Choosing the best inkjet, laser and multifunction printers: ITReviews.com Buyer’s Guide review

How to choose and buy the best printers and multifunction devices
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Buying a new printer can be a daunting task. There are plenty to choose from, and many options to consider: inkjet, laser, LED… a standalone, or an all-in-one, which integrates scanning and copying functions into a single device? And there are other, more hidden factors to consider, such as running costs. As with any purchase, getting your requirements clear at the start is critical. Luckily, ITReviews is here to help you out, as we talk you the plus points and the pitfalls of the printer market.

Inkjet printers
The most common printer technology (and usually the cheapest to buy) is inkjet. These printers use tiny nozzles to squirt small amounts of liquid ink onto the paper to create your image or text.

Inkjets are great for creating high-quality photographic prints, but they can be expensive to run and the ink is susceptible to water – making them a bad investment for the office. For best results when printing images, too, you’ll need to use specialist inkjet papers, which will also help to push costs up.

Laser printers
Laser printers write an invisible, latent image onto an electrostatically charged drum, which then picks up an image composed of fine particles of toner, which are then rolled onto the paper and fused using heat – creating a waterproof print which is robust and clear. Laser printers are typically fast and cheap to run – particularly as they require no specialist paper, but produce good results on standard copier paper.

The down side is that the purchase price of a laser is typically higher than that of an inkjet – though in time, if you are a heavy user, this can be more than offset by lower running costs. Colour laser printers aren’t particularly well suited to photographic prints.

LED printers
LED printers work in a simialr manner to laser printers, but replace the pricey laser module with less expensive light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Quality can be as good as that of a laser printer, but they typically require less electricity to run and cost less. They’re relatively uncommon, however. Borther and OKI are the only two major manufacturers to use this technology, which may restrict your choice of brands.

While other printer types exist – such as dye sublimation devices, impact printers, and wax printers – they’re relatively uncommon, and usually used for specialist purposes.

Features
While choosing between LED, laser, and inkjet is important, it’s also worth taking other features into consideration. If you’re running a home office, you may find that an all-in-one device – which combines printer, scanner, copier, and fax machine – will save you space compared to the equivalent multiple devices.

For those who need to print high volumes, models that include a duplexer – which allows the printer to print on both sides of the paper – are also worth looking into. You may also want to think about extras such as memory card slots or WiFi connectivity.

If you don’t get a printer that boasts WiFi, one annoyance to bear in mind is that it probably won’t come with the required cable needed connect it to your PC. The majority of printers on the market these days use a USB connection, and require a USB A-B cable which shouldn’t set you back more than around £4 – but you’ll need to order one if you want to use it straight out of the box.

As with our other guides, we’ll be taking a look at products that will appeal to budget, mainstream and premium users.

BUDGET
As a budget buyer, you probably won’t print very often. You want a printer so you can have copies of online tickets and flight details, plus the occasional photograph, but you won’t be doing high-volume work.

Inkjet printers can be had for extremely small amounts of money – so much so, in fact, that they’re often given away free with low-end PCs in order to make the deal seem more attractive. There’s a key point to consider before you buy that £20 bargain, however: running costs.

Deskjet 3050
Always take into account the cost of running a budget inkjet.

Inkjet printers, unsurprisingly, need ink – and inkjet ink is one of the most expensive substances on the planet. On average, round 75 per cent of the total cost arising from owning an inkjet printer comes from the cost of replacement ink cartridges.

So while that £20 printer might seem like a bargain, the replacement cartridges can often cost as much if not more than the printer itself – and the ones that arrive bundled with the printer are often only half-filled, meaning you’ll have to shell out for new ones before you know it. We can’t stress enough that you should always investigate the cost of a full set of replacement cartridges before buying a cheap inkjet.

If you’re on a particularly tight budget, it’s worth investigating third-party ‘refilled’ or ‘remanufactured cartridges’. These are usually recycled, cleaned and filled with fresh ink – and can set you back a fraction of the cost of an original cartridge. Some manufacturers are trying to put a stop to this industry, fitting their cartridges with chips that prevent refills from working – so have a look to see if compatibles are available for the printer you’re looking at.

A word of warning, though: third-party refills have a chequered reputation, and some have been known to leak and cause damage to printers – and using them will almost certainly invalidate any warranty the manufacturer offers on your printer, so it’s possibly something to consider only after the warranty has expired.

