The need for a home / office printer has increased as more of us are working or schooling from home. You could be a parent who needs to print out workbooks for your child. Or you may find that it’s easier to make notes on a business report using a pen or pencil rather than a keyboard. Or you’ve suddenly discovered that a government office is demanding that you snail mail a form to them. Or you’re tired of trekking to your local office supply store for printing out occasional forms.
Whatever the reason, if you find yourself in need of a printer, it’s not difficult to find one. Printers have not changed a lot over the past few years; they’ve just become more efficient and less expensive. You will still be choosing between laser and inkjet printers, colour and black-ink-only printers, and print-only and multifunction devices. Because of all these decisions to make, it’s a good idea to figure out what you want before you click “buy” at your favorite shopping site.
In this article, we won’t be telling you which specific printer to buy. But we will go through some of the choices you are going to be faced with and some of the features you may want to make sure you’re getting, including inkjet versus laser, multifunction versus single function, and how to decide what to buy and where to buy it.
INKJET VERSUS LASER PRINTERS
If you haven’t bought a printer lately — or if you haven’t needed a printer until now — you may want a quick refresher on the difference between inkjet and laser printers. What follows is a vast simplification, but it will give you a general idea of how they work.
Inkjet printers spray tiny droplets of liquid ink onto a page. There are several types of inkjet delivery systems, but most consumer systems use separate ink cartridges, each fitted with a printhead that separates the ink into the nearly microscopic droplets. (Professional-level inkjets will usually have separate printheads that can be replaced on their own.) Colours are created by combining different coloured inks.
The number of ink cartridges that a colour inkjet printer uses varies. The least expensive printers usually use only two cartridges — one with black ink and one that contains cyan, magenta, and yellow ink. Most lower- to medium-priced inkjet printers offer four separate cartridges — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. More upscale printers will have a different black cartridge for text; printers used by photographers or businesses will have a wider selection of coloured inks.
But even the least expensive inkjets can end up running into serious money. The printer itself may not cost more than $50 or $100, but a single set of cartridges can cost nearly as much. And because most colour inkjets will not run at all if any one of the cartridges is out of ink (for example, you can’t just print in black if the cyan cartridge runs out), you’ll need to replace any spent cartridges. (We’ll deal more with ink costs later.)
There are a few inkjet printers out there known as supertank printers, which have refillable tanks that offer a lower cost per page than the traditional ink cartridges. They are sold by a few manufacturers such as Brother, Canon, and Epson, and could be a consideration if you plan to do a lot of colour printing.
These devices use lasers to create static electricity on a rolling drum inside the printer. The static electricity attracts toner (ink in the form of powder), which is melted onto the paper.
While toner cartridges initially cost more than ink cartridges, they also last far longer than liquid ink; as a result, your cost per page will be less. Laser printers also tend to initially cost more than inkjet printers — but they can save money over the long term.
Laser printers have several other advantages over inkjet printers — unless you need colour. They are faster than inkjets (especially low-end inkjets, which can be very slow), and the quality of their text printing is more precise (although current inkjets are certainly precise enough to suit most documents).
Colour laser printers are also more available than they used to be. However, they are pricier, and unless they are professional-level printers, the colour will not be as good as an equivalently priced colour inkjet.
SO WHICH SHOULD I BUY?
There are several other factors to consider before purchasing a new printer. Here are some questions to ask yourself while deciding what to buy.
WHAT AM I USING IT FOR?
One way to decide whether to buy a laser or an inkjet printer is to look into what you want to do with it. If colour is not important to you, then it’s a no-brainer. A laser printer will be more cost-efficient and faster. But if you want to print out your kids’ computer artwork in colour or print the occasional photograph, then you’re probably in the market for an inkjet.
If you see yourself working from home for the foreseeable future — or even if you don’t — you may want to consider a multifunction (also known as an all-in-one or AIO) printer. These devices don’t just print from your computer, but they allow you to scan existing documents and either copy them or save them as files. (Some also let you fax a scanned document, but since faxing has become much less necessary, this feature is quickly disappearing.) They are very handy for keeping the paperwork around your home to a minimum since you can save PDFs of most of your papers (especially the ones you’ve had sitting around for years) and then dispose of the actual hard copies.
Most consumer-level multifunctions will let you copy anything up to an 8.5 x 11-inch paper (popularly known as letter-sized), but you can also buy printers that will let you handle an 8.5 x 14-inch (legal size) paper. If you see yourself doing a lot of copying or scanning, you should look for a multifunction with an automatic document feeder (usually referred to as an ADF) that lets you move a number of pages through the system quickly.
INPUT AND OUTPUT TRAYS
Most current printers work by pulling paper in from the front, running it around the drum or roller, and then popping it out to the output tray. However, if you’re printing on heavier stock, you don’t want to bend the paper; in that case, you may want to look for a printer that has an input tray coming from the back of the printer, so that the paper is pushed through on a straight line.
Some printers also allow you to have more than one paper tray in front, letting you choose different coloured paper, for example, or having one tray hold letter-sized paper and the other legal-sized.
You also want to know how many sheets of paper your input and output trays are capable of holding. If you plan to, say, print out a 200-page manuscript, you don’t want an output tray that can only handle 50 pages, or you could find 150 of your pages strewn over your floor.
PRICE PER PAGE
Without a doubt, the biggest expense for a printer isn’t the printer itself or even the paper — it’s the ink. There is a way to figure out how much a printer will cost you over the long term: calculate the cost per page by dividing the price of an ink cartridge by the cartridge’s page yield, or the number of pages you’re expected to get out of each cartridge.
You can usually find the page yield among the stats published by the printer’s manufacturer. For example, take two multifunction printers from the same manufacturer, one a colour inkjet and one a black-only laser printer.
There are, of course, a lot of “ifs” here. For example, when you’re looking at lower-cost printers, some major printer manufacturers don’t publish the page yield. In addition, even when the page yield is available, you have to keep in mind that it’s being offered by the manufacturer — so the number of pages you get per cartridge is usually optimistic. Still, this can give you a fair idea of what you’re facing.