How do you choose the best printer? After researching every facet of printer technology and putting 10 of the most popular models through the paces in our testing facility, we've determined exactly what you should consider if you are buying for the home or a small office. Whether you're a student, building your home office, running your own small office, or just can't stand one more trip to the print center, we can guide you to the right model.
In this article we first layout a step by step guide for finding the right printer for you. Then, in case you need a bit more information, we discuss common printer terminology and features.
Choosing the Right Printer
Step 1: Do You Even Need a Printer?
Before we dive in, we'd first like you to consider if you really need a printer. Because, let's face it, printers kind of suck. There are multiple factors driving this suckiness: the inherent complexity of turning ink into an image, the difficulties in turning a profit, and the continuing march towards a greener, paperless existence, just to name a few. For many, particularly those that print infrequently, the best choice is to not own a printer. Most libraries and print centers allow you to print for around 10 cents per page in black and white, or about 25 cents per page for color. Many online services will deliver photo prints to your door for well under $1 per photo (depending on the size). If your printing needs are occasional and inconsistent, these services should satisfy your needs, and will likely be more economical (and environmentally friendly!) than owning your own device.
Unfortunately, there are a number of realities that may preclude this paperless nirvana. In many situations, it would be near impossible to run a small or home office without a printer. Students, particularly those living off campus, that need to print copious readings may be better served by owning their own device. Many may want a print at home option as insurance against last-minute emergencies, for example, "What do you mean the book report is due tomorrow and you don't have it printed, it's 11:30 at night!" If you fall into one of these categories, read on.
Step 2: Text or Graphics?
What you will be printing is the major determining factor in what model you should buy. If the vast majority of your printing will be text-based you'll want to get a laser model. This will give you better text quality, printing speed, and ink economy, and just sounds way cooler. If you will be printing simple graphics as well, such as pie charts and bar graphs, a laser is still the way to go. Those that want to be able to print decent quality photographs with some regularity would be better served with an inkjet. Inkjets offer greater versatility and will be able to handle both text and photos. If you're specifically looking to produce frame-worthy prints, you'll want to look for a photo dedicated inkjet.
Step 3: Monochrome or Color?
This is really only a consideration if after step two you decided that a laser model is right for you. The main advantage of inkjets is their versatility in being able to print both text and pictures fairly well, so very few are available in monochrome (black and white). If you're getting a laser for just text, go monochrome. This simplifies the whole system with just one ink cartridge, and in the world of printing simplicity equates to reliability. If you also want to print color graphs, and maybe the occasional lower resolution photo, a color laser will serve you well. You will still get the reliable text printing of a laser, and will have just a bit more versatility.
Step 4: How Much Do You Print?
Every model has a recommended monthly print volume. You'll want to make sure this volume is large enough to encompass your printing needs. This won't be an issue for most users as recommended monthly volumes bottom out at about 300 pages. However, a small office could easily exceed that volume, so make sure you check the spec sheet if you'll be printing at high volumes.
Another consideration related to printing volume is cost. If you're mostly printing text then cost per page differences tend to be so small that they are only significant if you often print thousands of pages in a month. However, if you regularly print a lot of colors there are some programs that provide significant savings. Namely, HP's Instant Ink program provides a monthly subscription that lets you print a predetermined number of pages at a single price, regardless of what those pages are. This is a bad deal for monochrome text but can be a great deal if you regularly print a lot of colors. For more info on this program see the HP Instant Ink section above.
Step 5: Do You Need Any Accoutrements?
In office devices, you're almost always going to get better quality from simplicity and specialization. So if you're going to be doing a lot of scanning, we suggest you get a standalone, dedicated scanner rather than an all-in-one that can both print and scan. However, if you have a small business and occasionally need to scan a signature page to keep it on file, then an all-in-one will serve you just fine and will be more economical than having two devices.
In this section we'll cover all the jargon and specifications you'll run into when shopping for a printer, and how they relate to your purchase decision.
