What to Look for in a Cheap All-in-One Printer

Follow these tips for a great printer that will save you money up front without drowning you in ink costs later on

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Most people want a few simple things from their next printer: a low price tag, tolerable ink costs, WiFi connectivity, and the ability to copy and scan documents.

All-in-one inkjets can hit all four marks, which is one of the reasons they're the most popular printers among consumers. However, Consumer Reports' tests show it can be hard to find a model that delivers across the board.

Determining the long-term cost is the trickiest part. Some cheap all-in-one printers will put a serious dent in your bank account as the price of frequent ink replacements adds up, while other printers that cost a lot up front may be cheaper in the long run because they're more frugal with ink.

Read on for the questions we think you should consider when evaluating printers, along with top picks for cheap all-in-one printers recommended by our testers. These models stand out for functionality, relatively low yearly ink costs, and price tags under or around $100.

How Much Ink Will It Use?

Printers use ink in two ways.

Of course, they use ink to print documents. Among nearly 360 separate factors we evaluate for our ratings, one critical measure is how much ink the printers use for actually printing. Your real ink usage will differ from our numbers, but you can use our statistics to reliably compare printers.

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But inkjet printers also use ink for maintenance, mainly for cleaning the printheads. “Most people aren’t really aware of the maintenance needs of inkjets,” says Rich Sulin, a project leader for CR’s printer testing program. Our testing shows that some printers are more efficient with maintenance ink than others, and that does a lot to drive the differences in the overall cost of ownership.

A newer type of inkjet printer, often called a supertank, can cut ink costs dramatically. You refill a sizable ink reservoir rather than buying individual cartridges. Some of these models come up short in our performance tests, and they're all fairly expensive. If you can afford the upfront price, however, Consumer Reports has found the best reservoir models can be a capable and highly thrifty choice.

Will It Print With One or Two Empties?

Many inkjet models refuse to print if a single hue of ink runs dry—even if it’s magenta and you’re just trying to print black text. But other models will keep chugging along in that situation.

This can vary within a brand, which makes it harder to shop. For example, the Canon Pixma TS5020 won’t let you print with an empty color cartridge, but the Canon Pixma MG3620 will.

It can take some effort to track this info down. You often have to go online, download the owner’s manual, and confirm that the printer has what’s called “single-cartridge mode.” We've done the work for you: Consumer Reports' printer model pages note when a printer doesn’t have this feature.

Printers with a single-cartridge mode can be less of a hassle. But surprisingly, printers that lack that feature can still be thrifty with ink overall. Again, the test results in our printer ratings are the best way to know for sure.

Can It Print Wirelessly?

Most new home printers allow for wireless printing over WiFi—but not all. Some manufacturers leave this feature out to cut costs. That’s inconvenient for many people, so check our ratings or product descriptions before you buy.

A wireless printer lets users print over the air from any device connected to the same network. Families with multiple computers will see immediate benefits, as will anyone who works on a laptop from the sofa, kitchen table, or back porch.

Some printers can also print from a smartphone or tablet using Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print. Some manufacturers have their own apps that accomplish the same thing, but those apps may not be as handy.

“From our testing, we found that all of the apps we tested, from manufacturers like Canon, Brother, and HP, worked reasonably well, with generally little to no effort to set up and use,” Sulin says. However, AirPrint and Google Cloud Print are generally more convenient because they’re built right into the operating systems of most mobile devices.

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