Sub-£100 inkjet printers group test review

budget inkjet printer
Photo of Sub-£100 inkjet printers group test
£59 + VAT

Unfortunately, the myth of the paperless office is just that – a myth. We all seem to print more pages now than we ever did. Make a purchase over the Internet and you’ll want to print off your order acknowledgement. See an interesting Web site and you might print off a couple of pages for a friend or relation who has never heard of HTML.

If you have a digital camera, no doubt you are in love with its ability to take endless high-quality pictures, but sooner rather than later you’ll want to print out a lovely glossy A4 print, and a stack of 6″ x 4″ too.

Then there are text documents. Of course you can read through on screen, but it’s a fact that you’ll spot more mistakes when you see it all laid out in black and white, and of course you can make notes on a printout using your trusty Biro.

You’ll be printing black text, text combined with pictures and high quality colour pictures, and the easiest and cheapest way to achieve all those tasks is with an inkjet printer.

Of course there are different kinds of inkjet printers, with a huge variety of prices. Most of us need a relatively basic printer, although we may have a preference for one type of printing over another. So in this group test we’ve gathered together six inkjet printers that cost less than £100 including VAT, to see just which budget printer is the best for your home or small office.

Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

The Epson Stylus C62 is the type of printer that you are likely to find bundled with a new PC. In fact you’re most likely to get its baby brother, the C44UX, which sells for under £40, so if you found a C62 in the box you may consider yourself lucky.

Unfortunately we’d have to disagree as we found the C62 to be an unimpressive printer. To start with, it’s relatively slow and it lost out to the i320 in every test. In addition it annoyed us with the behaviour of its chipped Epson ink cartridges.

You may not know about these nasty little devices. Epson disapproves of you using non-Epson replacement cartridges, or refilling your cartridges with after-market ink. To prevent this it puts a chip in each cartridge that monitors how much work the printer has done, and it then calculates how much ink is left in the cartridge. When it decides that the cartridge is empty it stops printing until it detects a new cartridge and chip.

If the colour cartridge has ‘run out’ (it may have some ink left) and you want to print a monochrome text document, forget about it. You need a new genuine Epson colour cartridge before the printer will work. Note that it will cost you around £47 to change the cartridges in this £61 printer.

There is one feature of the C62 that could make it desirable, as it has both parallel and USB ports, so it could be suitable for owners of older PCs.

In terms of print quality, the Canon i320 and this C62 are very similar, but as the Canon is faster and cheaper it is hard to work out why you would want to buy the Epson C62.

Lexmark’s P706 has the ‘P’ prefix that denotes it is a photo printer, and sure enough it can hold either a photo cartridge or a black cartridge, as well as the standard colour cartridge.

You don’t get the full selection of cartridges in the box, oh no, but instead you receive the photo cartridge and colour cartridge. If you’re planning on printing black text documents you’ll want to get a black cartridge ASAP.

As a result, the black text quality of the printer as supplied is unsatisfactory as it is not actually black. How could it be, as there is no black ink in the printer? Instead the colour is a very dark grey that is achieved by mixing up all the colours.

Incidentally, both Lexmark printers are shipped with cartridges that are described as ‘moderate use’ and that retail for a few pounds less than the standard part, so it’s safe to assume they contain less ink. This is quite common practice, and the only surprise is that Lexmark is decent enough to make the situation clear, assuming you understand its part numbers, that is.

In our photo test, the Lexmark took nearly half an hour to print the photo, but as it has the same 3ppm rating as the company’s Z605 that should come as no surprise.

Unfortunately, despite that photo cartridge the P706 failed to impress and print quality was poor. In fact it was little better than Z605. The problem isn’t one of colours, but instead seems to be rooted deeper in Lexmark’s printing technology.

This is a cheap photo printer, and it is also surprisingly light, weighing slightly less than either the Z605 or the Canon i320. However, its relatively poor speed and print quality mean that it’s hard to recommend it.

Our first printer is the smallest by a considerable margin, and it is shaped much like a beige plastic bread bin with blue ends. Happily its looks grow on you, but at first sight it comes as a surprise.

Installation is as easy as you would expect. Run the set-up CD, connect the USB cable and you’re ready to go. Flip down the front cover of the i320 and the carriage moves to the centre. Insert the black and colour cartridges and you’re done.

The i320 has speed ratings that are quite low compared to a number of the other printers in this group, yet somehow it didn’t work out like that in our testing. The i320 can take 10 or 15 seconds to start printing (we used to call it spooling) but once it’s going it nips along at a fair pace.

Text quality is quite acceptable, but it’s far from perfect and you can see it is feathered if you look closely. Similarly, picture quality is decent but imperfect. The colours are good, but the transition from one pixel to another isn’t as smooth as we would like. The clue here is in Canon’s technical specifications where it states that the i320 has ink drops that are 5 picolitres in size, which compares with 2 picolitre drops in the more expensive i450 model.

On the other hand this printer managed all our tasks more than adequately, and it is a very good compromise between speed and expense. Note that it can’t handle paper over 105 grams per square metre, so you’re limited to regular paper about the weight of photocopy paper.

Canon is significantly different to the other manufacturers in that it sells printers which have replacement cartridges that are merely containers of ink. The others sell cartridges that also carry the print heads. Of course this means that the heads are renewed regularly, but it makes the Canon cartridges much cheaper. Unfortunately they are also quite small, so the cost per page is very similar to the Epson and Lexmark models.

