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 such as HP, Epson, Canon and others has forced prices to such absurd lows that you can now walk into a store — even your local supermarket — and walk out with a brand new printer for $60 or less.
But selecting a home printer can be tough given the sheer amount of options on the market, not to mention the convoluted terms that only seem to complicate the process. With that in mind, we’ve put together a quick-and-dirty buying guide for selecting a home printer, with simple explanations of some of most common terms and recommendations that will serve the majority of users.
Inkjet or laser?
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. And today’s inkjet printers and all-in-ones are fast, often with print speeds that rival or surpass their laser counterparts.
Laser printers are still a good bet for office settings when most of the printing that you need to do is in monochrome. For the most part, monochrome laser printers can be purchased at affordable prices, offer good print speed, and in most cases, provide prints at a lower cost per page than a color inkjet. But you have to decide whether to give up the flexibility that a color inkjet printer offers. Color laser printers are another option, but they generally have a higher cost per page printed than a color inkjet.
In the past, laser printers have offered a higher page yield per cartridge than an inkjet printer. That’s changing, however, with some newer inkjet printers offering as many as 10,000 printed pages from a monochrome ink cartridge and 7,000 pages or more from each color cartridge. That translates into a lower cost per page, and less frequent cartridge changes.
For home use, a multifunction unit makes a lot of sense, not only because it’s cheaper than buying 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, many 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 (single function) photo printer. Though they lack the flexibility of multitaskers, the quality of prints is typically 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 this kind of convenience comes out in the print cost, however.
Many of the printers sold only for dedicated photo or graphic use are small-size units capable of printing photos up to 4 x 6 inches in size, or wide format models designed to print media up to 24-inches wide. Supplies for these specialty printers are also generally more expensive than those for the typical multifunction printer. Both Canon and Epson have models which print 8.5 x 11 inches and use five or six colors of ink to produce photos with greater color accuracy. And many all-in-one devices are capable of turning out photos up to 8.5 x 11 inches in size when you use the right paper.
Remember the mantra “give away the razor, sell the blades”? That century-old business model is still alive and well in the printer business, where many companies entice consumers with unimaginably low prices on their budget printers, knowing they can milk them over and over again when it comes time to replace the ink cartridges.
Research the cost of replacement supplies before you buy any printer to know what you’re in for when the initial cartridges finally run dry. Depending on how often you plan to print, it can actually be worth it to purchase a more expensive printer in order to buy into a cheaper line of cartridges. Also, look into the possibility of refilling your own cartridges, which can cost dramatically less than buying new cartridges every time. Keep in mind, however, that printer vendors now add tiny chips to their cartridges that track ink or toner life to make refilling more difficult.
Finally, investigate new models and ink plans. HP offers an Instant Ink program that automatically sends you cartridges when your ink runs low, and promises a fixed number of pages for a fixed monthly fee. Both Canon and Epson now offer “ink tank” models which you can fill from small bottles of ink, providing a very economical cost per page, while Brother has a number of printers with multiple cartridges in the box so you needn’t run out to buy refills for quite some time.
One feature that’s becoming very common, and that we consider a big plus, is automatic duplexing. Duplexing refers to printing or scanning both sides of the page without requiring that you manually flip the page over. On a printer, duplexing is accomplished by printing the first side of the page, pulling the page back through the printer, flipping it over, and printing the other side.
Many all-in-one devices with an automatic document feeder (ADF) for the scanner also have duplexing, allowing you to scan both sides of the page as the document feeds through the ADF. An all-in-one without an automatic document feeder can’t duplex scan without you turning the page over on the scan glass.
Duplex scanning is a major convenience if you frequently scan two-sided pages, like those torn from a magazine. And duplex printing is almost a must these days, helping you save paper when single-side printing isn’t necessary.
Today, nearly every printing device offers multiple connectivity options. USB has been the standard interface for years, and every computer has several USB ports. Because USB is generally a short, direct connection, it requires that the printer or AIO be located near the PC or laptop. There are some wireless routers outfitted with USB ports, however, which you can use to connect to a printer and thus enable wireless printing on a home network.
But most modern printers can now be shared by multiple devices via a network. That could be via Ethernet, where you connect a cable to the router or switch in your network. Ethernet also makes for a faster connection. However, this wired setup is more common in an office environment than in the home, so few low-end models will have a built-in Ethernet port.
More common is Wi-Fi, which has become the most popular method of home networking, and just about every new printer sold for the home or small business has Wi-Fi capabilities. Many even offer one-button wireless setup — if the router it’s being connected to supports it — making network pairing a snap. A new option called Wi-Fi Direct also lets you connect your printer to a laptop that supports it, without having to connect the printer to a network first. Wi-Fi is also used to connect many new smartphones, tablets, and digital cameras by select printers that support mobile printing, such as Apple’s AirPrint protocol. NFC (Near-Field Communication) is also available on some models, letting you connect your printer to a smartphone or tablet by simply touching the device to a specified area on your printer.
Memory Card slots, PictBridge, and the cloud
If you plan to print a lot of photos, consider a printer with built-in memory slots, Bluetooth capabilities, PictBridge, or cloud-based support. All will allow you to print photos directly from a camera or smart device, preventing you from having to transfer them to a computer fist. Memory cards can be popped out of the camera and into a slot on you printer. Some printers even have a multi-format card reader, while some support only the more popular Secure Digital, or SD, format.
PictBridge-enabled cameras, on the other hand, can be plugged into a printer with the same USB cable you might use to connect to a PC — assuming your printer is equipped with a PictBridge-capable USB port — while cloud-based connectivity allows you to send photos directly from Google Cloud Print, Dropbox, and other internet-based services. Just don’t overestimate the usefulness of these convenience features. You may still want to transfer your photos to a computer in order to empty your memory card, and most photographers will want to examine their prints on a bigger screen before printing them.
Many fully-featured printers, particularly AIOs, now offer internet-based features that let you access photos stored on sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox, and Google Drive, as well as remote printing and access to arts and crafts you can print out. Keep in mind that if your printer isn’t connected to the internet, you won’t be able to access said services or print to it remotely from devices such as a smartphone or tablet.
Every printer will feed on a fat stack of 8.5 x 11 paper, but what about legal envelopes, index cards, and glossy stock? Thankfully, many printers now include dedicated feed trays for printing on specialty papers with unusual sizes or different weights, which can make them easier to deal with them. Also consider the size of the input tray. Smaller trays, for instance, will require you to add paper all the time, while a 250-page hopper can make it a once-a-month affair.
Some models targeted at the home office user also offer an optional second tray, which lets you use a different paper stock, check stock, or just double the paper capacity so you don’t have to refill the paper supply as often.
Speed, resolution, and color claims
It used to be fairly easy for a printer manufacturer to make outrageous claims about how fast their printers were or what you could expect as far as page yield from an ink or toner cartridge is concerned. Today, however, nearly all vendors use a standardized set of tests developed and licensed to them by the International Standards Organization. The ISO test protocols provide a level playing field — all the claims and ratings are developed using the same document sets and the same test procedures.
The fly in the ointment is that these sets are what the ISO determines to be the typical kinds of documents used by an average business user. How applicable these results are to you will be is impossible to judge, especially if you primarily print photos and graphics, which slow down a printer significantly and burn through ink.
So use these specs as a basis for comparing one device with another, not as something you’ll necessarily experience in your use of the printer. And before you plunk down your money, read reviews and independent evaluations, and if possible, see actual printouts at a retail store to decide for yourself how quick a printer is, or how good the image looks. If you have settled on a specific brand, some companies even have buying guides for their models — just check out those from Canon and Epson.
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