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How to buy the best printer

Laser or inkjet? Colour or black and white? A multifunction printer that scans and copies? Find the right one for the job.

man standing at printer

We help you find the best home printer for you, whether it's to print photos or documents, colour or black and white, and whether you want a model that can scan and photocopy too.

You could spend anywhere from $100 to $1000 on a home printer but it's important that you factor in the cost of ink, which is often more expensive than the printer itself.

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Do I need a printer at home?

We're all guilty of printing off a few sneaky sheets at the office. But if you're grabbing something other than the occasional document, you should consider buying a basic model for your house. This checklist can help you work out what you need.

  • How much and how often do you print?
  • How important is the quality of your print-out?
  • How much has to be in colour?
  • Do you print photographs to keep?
  • Do you need to print on A3 or other sizes of paper?
  • Do you need your printer to act as a scanner and copier too?
  • How many devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones) do you want to print from?
  • Do you want to print directly from a phone or camera without using a computer?

Do I need a colour printer?

Do you need to print in colour? Colour cartridges cost significantly more than black, for both laser and inkjet printers.

  • Some printers don't just use black ink to print a black and white page – they can use as much as 50% from the colour cartridges, driving up the cost per page. This is more likely to be the case if the printer is really intended to print photographs.
  • Mono printers (laser only), are generally cheaper and smaller than colour printers. They cost as little as $50 and are economical on ink.

What are the different types of printers?

You'll find two types of printers for sale. Standard, which is just a printer, and multifunction (or MFP). These are an all-in-one device better suited for home offices, as they let you print, scan, copy and even fax if you're living in 1995.

If you need to scan or copy documents from time to time, consider a separate scanner as they cost around $150. Having a separate scanner means one less point of failure for your printer, but you'll need the computer to be switched on to use it, and it may not be as simple to make copies.

Multifunction and standard printers

Multifunction printers (left) have additional features compared to standard models (right) but they're typically more expensive.

What's the difference between inkjet and laser printers?

Inkjet vs laser printers
  Inkjet printers  Laser printers
 Pros  Cheaper to buy Better for bulk printing
   Better for low volume printing Don't use print heads, clog less
   Better quality photo prints Print faster
   Usually smaller Less maintenance
   Greater versatility  
 Cons  Higher ink costs Only use standard paper
   Requires frequent cleaning Colour prints are lower quality

Inkjet

Inkjet printers are best for printing photos. They generally cost less to buy, but they can cost you a lot more over the long term in higher running costs.

Laser

Laser printers are best if you do a lot of document printing or run a small business, as they're generally more cost-effective and durable.

How much do printers cost?

Home printers cost from $100 (or even less) for something really basic, to more than $1000 for some of the fancier multifunction models. However, it's important to factor in the cost of ink or toner cartridges as what initially looks good on paper may not stack up over a couple of years' use.

The costs of running a printer include:

  • the purchase price
  • the unit cost of ink or toner cartridges
  • the cost of paper
  • the cost of electricity to keep your printer on stand-by.

Though the costs will stack up if you're printing pages and pages of paper, these tips can help mitigate that to some degree:

  • Draft mode: most printers will let you select a draft mode for printing, which will use less toner. This may be all you need for general text documents. Likewise, check the software settings for a black-only mode, which will avoid mixing in colour toner with black. Some printers do this to produce super-rich blacks for high-quality prints, but it's unnecessary and costly for general printing.
  • Duplexing: automatically printing both sides is convenient and cuts paper costs. It's also more environmentally friendly.
  • Outsource your work: Specialist photographic kiosk machines at shopping centres or online services can output glossy standard size (5x7, 6x4) photos at only a few cents per print. Take advantage of advertised low-cost offers to print a lot of photos at one session. Online services can also print your photos in specially designed ready-made photo albums, calendars and cards. Search the web for "online photo service" to find the best deals.
Printer ink cartridge

Printer ink can drive up costs over time.

How can I save money on printer ink?

Ink can be the big money sink, particularly if the model you're using employs some shady tactics. Some printers will tell you to replace cartridges based upon a count of pages – they may not have run out of ink at all. Others will insist you replace cartridges you're not actually using, refusing to print a mono page because there's a missing or empty colour cartridge.

However, you can save a fair bit of cash by using generic ink cartridges or refillable tanks, depending on your brand and model.

Can I use generic ink cartridges?

A number of printer brands and models let you use generic or "third-party" ink cartridges, which are typically cheaper than brand-name options. But be careful, if your cheap alternatives are defective, they might leak toner or ink into your printer and you'll have serious difficulty cleaning it up.

Never buy cartridges from overseas: many manufacturers have software to prevent them from working, and you may find they can't be used. Check with your local cartridge recycler for pricing and availability before buying your printer.

How do I refill printer ink myself?

Many (but not all) cartridge models offer a refill kit, and this can be much cheaper than buying them brand new. Refilling your own cartridges with a bottle of ink fluid requires patience and a steady hand as it can be fiddly, messy and time-consuming (it takes around an hour).

Overall print quality probably won't be as good as with original cartridges. That said, for general document printing, it should be fine.

What's CISS ink aka 'big ink'?

An alternative to small and thus frequently replaced ink cartridges is a so-called 'big ink' system, which draws ink from relatively large ink tanks via tubes. If you go through ink like there's no tomorrow, a Continuous ink supply system (CISS) replaces the original cartridge with a modified cartridge, linked via flexible tubes to external reservoirs of ink that can be topped up at any time.

There are several makes of third-party big ink systems available to retrofit to a limited range of existing printer models, but only Epson and HP have come out with an official system of this type. We have only tested Epson models.

Epson big ink example

Some Epson printers have a continuous ink supply system (CISS).

Will my printer work with my PC or Mac?

Printers are built to work with the latest computer operating systems including Windows 10, OS X and even mobile operating systems such as Android and iOS. Some are also compatible with older versions such as Windows 7, and manufacturers usually ensure that their product will continue to work with most major devices as their software is updated.

Is my printer compatible with my operating system?

Once you've decided on a printer, contact the manufacturer or retailer or check their official support site to make sure the model you're looking at works with your devices, particularly if you want to continue to use an older operating system.

  • Updates to operating systems may clash with the printer's firmware, forcing you to wait until the manufacturer issues a compatibility update.
  • Most companies will notify customers on their website, and may even provide a temporary solution while they work on a patch.

While we make sure hardware compatibility matches the manufacturer claims during our tests, there may be short-term compatibility issues when dealing with recent OS updates.

If you own an older printer, or you're thinking of buying a model that's been available for several years, check the manufacturer's website to see if it's still under active support.

After a while manufacturers will stop releasing software updates as they move on to new models. While basic functionality for the printer or MFP generally remains, companies can be less than proactive when it comes time to inform consumers when widespread support is to end.

How do I connect my printer to my PC or Mac?

The simplest printers connect to a computer via a USB port. They can still be shared with other computers across the network, but only if the immediate-host computer is switched on. Many printers have an ethernet (CAT5) port too, so they can be connected to a router, and some can be reached by Wi-Fi, so they don't even need to be near the router.

There are other connections to make printing from other devices easier. Here are the major ones:

What else should I look for in a printer?

Whether you've decided on an inkjet or a laser printer, a standard printer or a multifunction printer, these are some really useful features and printing options to look out for: