Printers are essential peripherals, performing a critical role as they render electronic information into tangible records or material output. You’re simply not using your computer to its fullest potential if you are unable to print reports, presentations, letters, photos, or whatever it is you need to output. Choosing a printer can be confusing, however, in today’s competitive, ever-changing landscape. This buying guide rounds out some of the more important criteria to consider before you make that all-important purchase decision.
This is the biggest decision to make before anything else. Your choice should be based on how you work and the kind of output you will be expecting from the printer.
o Inkjet: Inkjet printers can deliver stunning color, so this is the way to go if you are mostly concerned with printing photos. Inkjets can be used for printing text, but the print speed is too slow if the primary purpose of the printer is document printing. To obtain more photo-realism, choose inkjets with an expanded range of colors that includes light cyan and light magenta in addition to the standard four-color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The extra colors deliver more subtle color gradations in blue skies and skin tones. And if you print a great deal of black-and-white photos, consider photo printers with more than one variation of black ink or with gray inks. Many photo printers use color inks to produce a composite black, resulting in a muddy tint. A second black-ink cartridge and different shades of gray help maintain a neutral tone, with the gray ink allowing for subtle shading and thus improving the quality of black-and-white photos.
o Dye-sublimation: Dye-sub printers can print continuous tones and a superior range of colors that laser printers are unable to, making them ideal for more demanding graphic applications or color printing. Dye-sub prints are also less prone to fading and distortion over time than dye-based ink prints. In addition, many consumer-based dye-sublimation printers can print directly from digital cameras and also accept memory cards. They are, however, more limited in the range and size of printing media that can be used — usually letter-size paper or smaller.
o Laser: Laser printers are the perfect choice if you need to print large amounts of text documents. They print faster than inkjets and have a lower cost of operation over the long-term — even though they may cost more to buy initially. There are trade-offs, however. Monochrome laser printers produce crisp black-and-white text but cannot be used for color printing. Color lasers deliver excellent text and graphics but are much more expensive and can be costly to maintain.
Some printers are good for general printing, while others are better at specialized tasks or combine several functions into one machine.
o Photo: If you take lots of pictures, consider getting a photo printer. Photo printers can be in the form of photo inkjets — which can print both photos and text; snapshot photo printers — for outputting small 4×6-inch prints; or professional photo printers — for large, tabloid-size photos and often including network connections to enable printer sharing. Most consumer and professional photo printers use inkjet technology, while most snapshot photo printers that print 4×6-inch prints rely on dye-sublimation technology. Regardless of the type or technology that is used, the most important thing to look for in a photo printer is photorealistic quality. Everything else is secondary.
o General Purpose: As the name implies, general purpose printers can be used for printing almost anything, including text and photos. Choose a general printer with a laser format if you print more text than photos; and choose an inkjet format if you print more photos than text.
o Multifunction: Multifunction printers (MFPs) combine in one device several functions such as printing, scanning, faxing, and copying. MFPs cost less than buying separate stand-alone devices and cut down on the hassle of setting up individual machines. If you are strapped for budget or space, consider these all-in-one devices. Take note, however, that a malfunction with one component takes down the whole device, and individual components may not be upgradeable. MFPs are available with either laser printers to emphasize speedy text printing and the occasional graphics output; or they are available with inkjet printers for vibrant photo printing.
Environment and Applications
When deciding on a printer, think about where and how you plan to use it. The home user will have different printing needs from that of the office worker, photographer, or traveler.
o General/Basic home use: Versatile, affordable printers are the best choices here, and inkjets usually satisfy the printing needs of most home users looking to output photos from their digital camera or for other light printing needs. Ink cartridges can be expensive, so look for inkjets with separate cartridges for each color. This way, you need not throw out entire cartridges — simply because one color has been used up ahead of the others — but replace only the ones that run out.
o Home office: An MFP may be a great device to have in your home office, especially if it comes with an automatic document feeder that can process multipage documents unattended. Extra onboard memory increases efficiency and allows for processing of larger graphics and documents with ease. And if scanning and photocopying are important to you, get an MFP with a higher resolution.
o Photography: Photo printers are the obvious choice if printing photos is your main thing. Choose either the smaller, snapshot photo printer that produces 4×6-inch prints; or choose larger-sized, professional photo printers that are capable of delivering tabloid-size 11×17-inch prints — even up to full-bleed 13×19-inch prints that include a border to allow room for registration marks.
o Text printing: If printing large amounts of text is what you’ll be doing most, monochrome standard laser printers are your best bet — as they can turn out page after page of crisp text fairly rapidly. These printers are ideal for printing black-and-white text and simple graphics, so you may need to get a separate inkjet or photo printer in order to print color photos – unless you wish to invest in the more expensive color lasers that can print both black-and-white and color documents.