Inexpensive inkjets print color superbly, and they do it faster than ever. Laser printers excel at printing black-and-white text. Economical all-in-one models can scan, copy, and sometimes fax. Here's how to find the type of printer that best suits you needs.
Inkjets use droplets of ink to form letters, graphics, and photos. Some have one cartridge that holds the cyan (greenish-blue), magenta, and yellow inks, plus a second one for black. Others have a separate cartridge for each color. For photos, many inkjets have additional cartridges that contain lighter cyan and magenta inks, or gray ink, which can give a smoother look in light areas of a photo.
Most inkjet printers output black-and-white text at 2 to 9 pages per minute but are much slower for color photos. Various models we tested took from 1 to 10 minutes or more to print a single high-quality 8x10.
Printing a 4x6 snapshot can take as little as one minute, and cost as little as 25 cents. The cost of printing a color 8x10 photo can range from 75 cents to $2.30, including ink and paper. The cost of printing a black-text page with an inkjet varies considerably from model to model, typically between 2 and 10 cents. Printer prices range from $30 to $400.
These work much like plain-paper copiers, forming images by transferring toner (powdered ink) to paper passing over an electrically charged drum. The process yields sharp black-and-white text. Laser printers usually outrun inkjets, cranking out black-and-white text at a rate of 12 to 18 ppm. Black-and-white lasers generally cost about as much as midpriced inkjets, but they're less expensive to operate. Laser cartridges, about $50 to $100, can print thousands of black-and-white pages for a cost of 2 to 3 cents per page.
Lasers that can be networked--shared by all the computers on a home network--start at $130.
All-in-one laser printers add scanning, copying, and sometimes fax capability. Among laser printers we tested, there was only one clear-cut performance difference: They were noticeably slower at printing text than the plain lasers. Prices start at $200.
Color lasers are slower than black-and-white models. They cost as much to use as the better inkjet models, and they're not a good choice for printing photos. They're also very bulky. They cost $250 and up.
You can also get printers with scanning, copying, and sometimes fax capability. Many all-in-ones cost no more and take up little more space than a plain printer. What's more, all-in-ones are actually getting less expensive and more versatile. They cost $60 and up.
In our tests, inkjet all-in-ones and plain inkjets performed similarly, cost about the same to use, and printed at similar speeds. A few inkjet all-in-ones and plain inkjets printed a color 4x6 in less than 2 minutes, and a few relatively frugal ones printed one for as little as 25 cents.
Specialty snapshot printers
For printing photos at home, a speedy snapshot printer can be more convenient than a full-sized model. Most are limited to 4x6-inch snapshots, but a few models can also print on 5x7 paper. Snapshot printers use either inkjet or dye-sublimation technology, in which a waxy ink is fused to paper from a roll of plastic film.
Like most full-sized inkjet printers, these models typically hook up directly by cable to a digital camera through a PictBridge connection, or print directly from your camera's memory card so you can print without using a computer. They cost $100 to $200.
Mobile or personal printers
These smaller versions of inkjet printers are good for executives--or others--on the go. Most have a built-in battery in addition to an external power cord. And they come equipped with memory card readers so you can print photos without a computer. What they lack in speed, they make up in portability. They're lightweight and can fit into a briefcase or backpack.
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