Most printers are pretty good, and also pretty inexpensive. This is not a purchase you need to sweat. Printers go on sale all the time. It’s probably OK to check out this week’s fliers and buy something that looks good and is on sale.
If you’d rather not think too hard, here are the main questions to guide your purchase.
- Do you need color, or will black and white printing do?
- Do you just need to print, or would you like to copy, scan and fax as well?
- Will you use more than one computer with the printer?
If you want to think your options through more carefully, Consumer Reports offers an excellent Printer Guide, which covers the whole printer landscape, but here are some guidelines to the basic questions above.
Black and White v. Color (Laser v. Ink jet)
- Black and white laser printers can be a little more expensive than ink jets, but the printing supplies are cheap. Laser printers are fast and quiet. They also tend to be durable and trouble free. This is our favorite printer option, one we encourage everyone to consider as their main workhorse printer. Ink jet printers can be a bit cheaper, but they tend to be less durable, and they do have an astonishing ability to consume ink cartridges, which are not inexpensive. Ink jets aren’t bad – in fact, they’re nearly miraculous – but their ink-guzzling tendencies can get old fast.
- If you have school-aged kids in the house you probably need some color printing. And of course, many adults want or need it too. If you have room, you might want to consider using a laser printer for the bulk of your printing and buying an inexpensive color ink jet for the occasional color needs.
- There are color laser printers out there, but we don’t have any experience with them yet. They’ve come down in price a lot lately, but they’re still relatively expensive, and they still don’t print photos well.
- Photos: Getting good quality photo prints at home is perfectly possible, but it can also be tricky and expensive in time and supplies. For occasional photo printing, our experience is that you’re better off ordering prints from a photo printing business, either an online service like Shutterfly, or a local pharmacy where you order (either online or in person) and can pick the photos up. When it comes to less demanding photo printing – say, your first grader’s project on squirrels — any color ink jet printer will do just fine.
Multifunction/All-in-One (AIO) Printers
- If you want copying, scanning or faxing capabilities, it’s hard to beat the convenience of all having a copier, scanner and fax combined into the same machine as your printer.
- These machines are surprisingly inexpensive – often little more than a plain printer, and you can buy them as color ink jets or black and white lasers. See above.
- Many modern AIO printers don’t include a fax, so look carefully if you want that capability, and remember you’ll need to place the machine near a phone jack to use it.
- Look for a machine that offers an automatic document feeder (ADF) if you ever expect to copy or scan documents of more than a page or two – placing pages one by one on the glass is really tiresome.
- If you want to use the printer with more than one computer, you probably want a printer that is “networked.” In the old days, to share a printer among computers you had to connect a printer to a particular computer, then configure the computer to share the printer; if that computer wasn’t on, you couldn’t print. Networked printers solve that problem. You connect the printer to your network router, either by a wire (quick and easy, if the router or an ethernet jack is near your printer) or wirelessly (not quite as easy, but an excellent option if your router is the basement or attic), and each computer on your home network can use it independently.
- IMPORTANT BUT CONFUSING POINT: when you talk about wireless networking in printers, you are talking about how the printer connects to your network, not how a computer uses the printer. Once a printer is connected to your network by any means, any computer on your network can use it, whether they’re connected wirelessly or not.
- In the past, some networked printers did not work well with Macs. This problem has become much less common, but if you will be using a Mac to print to the printer over a home network, look for some evidence of Mac compatibility.
Brands/Choosing a Specific Machine
- The big printer makers are Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson, Hewlett Packard (HP), Kodak and Lexmark. They all make good printers; which one is right for you will depend more on finding the right combination of features at the right price. For what it’s worth, our own unscientific experience is as follows: 1) We’ve had good experiences with Canon ink jets and Brother laser printers. 2) HP printers work well, but come with an enormous amount of unnecessary and confusing software, so we often steer away from them. 3) The color inks in our Epson ink jets have clogged if we didn’t print in color on a regular basis.
- In addition to Consumer Reports’ reviews, which are available to subscribers, there are many online sources for printer reviews. The two big general computing magazines, www.pcmag.com and www.pcworld.com, feature links to “printers” right on the front page, in the main column for choosing topics. Click those to find top-10 lists, buying guides and more detailed reviews. And don’t overlook user reviews on big online retailers like Amazon and Newegg– they can be full of useful information.