Paper, really?!

Predictions of the paperless office have been greatly exaggerated. Even with the explosion of email and texting, nothing is more portable, reliable and archival (free of a particular digital format becoming obsolete) as print on paper. Whether you need to print directions; present a coupon; retain proof of an online transaction; create handouts for a meeting or notes for yourself; print photos or send letters by U.S. Mail; there are occasions when the lack of a printer will prove a genuine inconvenience.

With so many printers, how do I choose?

Identify how you plan to use a printer and the environment in which it will be placed. These are critical questions you need to answer even before deciding on which technology to choose. If you work by yourself and don’t print on most days—and when you do, jobs are limited to a few pages—then a low-capacity, relatively slow printer will suffice. If you do a moderate amount of printing or share a printer with others, then a more capable printer is in order. The more printing you do, the faster you want the printer to perform and the more paper it should be able to accommodate at once.

A personal printer at home may not get as much of a workout as a multi-user printer hooked into an office network. Still, a teacher who regularly prints worksheets for scores of students from home will want a more robust printer than a retiree who occasionally prints jokes from email or an article from an online newspaper. The type of printer that will best suit your needs depends mostly on what you want to print and how often.

Do I need color or monochrome?

A printer with only black ink is still the mainstay of office printing. Such printers are capable of printing crisp text and graphics in many shades of gray, too. A monochrome laser printer will do the job. But if you need to print color graphics for a presentation or photos, you’ll want a color printer. Most color printers use inkjet technology, but color lasers are also available.

What’s an inkjet printer?

An inkjet uses a print head to blast tiny droplets of ink onto the paper to create the image. Inkjet printers can print sharp text and colorful photos, too.

(Simulated Magnification)

General-purpose inkjet printers are the least expensive printers available. These printers are ideal for anyone who needs to print a variety of materials but doesn’t do a lot of printing. However, be careful if you do a lot of printing, especially in color, because these inexpensive printers can gobble up a lot of ink, and you might find that a single set of ink cartridges can cost as much as the printer itself. If a printer will be used heavily, you might be better off with a laser printer.

Why should I pay special attention to the printer’s per-page cost?

Because the up-front cost of the printer may be artificially low. Consider the true cost over the lifetime of the printer that includes ink replacement. Some inkjet printers, for instance, may seem like a bargain when priced well below $100—or even given away as a promotion with the purchase of a computer—but you could spend many more times the cost of the printer replacing the color ink cartridges if you do a lot of printing.

Also, if a “starter" ink set is included, it’s prudent to stock up on accessory ink when you purchase the printer, since a starter set typically contains less ink and will run out sooner than a regular replacement cartridge.

How do inkjets vary?

If you want the utmost in simplicity, some inkjet printers use one color ink cartridge that contains cyan, magenta and yellow ink, and a second cartridge that contains black ink. Black is usually separate because printing documents uses only (or mostly) black ink, and having a separate black cartridge lets you replenish just the black as needed. It’s even better if an inkjet printer uses four separate ink cartridges (one for each color), so that you replace only the ones that are empty.

Some inkjet printers are designed for printing photos. These printers typically use more than four ink cartridges, and they could be filled with gray, light cyan or light magenta ink. The enhanced palette is intended to produce greater color accuracy for the best-looking photos possible. If you print more documents than photos, you’re better off with a standard inkjet printer. But if printing photos is what you do, then it pays to buy a printer that’s designed to produce great-looking photos.

Regardless of how many ink cartridges a printer uses, look for a printer with larger ink cartridges that can print more pages, relative to those used in other printers, and try to make sure the replacement cartridges aren’t shockingly expensive—before you buy the printer. The specifications for replacement cartridges should indicate how many pages they can print.

What’s a laser printer?

A laser printer uses powdered toner instead of liquid ink to lay down the image. Inside a laser printer, an imaging drum is given an overall positive charge, and then portions of it that match the image you want to print are discharged by a laser. The imaging drum is then exposed to positively charged toner, which clings to the drum only where the laser has discharged it. The pattern of powder is then melted onto the paper using heat. Laser-printed pages never smudge and won’t run if they get wet.

