Buying a printer: how to choose the best printer for home or business

We show you how to pick the best printer for your home or for your small business, whether it's an inkjet or a laser printer

This printer buying guide covers inkjet printers and laser printers, as well as multifunction devices like scanners, copiers and faxes.

This printer buying guide covers inkjet printers and laser printers, as well as multifunction devices like scanners, copiers and faxes.

Paper handling A typical inkjet printer can hold about 100 sheets of paper at any one time. If you'll be printing photos, you'll also want to ensure that your inkjet printer can handle 6x4in and A4 glossy photo paper in addition to A4 plain paper. If you're looking at a laser printer, make sure it has ample paper storage capacity for you and your employees, so that you won't have to fill it too often. Look for a paper tray capacity of around 500 pages or more. If you want to print A3-sized jobs, you'll need to look for a printer that can handle this format. Printers that can handle A3 paper are more expensive than ones that only do up to A4.

LCD screen On some inkjet printers that are primarily designed to print photos, they feature a small LCD screen on which you can view photos from memory cards before printing them. The LCD screen also makes it easier to change the settings of the printer, especially if it's a multifunction printer with a scanner and photocopying feature.

Double-sided printing A laser printer with a duplex unit can print on both sides of the paper automatically. It's a great feature for an office environment, but it will cost a little more then a comparable printer without a duplex unit. For an inkjet printer, duplex printing can be automatic, but in most cases is it is manual. That is, you have to flip the pages over and re-feed them to the printer. Ask the sales person if the inkjet printer supports duplex printing in its driver, or if it has a built-in duplex unit.

Warranty and support If you'll be buying a laser printer, look for an on-site warranty option, which can come in handy if the printer breaks down during its warranty period. You might also want to consider getting an extended warranty if it's available.

Jargon buster

CMYK: these letters stand for cyan, magenta, yellow and keystone black. You'll often see printer cartridges described by these terms. These colours combine to produce all the colours that you'll see on your printed pages. Some printers may also use light cyan, light magenta and light yellow to increase the number of colours they can produce.

Consumables: this relates mainly to the paper and ink (for inkjet printers) or toner (for laser printers) cartridges that your printer relies on for its day-to-day operation.

DPI: this stands for dots per inch and it's used to describe the printer's resolution. The dpi is an indication of how many dots the printer can print in a one inch area (look for a specification similar to 4800x1200). A higher number means that the printer will be able to print in greater detail. Likewise, dpi is used to indicate the resolution of a scanner in a multifunction printer.

Duplex unit: this is a mechanism, mostly found in laser printers, which facilitates double-sided printing. It can either be built-in or offered as an optional extra. Some high-end inkjet printers might also have a duplex unit built-in.

Duty cycle: duty cycle is the rating given to a printer to indicate how many prints it can produce in a month (its workload), without breaking down. It is a key specification for laser printers, which are often used in busy office environments. An example of a duty cycle for a $1500 colour laser printer is 100,000 to 200,000 pages. Inkjet printers have much lower duty cycles of only between 1000-5000 pages per month, although some business models have higher ratings.

Monochrome: this term is mainly used for laser printers and it means that the printer can only print in black and white.

Multifunction printers: these are printers that also include a scanner, and sometimes a fax/modem. They are also known as all-in-one printers or multifunction devices.

PictBridge: This is a port on the front of an inkjet printer (and some laser printers) that allows you to connect your digital camera. By putting your camera in PictBridge mode, you can use the camera's menu system and LCD screen to select the photos that you want to print. This means you won't have to use a PC to transfer your photos, nor remove the memory card from the camera.

Printheads and ink cartridges: inkjet printers store their ink in cartridges, which often sit in a print head, although sometimes the ink is transferred to the printhead through tubes, while the ink cartridges reside elsewhere in the printer. The printhead is what places the ink from the ink cartridges onto the paper. It travels swiftly from side to side as the paper rolls underneath it line by line.

Printer driver: this is the software that interfaces your printer with your computer. From here you can set the paper size, print quality and number of copies, as well as check on ink levels.

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Campbell Simpson

Campbell Simpson

PC World
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