Inkjet printers have become the standard for home-computer use. They can turn out color photos nearly indistinguishable from lab-processed photos, along with stickers, transparencies, T-shirt transfers, and greeting cards. Many produce excellent black-and-white text. With some very good models selling for less than $200, it's no surprise that inkjets account for the vast majority of printers sold for home use.
Laser printers still have their place in home offices. If you print reams of black-and-white text documents, you probably need the quality, speed, and low per-copy cost of a laser printer. Printers use a computer's microprocessor and memory to process data. The latest inkjets and lasers are so fast partly because computers have become more powerful and contain much more memory than before.
Before you start shopping, decide whether to get an inkjet or a laser model, and a plain printer or an all-in-one. You can base your decision on what you'll be printing. This printer guide will help.
Inkjet vs. laser
Text only If you'll print only text, a laser printer is your best choice for fast, low-cost, top-quality black-and-white text. The best inkjet can match lasers' excellent text quality, but not their speed or cost.
Color text and graphics For printing graphics or text in black and color, go with an inkjet. Though you can find them for less than $250, color laser printers are still more expensive than their monochrome counterparts. And unlike black-and-white laser printers, they use four toner cartridges that can result in costs higher than that of an inkjet, even considering the greater capacity of a laser's toner cartridge.
Text, graphics, and photos While tops for text, lasers aren't well-suited for printing photos. Even models that can print in color aren't intended for use with glossy photo stock or other specialty papers, and photo quality is poor. Inkjets offer excellent print quality for photos and text, and accept a variety of paper types and sizes. Most can print photos directly from a digital camera. But keep in mind that ink cartridges don't last long, so supply costs can be high. Inkjets also print slower than lasers do.
Plain or all-in-one?
Inkjet and laser printers are available either as plain printers or as all-in-one (multifunction) models. Besides printing, all-in-ones copy, scan, and sometimes fax. A space-saving all-in-one can be less expensive than buying several separate devices.
For the money, plain inkjets are the best choice for printing text and color photos. Most can print almost anything, including photos up to 8.5x11 inches or larger, text, and graphical items such as greeting cards. You can also use various types and sizes of paper.
Printing, copying, scanning, and faxing black text
If you don't need to print or scan color photos, an all-in-one laser provides superior quality, faster print speed, and a lower cost per page. Most have a feeder for multipage copying. The downside of any multifunction device, whether inkjet or laser, is that if one function breaks, you have to repair or replace the whole unit.
Printing, copying, and scanning text, graphics, and photos
Inkjets excel at printing photos, so if you need them, go with an all-in-one inkjet. The best can produce excellent color photos and text, and most will print photos without a computer. A few can fax as well as copy and scan. They may have fewer features than stand-alone scanners, though.
Printing photos only
Snapshot printers are convenient, small, and fast, with speeds as quick as a minute per 4x6 photo. Some have handles and run on batteries, handy for use on the road. All can print photos from a digital camera without requiring a computer. Many models use dye-sublimation technology to make prints that are more water-resistant than those from inkjets. The drawback is that snapshot printers can print only small photos; they're not intended for text or graphics. In our tests, most didn't provide the photo quality of the best plain inkjets, and at $100 to $200, they cost about the same as a full-sized printer.
How to choose
Consider supply costs as well as price High ink- or toner-cartridge costs can make a bargain-priced printer a bad deal in the long run. Shop around for the best cartridge prices, but be wary of off-brands. We have found that brand-name ink cartridges have better print quality and fade-resistance, and per-page costs are often comparable.
Also consider whether an inkjet has a single or separate color cartridges. Those with a single color cartridge usually have a separate black cartridge for text. But some have individual color cartridges. Depending on your photos, separate color cartridges may be more economical.
Another way to save money is by using plain paper for works in progress and saving the good stuff for the final results. Glossy photo paper costs about 25 to 75 cents a sheet. We got the best results using the recommended brand of paper. You might be tempted to buy a cheaper brand, but lower-grade paper can reduce photo quality.
Do you want to print photos without a computer?
This saves you an extra step and a little time. Features such as a memory-card reader, PictBridge support (a standard that allows a compatible camera to be connected directly to the printer), or a wireless interface are convenient. Without the computer, though, you lose the ability to tweak image characteristics such as size, color, and brightness. You can do some editing on a printer that has an LCD screen, but your options will be very limited.
Weigh convenience features
Inkjets can make borderless prints like those from a photo finisher. That matters most if you're printing to the full size of the paper, as you might with 4x6-inch sheets. If you plan to use 4x6-inch paper regularly, look for a printer with a 4x6-inch tray or a second paper tray, which makes it easier to feed paper this size. With those small sheets, though, the cost per photo might be higher than combining a few images on 8x11-inch paper.
All printers have a USB port for connecting to a computer. Many also offer wired or wireless networking, which lets you print from any computer on your network. You can share a printer that lacks this feature, but the computer it's connected to must be turned on in order to print from a different computer.
While inkjet printers use a computer's memory to process the print job, laser printers have their own onboard memory, which must be large enough to hold full pages of the most complex graphics you need to print. If you print large files with a lot of graphics or have multiple users on your network, look for a laser with at least hundreds of MB of onboard memory, or the ability to add more.
Be skeptical of vendor specs
When shopping for a printer, you'll notice a number of specs, such as print speed and resolution. Those numbers are not all that useful, even for comparison purposes, because each company performs its tests in a different manner.
Your speed may vary
Print speed varies depending on what you're printing and at what quality, but the speeds you see in ads are generally higher than you're likely to get in normal use. You can't reliably compare speeds for different brands because each company uses its own methods to measure speed. We run identical tests on all models, printing text pages and photos that are similar to what you might print. Thus the print times in our Ratings are realistic and can be compared across brands.
Don't get hung up on resolution
A printer's resolution, expressed in dots per inch, is another potential source of confusion. All things being equal, the more dots a printer puts on the paper, the more detailed the image. But dot size, shape, and placement also affect quality, so don't base your choice solely on resolution.
Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.