Nothing is more cost effective than a laser printer when it comes to high-volume printing. Laser printers are designed to endure heavy use with very little maintenance required. If the bulk of your printing consists of text documents and the occasional Web page, then all you really need is a monochrome laser printer. Also, you may be able to offset your reliance on an office copier since you can print multiple copies directly on the laser. If you require touches of color in your printouts, a color laser printer may be your best bet.

Is an inkjet or laser better for my needs?

Inkjet printers excel at printing photos, but laser printers excel at text, and they are faster than inkjets. If you anticipate multiple users sharing a printer in a busy office environment, only a laser printer will be able to keep up with the workload.

Monochrome laser printers contain just a black toner cartridge, and one is typically good for thousands of pages—many more than a typical ink cartridge. But color laser printers contain four toner cartridges (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), and you can easily pay more than $100 to replace each one. These, too, will outlast ink cartridges, and it will still cost less per page than inkjet printing. But it can be a shock to the wallet for an individual user to have to shell out hundreds of dollars just for toner. So even though inkjet printers cost more per page than laser printers, individual users might be more comfortable spending $50 on ink cartridges two or three times a year than to have to spend hundreds of dollars on toner every year or two.

It all boils down to how much printing you do, and if you need to print in color. If you can get by without color, a monochrome laser printer offers the lowest cost per page—period. Anyone can afford a monochrome laser printer along with replacement toner cartridges every once in a while. If you need to print a little bit of everything every so often, an inkjet printer is your best bet. For high-volume printing, monochrome or color, a laser printer is the best choice. Some busy offices have one or two color laser printers set up for special print jobs, along with several monochrome laser printers that do the bulk of the printing.

The average laser printer is bigger and heavier than the average inkjet printer. Make sure you have enough room and a sturdy surface for a given printer.

What are multifunction printers?

A multifunction printer (MFP), or all-in-one printer, is a printer with a built-in scanner. The scanner is used to convert printed documents to electronic form and to create an image for making copies. Some MFPs also allow faxing. Their big advantage over separate devices is that they save space and use just one electrical outlet. You’ll find MFPs based on inkjet as well as laser technology.

For all their functionality, MFPs are very affordable. Anyone with a hundred dollars to spend can print, scan, copy and fax, often in color, right from home; they are also ideal for small office use. Even if you just print documents most of the time, some day you are bound to need to copy something or send a fax. That’s when you’ll be glad you bought an all-in-one unit.

Before buying an MFP, consider whether the unit has a sheet-fed or a flatbed scanner. A sheet-fed design is more compact but pages have to be fed into a slot in order to be scanned. The real drawback is that you can’t scan or copy a page in a book or magazine without tearing it out first. A flatbed scanner is similar to a library copier. Flatbed scanners have a lid that you lift to expose the glass surface on which you place material to be scanned; this lets you scan a bound page.

Similar to multifunction inkjet printers, all-in-one laser printers offer printing, scanning, copying and faxing, all from one unit. These are ideal for home or small office use, especially when there’s a lot of printing involved. In fact, all-in-one laser printers tend to be geared for small office use. The big laser printers deployed in large offices with numerous users are typically dedicated printers.

What kind of connectivity do I need?

Almost all printers have a USB port for making a direct connection to a computer. A USB interface is all you need if the printer will be used from one computer. If you want multiple computers or mobile devices to be able to share a printer, then they have to connect to the printer either wirelessly or over a wired network.

If you want to print wirelessly from any nearby computer, then look for a printer with Wi-Fi connectivity. If you want to print from mobile devices without connecting any wires, then look for a printer with Bluetooth connectivity. If you want to share a printer among multiple users on a wired network, look for a printer with built-in Ethernet connectivity so you can connect the printer right to the network. Some USB printers can attach to certain routers so they can be used as a network printer.

If you want to connect a digital camera directly to a printer without turning on a computer, then look for a printer with PictBridge connectivity. But make sure your camera is PictBridge-compatible. If you want to print photos directly from memory cards used in digital cameras, then look for a printer with a built-in memory-card reader. Any printer with a built-in memory card reader should also have a built-in LCD screen so you can view and select images to be printed. You don’t need the LCD screen if you will always be printing from a computer or PictBridge camera, since those devices will have their own displays.

