Would you like some guidance on selecting a new printer? Clients often ask me to recommend a good printer or tell them which printer they should buy. These requests are actually surprisingly difficult for two reasons. First, there are numerous printer manufacturers and each company makes a range of printer models which are often updated yearly so it is tough to keep track of all of these devices. Second, people’s individual needs vary more than you might realize. Consequently, rather than recommend one or two particular printer models, I often start by outlining the range of printer features that are available to help people select an appropriate type of printer for their needs. This article contains a summary of my guidance. I intend to update this article as the printer market changes so check back before you buy your next printer.
[Aside – If you’d like to look for specific printer model recommendations check out The Wirecutter which tests and offers recommends for The Best Cheap Printer, The Best Multi-Function Printer and maybe other types of printers. ]
When buying a printer one needs to start by answering these two questions?
- Do you want an inkjet or laser printer?
- Do you want a single-function device which can only print or a multi-function device that can print, scan, photocopy and possibly fax?
Let’s look more closely at the both of these questions.
Do You Want An Inkjet or Laser Printer?
Costs – Don’t focus too much on the initial purchase price of a printer. Instead, think about the total cost of ownership over a few years which includes the purchase price plus the cost of ink or toner. Historically, laser printers have been significantly more expensive to purchase, but the disparity in purchase prices has narrowed over the years. Typically, laser printers have lower costs per page printed. This article from Ganson Engineering indicates that inkjet print costs are often 25 cents per page or much higher, compared to laser printer print costs at 15 cents per page.
Here are some ballpark purchase prices for you to consider.
- Color Inkjet printers start around $75.
- Greyscale laser printers start around $75.
- Multi-function color inkjet printers start around $100.
- Multi-function greyscale laser printers start around $100.
- Color laser printers start around $250
- Multi-function color laser printers start around $250.
I rarely recommend any entry-level printers so I would recommend adding at least $50-$75 in any of these product categories. For example, a client who wanted a good multi-function color laser printer for her business bought the HP LaserJet Pro M477fdn All-in-One Color Printer for about $400 in Feb 2016. This price had dropped to $325 by July 2016. [Update, late 2018. This printer is no longer in production and is tougher to find.]
We all know about the extravagant prices charged for ink for inkjet printers. Ounce for ounce, I think it has to be one of the most expensive liquids on the planet! This leads to the high per-page costs of inkjet printers.
Laser printers use a fine powder, named toner, rather than liquid ink. Toner cartridges aren’t cheap, but a cartridge will typically last for several times as many pages as a small ink cartridge. This leads to the lower per-page costs of laser printers.
Printing Technology and Print Speed – As you probably know, inkjet printers print using liquid ink. Laser printers affix a fine powder, called toner, to the paper. Laser printers tend to print faster than inkjet printers. If you are primarily going to print text-based documents and speed is important, then a laser printer might be preferred. If you print infrequently, a laser printer is also a better choice since the ink in inkjet printers can dry up and clog the print heads. Consequently, it’s recommended that you print using your inkjet printer at least every few days or weekly.
One specification you should look at before buying is the printer’s speed rating. This is typically listed in pager-per-minute (ppm). It’s useful to compare the ppm rating between printers to know which is faster. However, please be aware that a ppm rating is not a very useful rating. This is because ppm is measured by seeing how many copies of the same page can be printed by a given printer in one minute. Most of us do not need to printer 10 or 20 or 30 copies of the 1 page very often.
Another useful statistic is the time to first page. This is a measurement of how long the printer takes to wake up, process the data it received and print this data on the page. Unfortunately, this piece of information is not commonly listed, but if you can test the printer before buying then you can determine this yourself.
Print Quality – It’s a subjective call whether people prefer the printouts of inkjet or laser printers and some of this depends upon what types of documents people are printing, i.e. a school report or a photograph. Personally, I print my photos at a drugstore or Costco which uses a high-end inkjet printer, but I have a color laser printer at home for printing Google Maps, presentations, photocopying magazine articles, etc. Color inkjet and color laser printers both produce good quality documents, but inkjet printers can typically print better on glossy photo paper, especially if they have 6 or more ink tanks, compared to color laser printers.
Single-function or Multi-function?
For most folks this is a pretty easy decision. They know what they want. Most homes want at least one multi-function device around. This is why multi-function inkjet printers are so pervasive. That said, if you don’t need to print in color very often then you might want to consider a multi-function greyscale laser printer. Another option, if your budget and desk space permit is to have two printers. Buy a greyscale, single-function laser printer for printing articles, email messages, web pages and other text-based documents. Supplement the laser printer with a multi-function color inkjet printer. You can use it for color printing needs as well as photocopying and scanning needs.
Here is a list of other printer features that are important to some people which could impact whether you chose a laser or inkjet printer. Alternatively, they could be features that you want to specifically look at when selecting your particular printer model.
Two-Sided Printing – The technical name for two-sided printing is duplex printing. Obviously, two-sided printing can lower your paper costs. Both inkjet and laser printers offer duplex printing options, but its more common on laser printers.
Document Feeder – An automatic document feeder (ADF) is a tray that can hold a stack of pages. An ADF can allow you to more quickly photocopy or scan all of the pages since the printer will feed them in one after the other. Both inkjet and laser printers offer duplex printing options, but it’s more common on laser printers.
Connectors – Nearly every printer comes equipped with a USB port. This lets you plug the printer into one computer. If you have multiple computers which print to the printer then you should make sure your printer is equipped with either an ethernet port or wireless (Wi-Fi) capabilities. Both inkjet and laser printers commonly offer Wi-Fi and/or ethernet ports.
AirPrint – If you want to be able to print from your iPhone or iPad then you want to select a printer that has AirPrint support built-in. This is very common on most new printers.
Fax – If you want a multi-function printer, do you also need it to be able to fax? Many multi-function printers only include the ability to print, scan and copy. If you need faxing capabilities, read the product detail closely. People tend to send and receive faxes less and less. Instead, many people can get away with scanning a document and then sending it as an email attachment.
Paper Tray Capacity – Common paper tray capacities are 50, 150 or 250 pages. The smaller capacities are fine for most home users, but office environments often want 250 sheet trays. Sometimes users even want to have two 250-sheet paper trays. The paper trays in inkjet printers typically only hold 50 or 150 pages. Laser printers targeting home and home-office users tend often have 100 or 150 sheet paper trays so watch for this if you print a lot and would prefer 250-sheet trays.
Noise – The amount of noise that a printer creates during startup and while printing varies considerably. The back and forth movement of the print carriage in some inkjet printers can make lightweight tables shake noticeably and generates a surprising amount of noise. Both types of printers have motors and gears and some manufacturers are more considerate to select quieter ones. If at all possible, listen to the printer you want to buy before you buy it. Or, ask the retailer about their return policy if you learn that the printer is annoying loud.
Support for Large Paper Sizes – Printers typically print on letter-size paper and most also let you print on legal size paper. If you deal with a lot of legal-size documents and you need to either photocopy, scan or fax them then make sure that this paper size is supported. Do you ever need to print on 11″ x 17″ or even 12″ x 18″ paper? If so, your selection is going to be more limited since not all manufacturers offer printers that support these larger sizes.
I researched large-format inkjet printers for a client in the fall of 2015 and learned that Canon didn’t offer any 11″ x 17″ printers. I also learned that Brother tends to offer a good selection of 11″ x 17″ printers. I found a few 12″ x 18″ printers including these: