How to buy a printer

What you print, and how much of it you print, should guide your buying decision. We explain how to choose a printer that's appropriate for your needs.

No matter how digital our lives become, printers remain essential in any office and convenient at home for schoolwork, maps, fliers, and photos. PC World tests and reviews three types of printers — inkjets, color lasers, and snapshot models — on an ongoing basis. We also regularly test multifunction printers, both inkjet and laser. 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

The major printing technologies available — inkjet and laser/LED — are all capable of printing typical documents competently, but some differences remain. Inkjet printers excel at printing photos on many sizes and types of media, but they achieve their best results when using special papers. Laser and LED printers both achieve crisp results on a wide array of papers, but they struggle with the subtler colorations of photos. Snapshot printers, which use either inkjet or dye-sublimation technology, are limited to printing photos of specific sizes.

Inkjet Printers Offer Versatility

Home and small-office users who print a light volume of pages but also a fairly wide variety — anything from a letter or driving directions to children's vacation photos — will enjoy the versatility of today's inkjet printers. While the truly low-end models can still be pretty slow, some high-end models can be impressively fast. For the best print quality, you'll need to invest in an assortment of papers, and you'll have to learn your way around the printer's driver settings. You can reduce how often you swap paper types by purchasing a model with two separate paper trays.

In the past, almost all inkjets had the same features: one paper tray (for 100 to 150 sheets and ten envelopes), minimal buffer memory, and no networking options. These days, inkjets sport an array of features, such as larger displays or touch screens, integrated Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and more paper-handling options. Makers of business-oriented inkjets are also offering higher-yield ink cartridges, optional paper trays, standard duplexing, expandable memory, and more features for networked environments.

The real cost of an inkjet printer lies in its replacement inks. Many of the less expensive, home- or student-oriented models have fairly low-capacity ink cartridges that can run out sooner than you'd think — and they cost nearly as much as the printer itself. The tricolor cartridges that combine cyan, magenta, and yellow into one unit are also a bad deal: As soon as the cartridge runs out of one color, you have to replace all three. If your printing plans include tons of photos or lots of pages, look for a model that offers individual cartridges for each color, or high-capacity cartridges, which contain more ink and cost less per page.

It's hard to discuss cost per page because of all the variables, including page content, paper type, driver settings, and more. Suffice it to say, the more complex and colorful the job, the more ink you'll use — and paper can be expensive, especially with inkjets. In tests of inkjet printers conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology on behalf of PC World, the cost per text page ranged from 2.1 to 7.7 cents (US) per page. The cost per color graphics page ranged from 7.7 to 15.8 cents per page. For full-size (not snapshot) photo printers, the total cost (including paper) per 4-by-6-inch photo ranged from 46 to 97 cents.

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PC World Staff

PC World (US online)
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