Legacy printers connect through a parallel port, which means that if you’re buying a new computer and want to continue to use an old printer, you may have to opt for a parallel port on the computer since such ports are no longer included. Better yet, you can get a USB to printer adapter.  Alternatively, you can get a parallel print server that lets you share your parallel printer among the computers on your Ethernet network.

What type of paper should you use?

If you do only basic printing, such as documents and Web pages, then plain 8 ½ x 11-inch copier paper is all you need. With the exception of some special-purpose printers, all printers can print on plain paper. And for the most part, all inkjet and laser printers can output to plain paper in letter and legal sizes and to envelopes, too.

If you want to print on heavyweight paper or paper in special colors and textures, then make sure the printer you’re interested in can handle that type of paper. If you print a lot of pictures, you’ll want to print on special photo paper that brings out the best in photos.

How much paper should a printer hold?

A personal printer can usually hold from 50 to 250 sheets; a network printer, a ream (500 sheets) per tray. It’s helpful when a printer has multiple trays that can accept different paper sizes. Some printers also have an accessory multipurpose tray that lets you insert a sheet or two of special paper, a transparency or an envelope so you can print on them without removing the paper that’s already in place.

The capacity of a printer’s output tray is important only when lots of users share a printer, or if a single user often prints hundreds of pages in one session. Once an output tray is full, a printer will either stop printing or you’ll end up with a paper jam or pages on the floor.

What’s automatic duplexing?

Computer users tend to print on one side of the sheet—what a waste! You can save money and paper by printing on both sides. You can accomplish this manually by printing the odd-numbered pages of a document first, then turning the pages over and loading them into the printer again to print the even-numbered pages. But this can get tedious fast. An easier way is to buy a printer with a built-in duplexer. When you want, the feature will automatically suck each sheet back into the mechanism in order to print on the opposite side.

How many dots do you need?

When 300 dots per inch (dpi) desktop lasers hit the mass market in the mid-'Eighties, people marveled at the print quality. (Also, they couldn’t believe how quiet lasers were compared to impact printers, now obsolete.) Today, popular monochrome laser printers can easily carry a specification of 2400 x 600 dpi and color inkjets, 4800 x 1200. With so many dots at your disposal, the quality put out by today’s desktop printers often rivals that of commercial presses.

How much memory should a printer have?

All printers contain some kind of processor and a certain amount of memory that allow them to compose documents and photos. If a printer is used infrequently, and mostly for documents, then it doesn’t much matter how much memory or what type of processor it has. That’s because the computer’s processor and memory do most of the work.

When you have multiple users sharing a printer, or when single users often print high-resolution images and other large files, the amount of memory and the type of processor a printer contains becomes more important. In this case, look for a printer with the fastest processor and the most onboard memory, within your budget.

How many pages per minute should a printer be able to produce?

Unless you’re setting up a high-volume network printer or doing lots of printing yourself, it doesn’t matter how many pages per minute a printer can do. The typical user might print a 4- or 5-page document, or perhaps a photo or two every so often, and it’s negligible if they have to wait a minute or two for the pages to print. It’s only when scores of printouts are sent to the same printer that performance becomes an issue. In this situation, a printer might not be able to keep up with the demand, and a line of users will form at the printer. This situation might also push a printer past its monthly duty cycle, which is the approximate number of pages it’s designed to output per month. Pushing a printer beyond its duty cycle can cause it to wear out prematurely. If you need a printer for high-volume use, try to determine the average number of pages per month that will be printed and buy a model with a duty cycle that exceeds that number.

What’s a dye-sublimation printer?