At the cheap end of the market, you won’t get many bells and whistles. While the print quality of even a cheap inkjet is surprisingly good these days, you’ll struggle to find one that features a duplex function or built-in scanner, never mind niceties such as wireless connection, or slots for your digital camera memory card, enabling you to print without booting up your PC.

For a high-resolution capable of printing in A4, you can expect to pay no more than around £40. If you’re not going to be printing in colour, a black and white laser printer will cost around £50 and comes with significantly lower running costs.

MAINSTREAM
As a mainstream buyer, you’re probably a not-infrequent printer. You might want a printer that’s capable of high-quality borderless photos, or able to print a fair bit of documentation. Either way, the market is filled with devices to choose from.

Photographic output
If you want high-quality colour, then an inkjet is really your only choice. With good photographic paper – which has a glossy finish and is specially coated to prevent the ink from bleeding, keeping colours impressively vibrant and colourfast for years – you can print out photos that look as good as those you’d get professionally.

Look for a printer with a resolution of around 1,440 dots per inch (dpi). This is a measurement of how many ink droplets a printer can squeeze into a give space – the higher the number, the higher the quality of the printout. Be warned, however: higher resolution printers use more ink, so when you’re printing draft copies, be sure to switch it to a lower resolution mode.

Check the features of the printer you’re buying. If you’ll be doing a lot of photographic printing, look for a model that supports ‘borderless printing.’ This feature allows you to print right up to the edges on 6×4 photographic paper, avoiding the white border that many home printed photographs show.

All-in-ones or multifunction printers (MFPs)
If you’re a home office worker looking for an all-in-one device, there are plenty to choose from in the mainstream market – but be warned: the printer component in an all-in-one is typically several models down from an equivalently-priced stand-alone device, so if you’re unlikely to be scanning or copying documents don’t be tempted by the ‘convenience’ of a feature you’ll never use.

If you’re not going to be printing photographs, consider a laser or LED printer. While typically more expensive than an inkjet, they print faster and have significantly lower running costs. Documents printed on a laser or LED printer are sharper, clearer, and don’t ‘bleed’ into cheap copier paper – but for photographs, an inkjet is definitely the way to go. If you’d like the occasional high-quality photograph, consider buying a laser for the bulk of your printing and using an online service for photos – the cost is often around the same as printing them at home.

Whether you choose an inkjet, a laser, or an LED printer, always look at the cost of replacement cartridges. While cheap colour lasers are currently available for bargain-basement prices, a full set of toners – cyan, yellow, magenta, and black – can set you back several times the cost of the printer. Double-check to see if compatible cartridges are available, too: a good-quality refill could halve the running cost of any printer without having a discernible impact on print quality.

Whether you’re buying an inkjet, a laser, or an LED printer, you should budget around £70 to £150 for a good-quality model. An all-in-one printer with good quality photo functionality should set you back no more than around £150.

PREMIUM
As a premium buyer, you’re likely to have some esoteric requirements: perhaps you need to print on paper sizes bigger than A4, or you need to churn out large quantities of documents at very high speed.

Strangely, spending more than around £100 on a printer doesn’t usually increase the quality. Instead, you’ll pay extra for the features: duplex modes, automatic document feeders for the integrated scanning function, or support for large-format paper sizes such as A3 or even A2.

Large format
If you’re looking to print on A3 paper, you have the choice of a colour laser or an inkjet – but once you go to A2 and above, the choice reduces to just inkjet models. Either way, you can expect to pay a significant premium for the facility: large-format printers are usually the reserve of professional users, such as architects and poster printers, and manufacturers charge accordingly.

Epson - Stylus Photo R3000

Large-format printers like Epson’s Stylus Photo R3000 handle A3 and above – at a price.

High volume
If you’re a high-volume printer user, spending more will usually give you an increased number of paper trays. This allows you to both increase the amount you can print between refills and also allows you to print on multiple paper sizes and types automatically. Two paper drawers are commonplace on office laser printers, but three or more can be had – for a price.

If you’re buying a workgroup printer – typically a digital photocopier with network printing functionality, rather than a dedicated printer – you can expect to find ‘finishing’ options such as an automated stapler or saddle-stitching unit for creating folded booklets and collated sheets.

There’s really no upper limit to how much you can spend in the premium category – but unless you have specific requirements for something more robust, faster, or with features that are missing from the mainstream market, you’d likely be better off saving your money and opting for a more reasonably priced device. With the money saved, large or special print runs can be sent to an external printing house.