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How we test inkjet, laser and multifunction printers

Here's how our experts test standard and multifunction printers to make sure you only buy the best.

printout being removed from printer tray

Most other electronic gadgets we buy can be tried out in stores, 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.

Our expert testers

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.

How we choose what we test

Just like CHOICE, our partners in Europe buy the printers they test directly from retailers to make sure they're testing the same product the consumer buys.

All the printer 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 means that some brands that have a lower profile around the world, or are more business-orientated, have to miss out.

How we test printers

Printing quality

Printing quality is always a matter of judgement, so we make that judgement as objectively as possible with five trained panellists looking at four standard documents to represent common printing habits.

Colour inkjet and laser printers

  • 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%)

Black and white inkjet and laser printers

  • A typical black-and-white letter (31.25%)
  • A spreadsheet (31.25%)
  • A 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.

Printing speed

We measure the time it takes to print the four documents above. 

For colour inkjets and lasers, we assess:

  • photo paper (25%)
  • colour document (25%)
  • letter (25%)
  • spreadsheet (25%).

For black and white inkjet and laser printers, we assess:

  • mixed graphics and text 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.

Ink/toner life

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 (aka ink wastage)

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
  • 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
  • make sure the printer is idle for three days each week and switched off between uses.
  • 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
  • use the ratio between the two measurements to provide the excess ink used as a percentage.

This is not tested on continuous ink supply system (aka big ink) printers. The 5% contribution to each CHOICE Expert Rating is distributed evenly across the remaining parts of the test.

Ease of use

Our ease of use score measures the major functions of the printers.

  • 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 and assess the steps required, including 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 than expected. Any unusual aspects are noted and specific yes/no questions are answered.

Reliability and satisfaction

These are taken straight from our brand reliability survey and the reliability feedback contributes 10% to the CHOICE Expert Rating. Brand and service satisfaction scores don't contribute. 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.

Test criteria explained

We measure the:

  • speed and quality of output
  • ease of use
  • networking capabilities
  • power consumption
  • scanning and copying (multifunction 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 CHOICE Expert Rating for multifunction printers is made up of:

  • performance (60%)
  • overall ease of use (20%)
  • brand reliability (10%)
  • networking (5%)
  • ink wastage (5%).

The performance assessment for multifunction printers looks at:

  • print quality (65%)
  • print speed (15%)
  • scanning performance (10%)
  • copying performance (10%).

The CHOICE Expert Rating for standard printers is made up of: 

  • performance (60%)
  • overall ease of use (20%)
  • brand reliability (10%)
  • networking (5%)
  • ink wastage (5%).

The performance assessment for standard printers looks at:

  • print quality (80%)
  • print speed (20%).

Power consumption is a small factor in overall cost, so we don't add it to the total, but it's included in our results table.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.