How We Tested Printers

By:
Max Mutter and Steven Tata

Last Updated:
Monday
August 28, 2017

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We approached our printer testing determined to uncover every possible frustration, error message, and paper jam possible. This may sound borderline inhumane, but we felt it was our duty to present an accurate map of all the pitfalls and booby traps on the path to selecting a printer. We also scrutinized the quality of printed materials that were produced by each model, and how much they cost to produce, both in the short and long term. We focused our testing on five main metrics: text quality, ease of use, cost, printing speed, and graphics/photos.

Text Quality


To evaluate text quality we printed the same plain black text pages on all of our printers in different sizes and fonts. We then viewed these pages both in a normal setting and magnified 10 times through a digital microscope. We looked for text characters that had smooth, well defined borders and bold, completely black interiors. Printers lost points if they produced text that looked faded or pixilated, of if borders were blurry or smudged.

Investigating text quality with our digital microscope.
Investigating text quality with our digital microscope.

Ease of Use


Printers are known for their ubiquitous error messages and connectivity issues. So for our ease of use testing we presented every opportunity for an issue to arise that we could think of. We set up each model on a Mac, a WIndows machine, and a Google Chromebook. For the models that had wifi connectivity we switched between three different wifi networks, and tried to print from multiple different machines. Some models include features that allow you to print directly from a mobile phone, so we made sure to test those using both android and iOS devices. We also printed many different types of files, such as PDFs, word documents, spreadsheets, and google docs. For the all-in-one models we used every single function available to make sure the added levels of complexity didn't cause any headaches. After running each model through all the various tasks we could imagine our diverse set readers would, we graded them based on how easy all of these tasks were to complete, and how many issues we ran into.

Our experience mirrored that of the multitude of office workers that hate printers with a fiery passion, specifically the folks over at Initech. It seems that if you own a printer the question is not if you'll have an issue, but when. At the very least all of the printers we tested had a connectivity issue that required some sort of a reset or downloading a new driver to rectify. Since problems are fairly common we decided to include a customer service score into our rankings. We made sure to call each manufacturer's customer service line at least three times, with problems both real and fabricated. We scored each based on the average wait time we experienced, and how knowledgeable and helpful the customer service representatives were.

Cost


We evaluated both the day to day costs of ink and toner associated with owning a printer, and estimated how much one would end up spending overall throughout each printer's lifetime. Our ink and toner cost figures were based on the market price of replacement cartridges and the yield in pages expected from each one of those cartridges. When estimating lifetime costs we made a few assumptions based on our research of average printer usage, and the normal usage of everyone in the office. This left us with the parameters of a typical operational life of three years for each printer, a printing load of 2500 pages a year, and, for the models that could print in color, a split of 80/20 between monochrome and color sheets. So, this gave us 7500 sheets printed over each printer's lifetime. We used our ink and toner cost figures to calculate how much printing 7500 pages on each model would cost, and then added that figure to each printer's retail price to get its lifetime cost of ownership. This calculation did not take the cost of paper into account as it can vary depending on what type of paper you use and would be the same across all the printers. We then assigned relative cost scores based upon these calculations.

Printing Speed


Our staple printing speed test involved printing a one sided, monochrome, 10 page, all text document (an excerpt from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, to be exact; call me Ishmael). We timed how long it took from the moment we clicked print until the last page had been dropped into the tray. For this test we connected to each printer directly via a USB cable in order to avoid any inconsistencies in the speed of wireless connections.

The plain text test made up the bulk of our printing speed score. However, we did also run other speed tested, such as how long it took to print a full page high resolution photo, speed with mixed text and graphic documents, and duplex printing speeds.

Our printer testing involved closely examining many printed sheets with a digital microscope.
Our printer testing involved closely examining many printed sheets with a digital microscope.

Graphics/Photos


Simple graphics such as pie charts and line graphs are common printer fare. We printed multiple such graphics on each model we tested and assessed them for quality. Just as in the text quality test we observed these graphics both with the naked eye and magnified 10 times under a digital microscope. Graphics that had little pixelation and were bold and solid received higher scores, while faded graphics with noticeable print dots and blurry edges received low scores.

We didn't test any models that are optimized for printing photos, but they may be wrangled into that function on occasion. Therefore we ran a similar test to assess photo printing quality. Photos were viewed with the naked eye and under the digital microscope and similar things such as resolution were assessed. For photos we also considered how accurately colors were rendered (for the models that could print in color) and whether or not there were noticeable print lines on larger images.

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