Buying a Printer
No matter how digital-savvy we think we are, most of us need to put ink to paper from time to time. It may not be as glamorous as the latest tiny gadget, but that trusty, dust-covered printer in the corner is the workhorse many people depend on. We tested and reviewed three different types of printers--inkjets, monochrome lasers, and color lasers--on an ongoing basis, and also regularly tested multifunction devices that use each of those printing methods. No matter which kind of printer you're looking for, here's the information you need to make a well-informed purchase.
The Big Picture
From inexpensive inkjets to monochrome and color lasers, different printers are designed to do different jobs. Here's how they stack up, feature by feature.
For most people, choosing a printer entails balancing price, speed, and print quality. But as models improve, manufacturers differentiate them in other ways. Inkjet printers, along with digital cameras, are changing the way we print photographs. When loaded with special photo inks and paper, inkjet printers are one of the best options for transforming a digital image into a photograph.
For monochrome lasers--whose text quality is so good and uniform that models' output samples are almost indistinguishable from each other--breadth of features is a major selling point. This is good news for busy offices: For example, thanks to extra paper trays and more memory, lasers can print more efficiently; they also come with more-capable drivers, and permit easier remote management. And as color lasers drop in price, more users can afford to add color to their workplace documents. The least-expensive color lasers we've seen so far now cost about $400.
Speed: The marketing war among printer vendors has escalated so much that it has yielded utterly meaningless print-speed ratings. Vendors frequently cite ratings based on printing only the simplest text documents, or printing in draft mode, and some don't include the time it takes for the PC to send a job to the printer. In any case, claimed speeds are frequently two, three, or more times faster than the speeds you'll see in real-world printing.
In our most recent Top 10 roundup of inkjet printers, the rated text speeds ranged from 5 to 30 pages per minute (ppm)--but in our tests, the actual text speeds ranged from just 3.8 to 6.9 ppm. Similarly, vendors claimed graphics speeds ranging from 2 to 24 ppm, while our tested speeds ranged from 0.8 to 2.6 ppm.
Though you'll get similarly misleading promises from monochrome and color laser vendors, you will find faster speeds. In our most recent tests, monochrome lasers printed text at 15.0 to 25.1 ppm; color lasers printed text somewhat slower, at 6.8 to 18.7 ppm. For graphics, color lasers' printing speeds ranged from 1.1 to 5.6 ppm--much slower than advertised.
Print quality: Most monochrome and color lasers print razor-sharp text. Color lasers print color charts and other two-dimensional graphics well, but they can't match inkjets in handling photographs. On the other hand, while inkjet photos can be beautiful, especially on glossy paper, most inkjet printers produce somewhat fuzzy, jagged text and can't reproduce fine detail in line art or graphics.
Resolution: Inkjet printers generally have a maximum color resolution of 4800 by 1200 dots per inch (dpi). Many printers also use software to interpolate an image and to smooth out patches of color, fill in gaps, and sharpen more-detailed sections. Such enhancements can affect print quality as much as the printer's resolution. The best way to determine print quality is not to look at the resolution specs but to print out a sample and judge for yourself.
Monochrome lasers usually have a maximum resolution of either 1200 by 1200 or 600 by 600 dpi, and color lasers usually offer a maximum color resolution of either 2400 by 1200 dpi or 2400 by 600 dpi. Even these fairly modest resolutions for lasers suffice for printing sharp text and simple graphics.
Cost per page: For inkjets, the cost of ink has the biggest impact on the overall cost of the printer over time. Vendors generally charge $20 to $40 for a three-color cartridge and $10 to $35 for a separate black cartridge. Usually, the cheaper a cartridge is, the less ink it holds; yields range from about 300 to 800 pages per cartridge.
In tests of inkjet printers conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology, the cost per text page ranged from 2.1 to 7.7 cents per page. The cost per color graphics page ranged from 7.7 to 15.8 cents per page. For full-size photo printers, the total cost (including paper) per 4-by-6-inch photo ranged from 46 to 97 cents. For compact snapshot printers, the range was 23 to 81 cents.
Many vendors offer higher-capacity cartridges; though more expensive, they contain more ink, so they cost less per page. Most vendors also sell printers with individual cartridges for each color instead of one cartridge for all three colors. These are worth a look, because in our experience printers using multi-ink cartridges have a higher cost per page on average.
Features: In the past, almost all inkjets offered the same features: one paper tray for 100 or 150 sheets and 10 envelopes, minimal buffer memory, and no networking option. However, these days’ vendors are increasingly using features such as increased paper management options and 802.11b/g wireless networking to differentiate their products. Makers of business-oriented inkjets are also offering higher capacities, optional paper trays, Ethernet network connectivity, and more memory.