Printers are first and foremost defined by the technology they use to transfer ink onto a sheet of paper in a coherent manner. This printing methodology is directly related to performance, cost per page, and maintenance considerations.
Inkjets shoot ink through tiny nozzles (hence the name) and fine tune placement of the resulting ink droplets through the use of electrostatic charges. Inkjet is the most common technology in the home printing market, mostly due to its versatility and low up-front cost. Inkjets can handle everything from text to photo quality images, and you can easily find models for as little as $100, and sometimes even less. Additionally, most inkjets can handle off printing stock, such as envelopes, This versatility, however, leads to higher operating costs. Inkjets must periodically clean dried ink from their nozzles, which is usually done by shooting fresh ink through them. While this works well, it also means you're paying for ink that never actually reaches the page. Also, dried ink can cause issues for inkjets following prolonged periods of inactivity. These inefficiencies mean that cost per page is usually slightly higher with inkjets than with lasers. Finally, inkjets tend to be much slower than lasers when it comes to printing text-heavy pages.
Laser models use, you guessed it, lasers to paint an electrostatic image onto a spinning drum, Toner, a powdered form of ink, is attracted to that image and then pressed onto paper using pressure and heat. This process can churn out black and white text pages up to four times faster than inkjets and is more adept at creating crisp text even at the smallest of fonts. Without nozzles to clean lasers can fire up afters months of inactivity and print like they were just out of the box. Laser models can also produce these monochrome pages more cheaply than their inkjet counterparts. However, they struggle with color, both in quality and economy. Most color lasers are really only meant for simple tasks, such as pie charts. Photos printed with a color laser look grainy and often end up being more expensive than if they were printed on an inkjet. While lasers are often more economical in the long run when printing large amounts of text, they have larger upfront costs than inkjets. The printers themselves are more expensive and, though they last longer, toner cartridges can be up to double the price of inkjet cartridges.
Solid ink models essentially melt crayon-like blocks of ink and press them onto paper, and excels in printing photos and images. Currently, solid ink technology is only available from Xerox and is not yet cheap enough for the average consumer (the cheapest models list for around $500) and thus was not included in our testing. However, solid ink is being marketed as the future of environmentally friendly printing for a number of reasons. The makeup of the waxy ink is naturally less pollutive than that of other inks. Additionally, since the ink can be produced and shipped as a freestanding block, it produces far less extraneous packaging than other technologies. Finally, Xerox claims this technology produces vivid images regardless of what it is printed on, eliminating the need for heavier paper stocks. It remains to be seen whether solid ink will be the wave of the future or just a flash in the pan.
All-in-Ones vs. Dedicated Devices
Many printers are now combined with a scanner to offer printing, scanning, and often copying and faxing, in a single device. These All-in-One (AIO) models are a great choice for home offices that don't specialize in a single task but need to do a little bit of everything. Since these models are focused on versatility, they tend to use inkjet technology. However, there are both color and monochrome laser models available for those with more specialized printing needs.
While AIO's offer all of the functionality you could want in one compact package, they are susceptible to the jack of all trades master of none disease. Most AIO's can't match specialized devices in terms of quality, convenience, and speed. For example, an AIO won't match the quality of a dedicated scanner in digitizing photographs.
AIO's have been bridging this gap in quality and convenience, with many models beginning to rival the functionality of standalone devices. One example of this is the addition of automatic document feeders (ADF). These devices automatically pull stacks of paper through a scanner, page by page, making copying or scanning multi-page documents a breeze. Most units that include an ADF also have a traditional bed scanner, so you don't lose the ability to copy pages from a book or other things that can't be fed through an ADF.
This is all well and good, but the increasing complexity of AIO's means the chances of something breaking increases as well. While if your scanner breaks you'll still be able to print, sending it into to be fixed means you'll temporarily lose your printer, scanner, copier, and fax machine, all at once. Obviously we all hope to avoid any sort of malfunction, but unfortunately, things happen. So if you can't be without one of the functions of your AIO for more than a day, you might want to think about getting a cheap, dedicated, backup machine for that particular function.
