Home printer buying guide: How to choose a printer that best fits your needs

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Sasi Ponchaisang

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?

printer buying guide epson

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.

Photo printers

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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.

Supply costs

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.

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