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Common Printer Terms You Need to Know

common printer termsAs part of their printer buying guide, PC World has included an article detailing some of the vocabulary you will see when it comes to printing and what it all means. Having a basic understanding of these things will allow you as a consumer to better match up a printer to your needs.

Basic Specs


Dots per inch (dpi)
This is the number of dots your printer can fit into one square inch on a piece of paper. The numbers you will come across will either be multiples of 300 or 360 (like 1200 or 1440), which were set as baseline specs sometime in the past. More dots per inch means greater detail that the printer can produce. However as the PC World writer points out, vendors have developed technologies to manipulate these dots which lessens the importance of the dpi rating.

Engine speed
This is one of most hotly contested numbers in the business. This is more commonly articulated as pages per minute (ppm). Other things you may see are characters per minute (cpm) or images per minute (ipm). Canon, for instance lists their specs all in ipm now. The problem with these numbers, however, is that vendors are not the most forthcoming when they publish them. You may see numbers like 32ppm, but that may refer to the ppm in draft mode. Vendors also tend to eliminate from their estimations the time necessary for the initial processing. Other variables that effect the overall print speed are the complexity of what needs to be printed and also whether or not you are printing on both sides.

Internal memory
The internal memory of a printer will usually be articulated in terms of KB or MB, and most personal printers will not come with any. Where you start seeing built-in memory are with business printers and it is an indication of how much print data the machine can take on with a full queue of jobs. As a guide, lower end business models may have roughly 32MB to 128MB of RAM and higher end machines, 256MB to 512MB. Printers which are geared towards graphics generally can start with upwards of 1GB of memory. Depending on the size of your office and your printing needs, it may be advisable to buy a printer which has expandable memory, so you can add more as you need it.

Monthly duty cycle
This is another important number that indicates how many pages your printer can handle per month before failing. Keep in mind, however, that printers may come with two duty cycle numbers, one is the suggested duty cycle and then the maximum duty cycle. You will notice that there often is a considerable difference between the two figures, and you will likely want to stay closer in terms of print volume to the lower of these. Lower end models are likely to have a maximum duty cycle of around 5,000 pages (personal printers) and 20,000 pages (business printers). The heavy duty business printers are likely to have a cycle of close to 100,000 pages per month or more.

Personal printers these days always come standard with a USB slot for connecting to your PC. However, an increasing number of these printers, at all prices, are incorporating wireless connectivity which would allow multiple people in a house to all connect. An Ethernet connection is the standard connection for a business printer so it can be networked and shared amongst many users. Some business models will even have a built-in wireless connection or be wireless-capable with the purchase of additional equipment. An increasing number of business-oriented printers are coming with the ability to manage jobs and settings remotely via a web page or other tools. As we've moved forward over the last few years, wireless printing has pretty much become ubiquitous. All major vendors make wireless printers as well as appropriate apps or methods of connectivity from smartphones or tablets. The latest wireless technology to hit the market is in business-grade lasers who are now using NFC (near field communication) which allows users to literally tap the unit with their smartphone and get the required printout (e.g. Samsung and others).

Paper-Handling Specs

Standard and optional input trays
As a general rule, the amount of pages your printer can hold should be at least three times what you print in a day if possible so you don’t have to refill your tray more than once per week. For personal models, most input trays will hold between 100 to 150 sheets at a time and are not expandable beyond that. Business printers generally come with trays which hold at least 250 sheets at a time, but more expensive models may accommodate 500 (equivalent to a ream of paper) to 1000 sheets. Many of the higher-end models are upgradeable and additional trays can be purchased.

Multipurpose tray or manual feed slot
Some printers may also offer users the ability to print on thicker paper or other special media by manually feeding through a slot. They are not however intended for high-volume usage, and if you find yourself needing to print these items with increasing frequency, you should consider buying a printer with a dedicated media tray.

In these “green” times and also with the economy being the way it is, duplex (or two-sided) printing has reached new heights in popularity. That is not to say it was not important before, but more and more printers are coming with the ability to at least manually duplex sheets if not automatically. At the very least it can save you money by cutting your paper usage in half.

Automatic Document Feeder
Many multifunction printers today come with an automatic document feeder on top which allows a user to do unattended faxing, scanning, or copying. They come in varying sizes/capacities, but a decent one should be able to hold at least 25 pages at a time or more. Some models now even come with a Duplex ADF, so users can easily work with both sides of a single sheet of paper with one pass.

Other useful features

Many of the printer models that one will encounter these days have at least a 1-2 line monochrome LCD screen which will display status information or navigating through some basic menus. On more expensive business or photo-oriented printers will come with a more graphical color LCD which can range in size from 1.5” up to 7 or 8”. This will allow users to preview photos or have graphics representing different printing tasks or menus rather than just text. There has also been a push with the color LCDs to make them touch screen and also web-capable (e.g. HP Photosmart Premium Touchsmart AIO). With business models, these LCDs can offer a variety of document or printer management functions as well. Touchscreens in some cases have turned into entire touchpanels now in 2014, and LCD technology has been joined by CGD (color graphics display) technology. The advances also mean that you are more likely to find a printer with one of these types of screens vs. 2-line monochrome displays these days.

Media-card slots and PictBridge ports
The more photo-centric of printers out there these days now come with a bay of media card slots for direct printing without your PC. These models also come with LCD screens like we just mentioned so you can preview and do some basic photo editing. The typically supported memory cards are xD, SD, MMC, Memory Stick, and more. PictBridge ports are very much like a USB port for photos.

USB port
Not to be confused with the USB connection that allows your PC and printer to talk to one another, this USB port allows you to print files and pictures directly without having to mess with your computer. USB ports can sometimes be found on business-oriented laser printers. The PC World writer notes that these types of ports are “best used in conjunction with security functions so people can't simply walk up to the printer and mess with the device or your network through this port.”

Operating system compatability
The PC World writer purports that all printers work on the PC platform, but not all of them work equally well when it comes to Mac or Linux-based systems. For this reason, be sure to read the fine print when it comes to functionality if you have multiple operating systems in your network or business.

About William Elward

Founder of Castle Ink, William Elward has 20 years experience in the printer industry. He's been featured on CNN Money, Yahoo, PC World, Computer World, and other top publications and frequently blogs about printers and ink cartridges. He's an expert at diagnosing printer issues and has published guides to fixing common printer issues across the internet. A graduate of Bryant University and Columbia's Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program, he's held various leadership positions at The College Board, Bankrate, Zocdoc, and Everyday Health. Follow him on Twitter at William Elward's Twitter Profile