Cost Per Page and Ink Subscriptions
Printing costs can be significant, particularly home and small offices that print regularly. Most of the models we tested can produce black and white prints for less than $0.05 per page, and color for around $0.10 per page. In general, the differences in cost are only 1 or 2 pennies per page, so this is only consequential if you print thousands of pages. Some manufacturers do offer some ink subscriptions and alternative ink systems that can drastically reduce costs for frequent users or those that print in color more often than not.
HP Instant Ink Subscription
HP offers a monthly ink subscription that provides all the ink you need to print a set amount of pages, regardless of whether those pages are black and white or color. The cost per page ends up being more expensive if you're only printing monochrome text, but if you print mostly in color it can be significantly cheaper. Three plans are available for 50, 100, and 300 pages per month at a monthly cost of $3, $5, and $10, respectively. You can also roll over up to your monthly page amount. If you only print in black and white then these plans aren't economical (unless you have the ink guzzling HP Envy 4520). However, if you consistently print a lot of color pages every month one of these plans could have you coming out on top.
By signing up for Instant Ink you are consenting to HP tracking your printing habits via the internet. This means new ink gets sent automatically when you're close to running out. This is very convenient, but some may not like the big brotherish aspect of this program.
Brother offers a couple of models (the MFC-J985DW and MFC-J985DWXL) that use their INKvestment high yield ink cartridges. These cartridges purportedly can produce monochrome pages for close to $0.01 per page and color at about $0.05 per page. However, early user reviews of these models have been lackluster, and they were not highly regarded enough to be included in our review process this time around.
Other Important Features and Terminology
Beyond the big three of printing technology, all-in-ones, and cost per page, there are a number of other features and terminology that you'll want to be aware of before you make your purchase decision.
Connectivity is the bane of many a printer owner's existence. Getting a printer to actually talk you your computer can be a herculean task. We've extensively tested the ease of setting up this connection, which is reflected in our ease of use scores. In this section, we won't cover this aspect of connectivity but instead will focus on the different methods of sending a document to your print center.
Everything is becoming wireless these days, and printers are no different. Most current models are Wi-Fi enabled and will hook up to your home wireless network, allowing you to print from anywhere your Wi-Fi can reach. Many Wi-Fi connected models also let you print directly from your mobile device. All but one of the models we tested can print via an app provided by the manufacturer, and all actually work quite well. You can also bypass the apps and use the native wireless printing in your mobile device's operating system. This is called AirPrint on Mac devices and Cloud Print on Android devices. For a list of AirPrint enabled products click here, and for a list of Cloud Print enabled products click here. We found this route to be much more finicky than using the manufacturer's' apps.
USB is still the standard for wired connections. Every model we reviewed has an available USB port. Many users opt for a wired connection, even when using a Wi-Fi enabled model, simply because it eliminates a level of complexity and runs into fewer connectivity issues than wireless.
Most models also have a USB port on the front of the unit that will allow you to print documents directly from a flash drive. This is a nice option to have for visitors who need to quickly print something. It is also a good backup to have in a small office in case the wireless connectivity suddenly goes on the fritz.
Some models include a feature called PictBridge that allows you to print images directly from a camera or memory card. This is great if you want to quickly print photos, but as it becomes easier to upload and edit photos on a computer this technology is being used less and less.
Printer resolution is reported in dots per inch (dpi), or the number of distinct dots of ink that can produce over the distance of one inch. Usually this is expressed as a single number, such as 600 dpi. Some models are able to produce more dots vertically than horizontally and will express their resolution in two numbers, such as 1200 x 600 dpi. This greater vertical resolution has more to do with the speed at which the paper is fed than how ink is being put on the page, so it's best to think of the second, smaller number as the functional resolution in those situations.
