Buying guide: Printers

Find out how to choose the right printer for your needs -- whether it's a laser or inkjet for home or office

It's inevitable that sooner or later you will need to print something from your computer. It may be photos, school reports, bank statements, concert tickets you've ordered online or office documents. A good printer can make your digital photos sparkle or your school assignments stand out from the pack.

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There are many models to choose from, and they can range in price from $60 to well over $1000, depending on the features and the technology.

Choosing the right printer for your needs and workflow is an important process. For example, if you seldom use a printer, then it's not worth getting a printer that will give you the best quality and fastest performance – you could choose a budget model that is perfect for occasional print jobs.

Inkjet or laser?

Technologically, there are two types of printers that you need to be familiar with: inkjet and laser. A printer with inkjet technology releases ink through thousands of tiny nozzles in order to create well-detailed images on paper. A laser printer uses ink toner (which looks like dust), and an electronic charge, which helps attract the toner particles to produce the images you see on the paper, and a fuser to 'melt' the toner to the paper and make it stick.

Inkjets can vary in price from $60 to $1500, depending on how many features you need and what level of print quality you want. They can print at a much higher resolution than laser printers, making them well-suited for photo printing.

Generally, an inkjet printer will have at least one colour ink tank and one black ink tank, which combine to produce the colours that you see on the page — although some printers have individual tanks for each colour and might also include more than three colours. Some models designed for high quality photo printing may have six individual colour ink cartridges or more.

A laser printer is useful if you have high volume printing needs — such as in the office — as its toner can print many more pages than even the largest inkjet tanks. Laser printers are also generally faster than inkjet printers for completing large print jobs.

There are two types of laser printers: monochrome, which will only print in black and white; and colour, which will print in colour or black and white. Colour laser printers are more expensive than monochrome lasers, and are generally bigger in size too, unless you opt for a compact laser printer.

A basic monochrome laser printer can be bought for as little as $70, while a basic colour laser might cost around $150. Prices will vary greatly depending on how fast the printers are and also what type of features are installed, such as an extra paper tray or a duplex unit for printing on both sides of the paper.

Laser printers are designed for work or home office environments but some small units are available for personal use, too. Laser printers are great for printing large jobs quickly, with crystal clear text. Many lasers don't print photos well at all, so if you regularly print out only pages of text and charts, and don't mind printing your photos at a store, then a laser printer may be a good choice for you.

Multifunction printers

If you want to buy a printer, and also need a device that can scan photos and documents onto your computer, then a multifunction printer is what you should consider.

Multifunction printers are basically a standard inkjet or laser printer, but with a flatbed scanner on top, where you can place the documents you want to copy or scan into your computer. Some models also have a fax/modem built in, so they can be used as a fax machine. The benefit of a multifunction printer is that it is an all-in-one device, so you don't use much desk space, nor do you need extra power outlets and computer ports to plug it in.

Ink cartridge costs

The cost of the ink cartridges for your printer is an important buying factor, and inkjet printers can quickly churn through a lot of ink. Before buying a printer, find out how many ink cartridges it will need, and how much they will cost. If you're buying a printer with individual ink tanks for each colour, then expect to pay around $20 for each cartridge. Cartridges for photo printers, which use high quality pigment inks, can cost $30 or more each.

If you mainly print office documents that use few colours, then your ink cartridges will last longer than if you are printing plenty of 6x4in photos. Most inexpensive printers use one black and one tri-colour cartridge, so if one colour in the tri-colour cartridge runs out, you have to replace the whole cartridge. Printers with individual cartridges have an advantage here, as you can replace each colour as it runs out.

If buying a laser printer, you need to find out how much the toner cartridges cost, and if other parts may need replacing over time, for example the drum unit or a waste bottle. Calculate how much you'll print each month, and what types of documents, and buy a printer that will fit those needs. The printer’s duty cycle is a rating that tells you how many pages the printer can print during the month without breaking down.

Connections

Most home printers connect to a computer (either your desktop or notebook) using a USB connection. Office devices generally have a USB connection and an Ethernet wired network port – this allows them to be connected to a network and shared with multiple computers simultaneously. Models with wireless networking also exist for home use. Other features to look for on inkjet printers include Bluetooth, which allows you to print photos off your mobile phone; PictBridge, so you can plug your digital camera into the printer and print photos off it directly; and memory card slots, which allow you to insert the memory card from your camera into the printer and directly print photos. Another feature to consider is a USB slot that allows you to print documents directly off a USB device.

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