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

Follow these tips for a great printer that will save you money on ink, or skip to the end for our top picks

Illustration of a cheap all-in-one-printer.

Most consumers want just a few things from their next printer. It should be cheap to buy, inexpensive to run, and equipped to copy and scan documents.

That’s why most people opt for all-in-one inkjets—they have the potential to hit all three marks. However, Consumer Reports has found it can be hard to find a model that delivers.

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The trickiest factor to judge is the long-term cost.

Some cheap all-in-one printers will put a serious dent in your bank account as time passes because you have to buy replacement ink frequently. Other printers may cost a lot upfront, but use ink so frugally that they're cheaper in the long run.  

Here are some questions we consider when evaluating printers, along with a trio of cheap all-in-one printers recommended by our testers. These models stand out for functionality, relatively low yearly ink costs, and price tags under $130.

How Much Ink Will It Use?

Printers use ink in two ways.

First, of course, they use ink to print documents. Every printer in our ratings is evaluated on nearly 360 separate factors. One thing we measure is how much ink the printers use for printing. Your real ink usage will differ from our number, depending on what you print and how much. But you can use the numbers to reliably compare printers.

Secondly, 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, who leads 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 new 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 models come up short in our tests, and they're all fairly expensive. But Consumer Reports has found the best reservoir models can be a thrifty choice if you can afford the upfront price.

Will It Print With One or Two Empties?

Many inkjet models won't print if a single shade of ink runs dry—even if it’s magenta and you’re just trying to print black text. Other models will keep chugging along in that situation.

This can even 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.” Consumer Reports' printer model pages, available to members, note when a printer doesn’t have this feature.

Printers with a single-cartridge mode are appealing, but printers that lack that feature can be very thrifty with ink overall. You really need the test results in our printer ratings 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 they 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.

Great Picks for All-in-One Inkjets

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