Some models may advertise astronomically high resolutions of greater than 9000 dpi. These models are almost assuredly using optimized dpi. This is a process that places multiple dots of different colors at the same spot on the page. This technique can produce vivid images and colors, but uses a lot of ink, and requires thicker paper (cheap, thin paper will come out oversaturated and soggy).
Unless you're planning on printing high-quality photos, you don't really need to worry about dpi. Basic text and logos look crisp as low as 300 dpi, which is a lower resolution than the vast majority of models currently available. Photos look great at 1200 dpi, and it is unlikely you'll notice any significant improvement in quality beyond that point.
We did a rigorous side by side quality comparison of photos produced by all the products we tested. This will give you a good idea of what to expect in terms of photo quality. However, we did not test any photo specific models. If you're looking to mostly print photos you should consider a dedicated model.
If you're only printing a few pages at a time, printing speed won't be an issue. If you're printing multiple documents with many pages, print speed becomes a factor worth consideration. We found that lasers almost always print text faster than inkjets. Color lasers also print images faster, but at a greatly reduced quality when compared to inkjets.
Printing speed is often reported as two different metrics: pages per minute, and first page out. Pages per minute refers to how quickly pages are produced when printing a multipage document. First page out refers to the time between clicking print and when the first page hits the print tray. All-in-ones often report their scanning and copying speeds in pages per minute as well.
Monochrome is just a fancy term for black and white. Technically it's a more accurate description, as black and white models technically only use one color of ink. If you only need to print text then monochrome is the way to go.
Some models include a duty cycle spec. This is the maximum number of pages the printer can print per month without issues. Most models also have a recommended monthly print volume that is much smaller than the duty cycle. Think of the recommended volume as the marathon pace that can be held for a long time, and the duty cycle as the sprint pace that is only possible for short, isolated bursts. Here again, most users don't need to worry about duty cycle. However, if you plan to print large volumes (thousands of pages per month) you'll want to make sure you get a model with a correspondingly large recommended print volume.
A bypass tray is a must if you'll be printing on odd stock, such as envelopes, cards, or irregularly sized paper, with any frequency. A bypass tray is a second input, separate from the main paper tray, that avoids the twists and turns a normal sheet of paper would make on its way to the print tray. A bypass tray makes it much easier to load odd stock as you don't have to remove the normal paper beforehand. It also makes it more likely that the odd stock will make it through without paper jams or skewing the text off to one side.
Duplex printing is printing on both sides of the paper. Models with automatic duplex printing can print two-sided at the click of a button. Models with manual duplex require you to print half the pages of a document, then reload those printed pages into the paper tray to print on the other side. If you're feeling guilty about the environmental impact of buying a printer, you'll definitely want a model with auto duplexing so you can more easily assuage that guilt. All-in-ones may also advertise duplex scanners, which can scan both sides of a sheet of paper simultaneously. Most automatic document feeders are duplex as well.
All models have some internal memory so they can store jobs that are sent to them. If a printer is inundated with more jobs than its memory can handle it may slow down or potentially lose some jobs. All the models we tested have more than enough memory to handle simple printing tasks, and even multiple jobs coming in from a few different people. Memory is only an issue in large office settings.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, even the best printers are a hassle. We would only recommend getting one if you can make a strong case for needing a print at home option. And if you decide to buy one, we recommend you go with the simplest model that will meet your needs. For example, if you need a device for the occasional last-minute form or report, get a cheap monochrome laser that will easily fire up after months of inactivity, and plan to connect to it with a USB cable. The HP LaserJet Pro M402n would fit the bill. If you're in a small office that prints a lot of text and requires some copying and scanning look for a dependable, multifunction laser. The HP Color LaserJet Pro MFP M281fdw would work well in this situation. If you need to print some decently high-quality images look for a relatively dependable inkjet, like the Canon PIXMA MX922.