Essays. Coupons. Last-minute directions to Grandma’s house. Whatever you need to print, there’s a home printer that can do it. And intense competition among competitors like HP, Epson, Canon and others has forced prices to such absurd lows that you can now walk into a store – even a local supermarket – and walk out with a brand new printer for $60 or even less.
But selecting a home printer can be tough – given so many options – especially with all the convoluted terms that can complicate the process. With that in mind, we’ve put together a quick-and-dirty printer buying guide for selecting a home printer, with simple explanations of the most common terms and our recommendations that will serve a majority of users.
Update 05-19-2014: This guide has been updated to reflect new trends and features.
The first question all printer buyers must tackle comes down to a simple matter of what and how much you plan on printing.
Color inkjet printers comprise the bulk of the market simply because they can print just about anything: essays, pie charts, or glossy photos, you name it. But printed text from inkjets doesn’t always look as sharp as from a laser printer, they’re typically slower, and in some cases they cost more to keep running.
Laser printers rule the roost in offices because they can print large volumes of text quickly, reliably, and on the cheap. And besides looking sharper than text from an inkjet, laser printouts won’t run when they get wet. Color lasers have also fallen into the range of affordability for consumers recently, but the cost of replacement color laser toner can be prohibitively high, often making them a poor option for home use.
Unless you plan on printing novels or page after page of school reports, inkjet printers usually make the best bet for home users due to their flexibility. If you need to print a lot of pages, and print them fast, a laser printer is worth considering. They do carry a premium in price, though, over inkjet features with similar speed and often more functionality such as duplexing.
One thing to keep in mind in making your decision is that recently, inkjet printers have been introduced with higher capacity ink cartridges that decrease the cost per page. And inkjet printers have become faster in recent years, sometimes giving laser printers a run for the money.
Both laser and inkjet printers are available with a scanner bed on the top of the unit, turning them into all-in-one (AIO) machines: printer, copier, scanner, and/or fax (also called a multifunction printer, or MFP). Although you might not need all the functions, buying an all-in-one printer for home use makes a lot of sense, not only because it’s cheaper than buying a a printer and a standalone scanner, but also for the sake of saving room. Since all-in-ones are extremely common and manufacturers rarely charge much of a premium for them (you can often find one for as little as $50-$60) we highly recommend them for home users.
Note: Soon, you may not have to decide whether to purchase a standalone printer or an all-in-one. While manufacturers continue to bring out new printer-only units for the office, most of the new devices being introduced for home users are all-in-one models, phasing out print-only models.
If you’re more interested in preserving family photos on paper than printing off homework assignments and pie charts, consider a dedicated photo printer. Though they lack the flexibility of multitaskers, the quality of prints is typically much better, and often rivals or exceeds the quality of what you would receive from a kiosk or mail-order service like Shutterfly. The price you’ll pay for the convenience comes out in the print cost. Photo printers can use separate ink and paper, or both can be contained in a single cartridge (portable photo printers). Most printers sold only for dedicated photo or graphic use are either small-size (printing photos up to 4 x 6 inches), or wide format, printing on media up to 24-inches wide. Supplies for these specialty printers are generally more expensive than those for the typical multifunction printer. And many all-in-one devices are quite capable of turning out photos up to 8.5 x 11 inches when you use the right paper.