Printer Buying Guide

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 on a model that comes packed with additional features. Here’s how to find the best printer for your needs. 

Choose Between Inkjet and Laser

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

an inkjet printer.

Inkjet

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 in comparison to laser printers.

Keep in mind, though, that predicted brand reliability and owner satisfaction ratings tend to be lower for inkjet printers. These ratings are based on data derived from CR’s member surveys.

Most inkjets output black-and-white text at five to 18 pages per minute but are much slower for color photos. Models we tested took from 1.5 to 4 minutes or longer for a single high-quality 8x10.

The cost of a color 8x10-inch photo ranges from 50 cents to $2. Printing a black-text page with an inkjet varies but typically falls between 2 and 10 cents.

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

Printing a 4x6 snapshot can take less than a minute and can cost as little as 20 cents.

A laser printer.

Laser

If you print only text documents—and a lot of them—a laser printer makes the most sense. Laser printers produce sharp black-and-white text, and some do well with color type and graphics.

But laser printers generally 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 nine to 25 pages per minute. And they have one other big advantage: According to data from our member surveys, laser printers tend to be more reliable than inkjets. 

Black-and-white lasers generally cost about as much as midpriced inkjet models. Laser cartridges, which cost from about $50 to $100, can print thousands of black-and-white pages for 1 to 6 cents per page. 

Do You Also Want to Scan and Make Copies?

Regular
A regular, or basic, printer’s only function is to print. So if you don’t need to scan, copy, or fax—or if you own other machines to do those tasks—one of these could be worth looking at. Models start at well below $100, as long as you’re getting an inkjet rather than a laser printer. 

All-in-One
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 basic 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 also have built-in duplexers to automatically print on both sides of the page.

 

Interactive Video Guide

For more, watch our video below. You can skip to different chapters on inkjet printers, laser printers, features, and ways to save. 

Get Connected

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

1. Share without cables: Most home printers allow for wireless printing through WiFi. That allows you to print from a laptop or phone without even getting on your WiFi network.

2. Print without a computer: Some models can print and download photos right from your camera’s memory card, and a printer with a feature called PictBridge can connect directly from a digital camera. Some printers have Wireless PictBridge, also known as Wi-Fi Direct, which allows you to print directly from a compatible camera over a WiFi network.

3. 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. Services such as Google Cloud Print work from your phone, tablet, notebook, 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.

Infographic illustrating the high cost of printer ink.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

Supertank Printers

Supertank inkjet printers dispense with pricey replacement cartridges in favor of refillable reservoirs replenished with a bottle of ink. These models tend to cost more up front, starting at about $250, but they can save you money over time.

A conventional inkjet printer could cost less than half that much up front, but you can easily end up spending more than $100 per year on ink.

Supertank models offer a much better return on investment. The typical user (one who prints 35 pages per month) will start saving money after about two years of use.

And after two-and-a-half years, reservoir-based printers such as those in Brother’s INKvestment Tank and Canon’s MegaTank lines are cheaper to own and operate than almost every printer in our ratings.

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