Most other electronic gadgets we buy can be tried out in the store, but we can't really do that with printers. With dozens of models on the market, it's increasingly difficult to pick out the ones that do just what we want. Add to this the costs of ink and toner cartridges which frequently cost more than the printers they serve.
We test multifunction, inkjet and laser printers to tell you what each printer can do, and just how much it'll cost you to use it over time.
To test as many printers as possible to the depth that's required, we share costs and expertise with our sister consumer organisations around the world.
We use professional labs in Europe that specialise in printer testing and test hundreds of printers every year. From their tests we pick out the models you can buy in Australia for our reports.
Our testers have a huge range of experience. This gives us consistency in the quantifiable measures such as speed and ink consumption, and the more subjective area of the quality of output.
Our test labs use a panel of people, comparing results against standard benchmarks to minimise any bias.
Just like CHOICE, our partners in Europe buy the printers they test from the retailers to make sure they're testing the same product the consumer buys.
All the models they choose are commonly available worldwide, or have local variants. This means we can report on far more products than we could test here in Australia, and at greater depth. But it also mean that some brands that have a lower profile around the world, or are more business-orientated, have to miss out.
Printing quality is always a matter of judgement, so we make that judgement as objectively as possible with five trained panelists looking at four standard documents to represent common printing habits:
- A typical black-and-white letter: 25%
- An 8x10-inch high quality photo: 20%
- A coloured spreadsheet: 25%
- A colour document with a mixture of graphics and text: 25%
- The results are also measured for moisture resistance: 5%
- A typical black-and-white letter: 31.25%
- A coloured spreadsheet: 31.25%
- A colour document with a mixture of graphics and text: 31.25%
- The results are also measured for moisture resistance: 6.25%
The photos are printed on the best-quality glossy photo paper recommended by each manufacturer, using the printer's 'best quality' setting. The same setting is used for the mixed document, printed on premium matte paper. The other documents are printed on standard paper with standard settings.
- All the results are compared with three benchmark results scored at three, six and nine, to assess clarity, contrast and brightness, colour and overall impression.
- For colour lasers, we assess plain-paper copies of photos in the same way, but we don't include the photo component for mono laser printers.
- Moisture resistance is measured by seeing if a highlighter pen smears text and also whether ink runs or bleeds by dripping water onto 24-hour-old photo prints.
We measure the time it takes to print the four documents above.
For inkjets, we assess:
- Photo paper: 25%
- Colour document: 25%
- Letter: 25%
- Spreadsheet: 25%
For laser printers, we assess:
- Colour document: 33.33%
- Letter: 33.33%
- Spreadsheet: 33.33%
Timings are taken in 'ready' mode, measured from selecting 'OK' to the emergence of the copy. Several copies of each document are measured.
Scanning and copying
We scan and copy:
- A magazine page
- An 8x10-inch colour photo
- A 3D object.
Scan quality is assessed on a computer monitor by three expert viewers comparing the results to a high-quality reference scan. The same panel assesses copy quality, comparing the copy to the original magazine page.
To determine the life of ink and toner cartridges, we don't use the cartridges that come with the printer as they're often only partially full. Instead, we buy full sets of the most commonly purchased cartridges and run the printers almost continuously.
We print as many text, spreadsheet and photo pages as possible from separate sets of cartridges until at least one cartridge runs out of ink. Where possible, any 'low ink' warnings are bypassed. The weight of the cartridges before and after printing determines the weight of ink used. This together with local cartridge prices, determine the cost per page of each type of document.
We use commonly available online prices for genuine manufacturers' cartridges bought individually. We then use our 'average use scenario' (1000 mono prints, 250 colour document prints and 250 full-colour photo prints over the course of a year) to calculate long-term running costs.
Ink consumption for maintenance
Inkjet printers run a 'maintenance cycle' whenever they decide the print-heads need to be cleaned before use, and this uses ink. To measure the costs of this:
- We use a separate printer from the normal life test over a three-week period,
- We print two copies of the black and white text document on three mornings each week, and the coloured spreadsheet on one morning and two afternoons.
- The printer is idle for three days each week and is switched off between uses.
- We weigh the cartridges before and after the test and compare the weights of ink consumed to those used for the same number of copies of the same documents in the continuous test.
- The ratio between the two measurements provides the excess ink used as a percentage.
Note, we can't accurately calculate how much ink is tank type printers use for cleaning so they don't get a score in this test, even if the feature is available.
Ease of use
Our ease of use score measures the major functions of the printers. The scenarios are:
- Set up and installation Using the 'quick start' guide, we fit any trays and covers delivered with the printer and install the ink cartridges, make connections, install drivers and other software provided and set up the system. We consider accessibility, simplicity, adequacy of instructions, labelling and time taken.
- Printing standard documents from a computer Loading paper, changing cartridges and various printing options including double-sided printing (where applicable) and changing print quality settings. We consider how easy it is to change settings and display help and how the printer copes with paper-out or empty cartridge conditions. We check if you can continue to print colour when the black cartridge runs out or black when the colour cartridges do, and we check the single-sheet feed and output tray capacity.
- Printing a 6x4 photograph from a computer Change paper size and colour cartridges if required, select correct settings and print photo.
- Handling of paper jams and replacement of ink cartridges How easy it is to remove paper if there's a print jam and potential problems with changing ink or toner cartridges, including leakage and difficult locks and catches.
- Networking Set up wired and wireless connections; assess the steps required and the adequacy of the instructions.
Each aspect is assessed by at least two technicians and the following rating is given: 1 for worse than expected, 2 for as expected and 3 for better. Any unusual aspects are noted and specific yes/no questions are answered.
Reliability and satisfaction
These are taken straight from our brand reliability survey, but do not add to the overall score. These scores refer to the brand only, not that particular model. Differences of 4% or more are significant. Reliability figures are based on owner assessment, not test data.
We use the data we collect from members to rate the most popular brands for reliability. We take into account the age of the products so we can compare fairly between brands. We ask owners to tell us what they thought of the service if they had to seek a repair or return on the product they own.
We measure the:
- Speed and quality of output
- Ease of use
- Networking capabilities
- Power consumption
- Scanning and copying (multi-function printers only)
We also use these results to determine a number of ongoing costs (in dollars) such as:
- Toner cost per text page
- Toner cost per graphics page
- Toner cost per photo page (for colour printers)
- Annual ink/toner cost
- Total running cost for the first year
- Total running cost across the course of three years.
The overall score for multi-function printers is made up of:
- Print quality: 43%
- Overall ease of use: 18%
- Print speed: 11%
- Scanning: 9%
- Copying: 9%
- Ink wastage: 5%
- Networking features: 5%
The overall score for standard printers is made up of:
- Print quality: 54%
- Ease of use: 23%:
- Print speed: 13%
- Ink wastage: 5%
- Networking features: 5%
Power consumption is a small factor in overall cost, so we don't add it to the total, but it's included in the reports.