Dye-sublimation technology is used mostly in dedicated photo printers and ID-card printers. Dye sublimation printing uses a dye-coated ribbon that looks like cellophane and contains three colors and a clear coating that protects the prints. Prints are made in four passes, one color at a time. Dye sublimation printers are intended only for printing photos. Most of them print 4 x 6 photos, but some can make 5 x 7 prints. They require special dye ribbon cartridges which can be used only for a fixed number of prints and special sheets of paper, both made specifically for the printer. The paper is usually packaged with the print cartridges. Some dye-sublimation printers have built-in battery packs, making them completely portable. Most of these units will work without a computer, since they feature built-in memory card readers and LCD screens. Most are PictBridge compatible as well.

What’s a mobile printer?

Mobile printers are very small printers with battery packs that allow them to be used away from AC power. Some weigh less than a pound and will fit into a briefcase or backpack. You might use one at a business meeting or while chauffeuring prospective home buyers.

Different designs are used to keep the size and weight of mobile printers as small as possible. Some mobile printers are nothing more than very small inkjet printers. Others use thermal printing technology in which special paper simply turns black, or some other color, when heated. Thermal printers contain no ink, toner or print cartridge of any kind. Instead you just load in the special paper that darkens when it’s heated. Some thermal printers use rolls of paper 8.5 inches wide and can easily print business documents. Others use relatively small sheets of pre-cut paper and are intended mainly for printing receipts.

Some mobile printers can print in color. They use special paper embedded with dye crystals that reveal proper colors only when heated by a unique print head. The prints are small, but you can use one of these printers at parties to document the good times as they happen.

What’s a professional printer?

In the post-darkroom age, professional photographers favor high-end inkjet printers that can produce gallery-quality prints. Most printers will accept paper with a maximum width of 8.5 inches and most documents can be printed on letter (8.5 x 11 inches) or legal size (8.5 x 14 inches) paper. But pros often print photos wider than 8.5 inches and they need a professional printer, or a large format printer, to get the job done.

Professional printers will accept paper 13 inches wide and larger. B&H carries large-format printers up to 64 inches wide, but a 13-inch printer is a good place to start, both size-wise and price-wise. You wouldn’t want to use a professional printer for general-purpose printing because the ink can be expensive, and these printers typically use more than four colors. There’s no better way to print professional-quality photos. Most of these printers will accept sheets or rolls of paper, which allow custom sizes to be printed. Note that many of these printers are very large and heavy, so make sure you have the room for one as well as someone to help you set it up, before you buy.

What’s a laser-class printer?

A laser-class printer is one that prints with nearly the same quality as a true laser printer, but uses technology that’s a little bit different. In shopping for a printer you might stumble across LED array printers. LED printers use an array of LEDs in place of lasers, but they do use toner and are otherwise very similar to true laser printers.

You might also run across solid-ink printers. Though fairly rare and expensive to purchase, solid-ink printers use solid ink blocks made of wax instead of toner. The ink blocks are like big crayons with unique shapes for each color so you can never put an ink block in the wrong slot. Solid ink printers use a lot of power, and they’re slow to warm up after being turned on. But they offer color printing at an even lower cost per page than laser printers, along with simpler maintenance.

What’s a label printer?

As the name implies, label printers create labels. You may remember the old handheld label makers that embossed letters and numbers onto adhesive-backed strips of plastic… you would use them to make labels for drawers, containers, lunch boxes and control panels. You can still get those antiques, but more common today are label makers that connect to computers, giving you all the benefits associated with computer editing, such as integrating with productivity software, having more typefaces and print sizes, spell checking and other useful features. Modern label makers typically use thermal-printing technology.

The Takeaway

  • Buy a monochrome laser printer if you don’t need to print in color. Lasers are fast and incur the lowest cost per page.
  • Buy an inkjet printer if you need to print in color but don’t do a lot of printing.
  • Buy a color laser printer if you need to print in color and you regularly print a lot of pages.
  • A multifunction printer can print, scan, copy and fax while taking up no more space than a stand-alone printer.
  • Try to determine how many prints you or your company make per month and buy a printer with a duty cycle that can meet those demands.
  • Buy a photo inkjet printer if you have to produce gallery-quality prints.
  • Buy a professional large-format printer if you want to make prints larger than 8.5 x 11 inches.

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A good, informative article for someone looking to get through the multitude of modern day printer terminology prior to making a purchase.