Laser printers generally have more features and options than inkjets do. Monochrome lasers hold from 150 to 850 sheets, with corporate models frequently holding at least 600 sheets as standard; color lasers hold from 200 to 1200 sheets. You can also add trays that hold as much as 5000 sheets. Most high-end lasers include at least 16MB of RAM, with expansion options permitting a few hundred megabytes of memory for queuing multiple print jobs at once (for a busy office, equip your laser with at least 32MB); some offer optional hard drives that you can use to save complex forms and other preprocessed images or to store passwords for confidential print jobs, and they all have standard or optional Ethernet adapters. Some more-recent lasers also have new features such as the ability to print directly from a USB flash drive.
Photo printing: Many mainstream photo-oriented inkjets include a feature called PictBridge, which is a dedicated USB port for connecting your digital camera directly to the printer. Most also have built-in media card slots that let you plug in a storage card and press a button for instant prints, as well as an LCD menu for selecting prints; each of these options means you don't have to go through a PC to output images. These printers can produce beautiful color photographs. If you change the settings in the driver to "Best" or "Photo" mode and use premium photo paper, many inexpensive, sub-$100 printers can generate high-quality photo prints.
The Specs Explained
We unravel the mysteries of print speed, print quality, and maximum resolution--and tell you which specs are really important.
Given the wide variety of printers available on the market, we've made a specific chart for each of the three most popular types of printers: Inkjet printers, monochrome (black-and-white) laser printers, and color laser printers.
The slowest but most affordable type of printers, inkjets shoot tiny sprays of colored ink through microscopic holes in a printhead onto a page, one printhead-height row at a time. Most inkjet printers offer resolutions of up to 4800 by 1200 dots per inch, which makes them suitable for printing high-quality graphics and photos, though typically more slowly than a monochrome or color laser printer would.
Inkjet printers are inexpensive printers for the masses, designed for home users, students, or anyone who isn't concerned about the highest text quality. However, a high price does not necessarily indicate excellent graphics or photo prints. The real cost of an inkjet printer comes not from the price of the unit itself, but from the ongoing cost of replacing ink cartridges. Printer manufacturers use a business model similar to that of razor makers: You can buy a great razor for very little money, but you spend a lot replacing the blades.
Printer Shopping Tips
Whether you want an ink jet for home use or a laser printer to take care of the whole office, we've got recommendations to make your purchase easier.
Inkjet printers might be inexpensive, but the cost of replacement ink can drive up the overall cost. Check the prices of ink cartridges, and find out how many pages each cartridge is rated to print. Once you figure out how many pages you will print per month, you can determine the cost of the printer plus ink over the course of a year. Consider getting individual cartridges if you know you'll need one color more than others--for instance, if many of your documents have a red logo.
Manufacturers often list faster print speed specifications on their packaging than we see in testing.
Most color inkjets can print photos at a quality that approaches the level of a professional photo lab. If you plan to use your printer primarily for photos or graphics, look for models that specialize in that type of printing. If you plan to print mostly photos, look for photo printers with features such as media card readers and an LCD panel that allows you to view and print an image without using your PC. Also look for bundled image editing software.
Price does not necessarily translate to print quality or speed. Shop around, and check the latest reviews and test results. If you plan to print lots of graphics, keep an eye on our tested print speed for full-page graphics. Don't forget to research prices before making a purchase.
Monochrome (Black-and-White) Laser Printers
If you print lots of text-only documents, consider buying an inexpensive monochrome or color laser printer. These printers provide superior text quality compared with inkjet printers.
Some monochrome and color lasers cost as little as $150 and $400, respectively, making them a good deal for home users.
If you need to print a lot of text and glossy photos, buying a good photo inkjet printer in addition to an inexpensive monochrome laser printer could save you money on ink and maintenance costs in the long run.
Most monochrome lasers come with optional Ethernet ports for networks. If you plan to use the printer with one PC, don't pay the extra money for an Ethernet card.
Color Laser Printers
Our tests consistently find that color laser printers print color graphics more slowly than the printers' manufacturers’ claim they do. If print speed is a factor for you, always check the speeds in the features before deciding on a model.
Color laser printer toner cartridges are the most expensive consumable you can buy for a printer, but their yield is so much higher than an inkjet cartridge that, in the long run, color laser toner is less expensive on a per-page basis.
If you're not running a graphics department but still want to print color, you'll most likely choose an inkjet printer, which can create beautiful photo prints at a tenth of the cost of a color laser--when it comes to initial purchase price, that is. Keep in mind that the inexpensive price of an inkjet is quickly surpassed by the cost of replacement ink.