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What Type of Printer Should I Buy?

type of printer to buy

Deciding what kind of printer you want to purchase -- inkjet, laser, or multifunction -- can be frustrating and confusing. There are so many types and brands of printers to choose from, at all prices, and just like computers, new models seem to be introduced on a monthly basis. How can the average consumer make an informed choice?  In order to make sense of it all, we offer the following tips:

What do you need the printer to do?

This is probably the most important question to answer. If you just need to occasionally print out documents such as letters, copies of Web pages from the Internet or simple spreadsheets, a low-end inkjet or laser printer is fine. If you need to do presentations or high quality photographs, you want a photo printer. If you print over 100 pages on a daily basis and don't need color, you may want to look at the faster laser printers. And, of course, if you are starting a home business and you need a combination of scanner, printer, copier, and fax machine, a multifunction printer is best.

Factors to Consider

  • Other important factors to be considered before purchasing a printer are: Resolution - the number of dots a printer prints in a square inch (over 1440 dpi is good). Choose a higher end model with a higher resolution if you will be printing lots of presentation-quality text, graphics and photos.
  • Operating Cost - Calculate the cost of replacement ink cartridges and paper, because printer users must continually purchase more ink cartridges and toner when the old ones run out or dry up. Be aware that the cost of paper, toner and ink can amount to more than the original cost of the printer within a year or so.
  • Speed - the volume of printout (pages per minute) is essential if you are printing large numbers of documents in black and white
  • Size of the printout - will you be printing on oversized or non-standard paper, heavy card stock, blueprints, transparencies, etc? Then choose a printer whose paper path is no sharper than 90 degrees to allow printing on various types of media without jamming.
  • Post-Script Fonts - most inkjet printers are not PostScript-compatible. If you need to print PostScript graphics or fonts, consider a laser printer.
  • Photo Quality - Specialty color printers that have photo lab quality are essential if you are looking for a printer that can print high-resolution images on photo paper.
  • Digital camera cards and Memory Sticks - does the printer need to have built-in slots for these de vices?
  • Network enabled - will you be connecting the new printer to a home or office network?
  • Image processing - Processing images takes a lot of power, so printers often have as much computing horsepower and memory as a PC. Some printers form the complete image in memory prior to printing it, which allows them to handle large files quickly.
  • Ease of use - how easy is the printer setup process?
  • Compatibility - The newer printers are all USB-compatible, which means they will work for Windows 98/2000/XP, and with Mac System 8.1 or higher.
  • Warranty - be sure to purchase a printer that includes a manufacturer's and/or store warranty (at least 90 days).

When a Color Inkjet Printer is the Best Choice

Ink jets are a good choice if you are looking for high quality color photo output for a reasonable price. Prices start at less than $40, with only a few business-level ink jets costing more than $700-the starting point for color lasers. And ink jets that handle tabloid-size paper start at less than $500, which is thousands less than tabloid-size lasers cost.

First, you'll need to decide on the type of machine you want: a standard ink jet for reasonable photos and a low purchase price, or a photo ink jet for superior photo quality. All of the top models offer 4800-by-1200-dpi resolution, but they vary quite a bit in terms of printing speed.

Specialized photo printers may not work as well on general tasks such as word processing. Even if they do, their per-page costs may be higher and their operation slower. The cost of the printer isn't the only consideration. Color ink cartridges can be expensive, offsetting the low cost of the printer. Special coated photo papers also add to the cost of color printing.

Choose an inkjet printer based on the cost of replacement ink cartridges, and not on the cost of the printer. Over time ink and paper costs can exceed the cost of the printer several times over. Avoid single-cartridge printers which only come with a color cartridge that can't print true color. It is more cost effective to purchase a color inkjet with multiple color cartridges (CMYK), so they can be replaced individually.

Another cost saving tip: Leaving any inkjet idle for even a week or two can allow the ink in the tiny tubes that feed the nozzles to dry. The resulting clogs cause streaks and other anomalies in your pictures. To avoid clogs, print at least once a week. Some printers run a maintenance routine on startup, meaning that you can keep the nozzles clear simply by turning your printer on and off once a week. Check your device's manual to see whether it has this feature.

When to Choose a Laser Printer

If you do a lot of document printing, don't use an inkjet printer. Use a laser printer. Laser printers cost more to buy but much less to use - they are very cost effective to operate since their toner cartridges are not replaced as often.

With all costs figured in, each document page printed on a typical laser printer costs from 2 cents to 5 cents; on an inkjet, the cost per page can run from 10 cents to 15 cents, depending on the model. (This does not even count the cost of photo printing, which can cost up to a dollar per page on an inkjet when you include the high cost of photo paper and the additional ink that's used in that mode.)

Comparison Shop

Once you've finalized your list of requirements, check out some of the large comparison review sites, such as CNET or PC Magazine or PC World, to get an idea of what printers are currently out there in your price range. Also check the cost of printer ink cartridges, toner and paper for the different models. Finally, read all user reviews and note any comments regarding reliability, ease of use, and any hardware issues or defects.

Once you've identified some potential candidates, go to Best Buy, Staples, CompUSA or any other computer superstore to see the printers in person. If you have a small workspace area, consider the printer's footprint and how it will be connected to your existing system.

When you're ready to buy, consider buying from an online vendor such as in order to get the best possible price.

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