If you print relative few pages, the i320 could be ideal as it costs very little to buy, and when you do buy the occasional cartridge it will be quite cheap. The fact that the printer is small and fast and produces pretty good quality output is a pure bonus, of course.

Printer performance graph

Printer performance graph

Printer performance graph

Printer performance graph

The Epson Stylus Photo 830U looks very similar to the C62, and they are clearly from the same family. But apart from that cosmetic similarity they are very different to each other.

The main point is that the Stylus Photo 830U is a photo printer, so it has a colour cartridge that has six colours, rather than the usual three. This is an unusual approach to photo printing, as there is also a dedicated black ink cartridge, but the principle of giving the printer a bigger palette of colours to make photo printing as accurate as possible is tried and trusted.

Unusually, the Stylus Photo 830U has not one but two USB ports. This is also to help you when printing photos. This idea is that you use the USB port on the back to connect the printer to your PC then you can plug in a notebook to the front port if you have photos to print out, with no need to disconnect your PC first.

Of course you’ll need to install the Epson drivers on your notebook first, and they are quite a piece of work. The emphasis is entirely on photo printing, and the drivers can be used to change every setting from contrast and saturation to the strength of each of the colours.

The result is that photo printing is excellent. The quality is absolutely beyond reproach, although the printer takes quite a while to produce its output. Text quality is less impressive and is similar to the Canon i320.

This makes a buying decision about the Epson Stylus Photo 830U quite straightforward. If you have little or no interest in the quality of printed text, but you demand the absolute best of your photos, the Epson Stylus Photo 830U is for you.

Buying a printer is far more tricky than buying a PC, as most PCs will do most jobs, but printers tend to be more specialist, so they’ll do some jobs well and other jobs poorly.

If you spend over £200 on a printer you can buy a good all-rounder, but under £100 there isn’t the budget for all the technology that the manufacturers would like to include, so they are forced to make choices.

The Canon i320 is a small printer with unusual styling that offers a quick and cheap way to rattle off acceptable text prints. Photo print quality is fair to middling, and the i320 is limited in the weight of paper that it can handle, so you’re best not thinking of it as a photo printer.

Then we had the Canon i450 which uses a far smaller ink droplet than the i320, and that makes a significant improvement to print quality. The i450 is very good at printing text and perfectly OK at photos, but there are definitely better photo printers on the market. None of them can do borderless printing as well as the Canon, however.

The Epson Stylus C62 was a decent enough little printer, but the Canon i320 beat it in every respect. We were impressed by the Epson Stylus Photo 830U which used a six-colour cartridge plus a black cartridge to achieve very impressive results when printing a photo. Text quality was of average quality so the 830U is best used for photo work.

The Lexmark P706 was supposed to be a photo printer, and it gave you the option of a photo cartridge or a black cartridge. The snag is that photo printing was unimpressive, and the speed was atrocious.

Finally, Lexmark’s Z605 had the novel feature of drivers that talk to you, but it also managed decent, crisp monochrome text printing. Colour printing was less special, and in many ways the Lexmark Z605 was very similar to the Canon i320.

If photo printing is your thing we suggest you buy the Epson Stylus Photo 830U, but for a decent all-rounder that is particularly good at text it has to be the Canon i450.

This is unusual. The Lexmark Z605 is a talking printer that uses its drivers and the speaker of your PC to tell you what the printer is doing in a ‘You’ve got mail’ kind of way.

Mind you there are no other indicators to give you a clue, and the only button on the printer is for power. Without those speaking drivers you’d be completely in the dark if there was a paper jam, or if the Z605 ran out of paper or ink.

While we’re being nice to Lexmark, we may as well say that the drivers are well laid out and have menus to help you carry out specific tasks. By contrast most drivers assume that you know what you’re doing when you change, say, saturation or contrast. The writers of those drivers are probably a little optimistic; while the Lexmark driver writers are probably closer to the mark.

This helpful approach from Lexmark includes cradles for the ink cartridges that are colour coded to make sure that you get the cartridges the right way round. In short, this is a printer that you might consider giving to your mum, if she hasn’t already found one bundled with her new PC, that is.

The strength of this printer is its monochrome printing, and text looks good and clear. Colour printing, on the other hand, is unimpressive with images that were vague and unsatisfactory. To make matters worse, the three page per minute rating really hurt in these tests, and our A4 photo took nearly half an hour to print.

The Lexmark Z605 would be fine for dashing off the occasional letter, but the Canon i320 would do more for the same price.

The Canon i450 costs twice as much as the i320 and it is significantly larger. Its looks are also an acquired taste, but where we took to the cute i320 we never quite managed to find the i450 attractive. It’s not exactly ugly, but you may want to carefully consider whether you’d want it sat on your desk.

Technically, however, the i450 is a marvel. It uses the same cartridges as the i320, yet it has far smaller ink drops and it is rated nearly twice as fast as the i320. We didn’t see that sort of speed increase in testing, but we were deeply impressed by its print quality.

Text appeared sharp and clear, and the characters had clearly defined edges. This was true on both plain and coated paper, so the i450 would be ideal for printing business letters.

Canon can sometimes be accused of flooding the paper with ink to speed up the printing process, but that certainly isn’t the case with the i450. When we printed a test photo, colour quality was a little variable with some shades appearing better than others, but overall the quality was very good.

The most impressive feature was borderless printing. This requires the printer to blow-up the image and attempt to print to the very edge of the paper. In the case of the i450 it did exactly that, and we have no idea how it managed to hold the paper so accurately.

This is a relatively expensive printer, but if you can stand its looks it should reward you many times over.

Company: Canon

Contact: 0870 608 8833