scanning text, graphics, and photos

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.

Printing photos only

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.

How to choose

Consider supply costs as well as price. High ink- or toner-cartridge costs can make a bargain-priced printer a bad deal in the long run. Also, consider our maintenance ink usage rating, which reflects the extra ink used by an inkjet printer to maintain its print heads during light, intermittent use. 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 your photos, separate color cartridges may be more economical.

Another way to save money is by using plain paper for works in progress and saving the good stuff for the final results. 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?

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.

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. 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.

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 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.

Your speed may vary

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.

Don't get hung up on resolution

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.

Types

Inexpensive inkjets print color superbly, and they do it faster than ever. Laser printers excel at printing black-and-white text. Economical all-in-one models can scan, copy, and sometimes fax. Here's how to find the type of printer that best suits you needs.

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 as little as 1 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, typically between 2 and 7 cents. Printer prices range from $30 to $400.

Laser printers


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 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--shared by all the computers on a home network--start at $130.

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 cost $60 and up.

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 one minute, and a few relatively frugal ones printed one 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 other items you can't, or don't want to, put through the slot on a sheet-fed model.

Specialty snapshot printers


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.

Like most full-sized inkjet printers, these models typically hook up directly by cable to a digital camera through a PictBridge connection, or print directly from your camera's memory card so you can print without using a computer. They cost $100 to $200.

Some snapshot printers have handles and can run on batteries, handy for use on the road. The drawback of snapshot printers is they can print only small photos; they aren't intended for text or graphics. In our tests, most didn't provide the photo quality of the best full-sized inkjets, and at $100 to $200, they cost about the same.

Mobile or personal printers


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.

Features


To determine which printer features you'll need, consider how you'll be using your printer and what you need to print. If you're printing photos, you'll need a memory card reader, PictBridge compatibility, or some other form of connectivity. And if you're planning to network your printer to a number of computers, look for that capability too.

USB port


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.

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or infrared wireless

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.

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 even send printing to your home 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.

Printing on CD/DVD.

Some models will let you print your own labels directly on special CDs and DVDs with blank white backs.

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. For more information, read our glossary of printer terms.

Brands

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

Major players in Inkjet Printers include Hewlett-Packard, Canon,  and Epson. In the Laser Printers, Brother and Dell are also key brands. 4x6 printers still exist, but only a few in the retail market. These profiles will help you compare printers by brand.

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 satisfy all types of consumers.

LG

Currently LG has a mobile bluetooth printer available. It's a niche product for anyone on-the-go.

OKI

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

Panasonic

Panasonic, a well-respected consumer electronics brand, only offers laser printers for the small business/home office market.

Samsung

Samsung, similar to Panasonic, also offers laser printers for office environments.

Shopping tips

Consider supply costs. High ink- or toner-cartridge costs can make a bargain-priced printer a bad deal in the long run. Also, consider our maintenance ink usage rating, which reflects the extra ink used by an inkjet printer to maintain its print heads during light, intermittent use. 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.

Also consider whether an inkjet has a separate cartridge for each ink color. Some have only one cartridge for all colors and a separate black cartridge for text. Depending on your photos, separate color cartridges might be more economical.

Another way to save money is by using plain paper for works in progress and saving the good stuff for final results. Glossy photo 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.

Do you want to print photos without a computer? Printing images directly from your printer saves you an extra step and a little time. Features such as a memory-card reader, PictBridge support, or a wireless interface are convenient. Without the computer, though, you lose the ability to tweak image characteristics such as size, color, and brightness. Your editing options are very limited from a printer's LCD screen.

Before you buy, consider these additional tips to help you save money over the life of the printer.

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.

Conserve ink or toner

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.

Power it down

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.

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 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 $3 credit for Dell, HP, and Lexmark cartridges.

   

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