Home printers cost between $100 (or even less) for something really basic, to upwards of $1000 for some of the fancier multifunction models. And that's before you even get to the cost of ink or toner cartridges, to factor in the price-per-page costs – what looks good on paper may not stack up.
Though the days of carbon paper are (thankfully) far behind us, navigating new technology can seem like a hair-tearing task. But it doesn't have to be. The first step is to consider what you actually use a printer for.
- 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?
Video: How to buy the best printer
Multifunction or standard printer
There's one pretty important decision to make before you start looking into printer options: can you get by with a standard printer, or will you need a multifunction printer (MFP) – sometimes called an all-in-one – that can print, copy, scan, and maybe even fax?
MFPs can scan documents so you can make photocopies, and they should be able to send and receive faxes too. Most of them come with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software so you can scan in a hard-copy document that will be read as a text or Microsoft Word file.
No OCR software is perfect, though, so you'll probably need some manual intervention to get the final result. If OCR is an important feature for you, check reviews of the software that comes with the printer before laying down any money.
Scanners can be bought separately for 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.
If you don't need an MFP, take a look at our review of standard printers.
Laser or inkjet?
For the average home user, desktop inkjet printers still generally cost less to buy, but they can cost you a lot more over the long term in higher running costs. It's no secret that, on a per-millilitre basis, the ink in desktop inkjet printers is about the most expensive liquid on the planet.
On the other hand, they can print on heavier speciality papers such as gloss photo paper to produce lifelike photo-glossy prints suitable for framing, or directly onto printable CD/DVD blanks. They work best when used regularly, and can require frequent head cleaning and have problems such as clogged heads when left unused.
Inkjets also have a wider range of ink cartridges. Some, especially the cheaper ones, bundle the colours together, so you're forced to buy a new cartridge when one of the colours runs out. Others have not only the standard black, cyan, magenta and yellow, but also "photo black", "photo cyan", "photo magenta", "light cyan", "light magenta" or "grey".
That makes it more expensive, as there are more cartridges to replace and more left over when the printer finally expires, but if you're after very high quality results it may repay the investment. The "photo" colours are typically required to counter fading: older photographs tend to yellow with age because the yellow ink fades more slowly than the other colours.
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. There are several makes of third-party big ink systems available to retrofit to a limited range of existing printer models, but only Epson has come out with an official system of this type – see our review of Epson's Eco-tank printer.
Laser printers don't use print heads like inkjet printers, so they don't clog and can be left idle for longer without problems. However, they only print onto standard-weight smooth plain paper and quality can be affected by noticeably uneven toner, particularly in areas of flat colour (banding), and patterning, speckling or streaking.
If you do a lot of printing you'll probably find a colour laser more cost-effective and durable, as their design heritage is business printers and they're generally made with a small business or home business in mind. This means they have a much longer duty cycle.
Colour or mono
For both lasers and inkjets, colour cartridges cost significantly more than black. You'd expect a colour printer to use only black ink to print a black and white page, but that's not always the case. Some printers use a mixture of inks, some as much as 50% from the colour cartridges, driving up the cost per page. That's more likely to be the case if the printer is really intended to print photographs.
Mono printers (laser only), on the other hand, are generally both cheaper and smaller than colour printers. They cost as little as $50 and are economical on ink.
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:
- Bluetooth connection – this allows printing from a mobile phone or PDA, but it's rapidly disappearing in favour of Apple's AirPrint and Google Cloudprint (see below), as phones become more sophisticated.
- Pictbridge (PB) – allows digital cameras and printers to communicate directly. The printer and camera don't have to be of the same brand, but both must be PictBridge-compatible and be connected with a USB cable. Once connected, the camera can control the basic printer functions so you can print without a computer.
- Memory card – many printers nowadays support memory cards; generally these will be memory stick, multi-media or variants of Secure Digital (SD) cards. This can be very handy for printing a "contact sheet" of thumbnails and selected pictures without needing a computer. Some will also be able to handle MiniSD cards with a separate adaptor, but support for Compact Flash and xD cards is less common.
- AirPrint – if you have an iPad or other Apple device, you'll probably want to print from it at some stage. The simplest way is to buy an AirPrint-enabled printer, which will give you direct printing without a computer. You can check AirPrint Basics on the Apple website for more information and a list of supported printers. However, many printers can be connected to wirelessly using OS X's USB printer sharing feature. You'll need to have the printer connected to a desktop computer via USB and share it over your local network.
- Google Cloudprint – like AirPrint, printers can come with support built in, or obtain it through a computer on the network. With Cloudprint, any device can access a printer over the internet, but it does require a network connection.
What to look for
Whether you've decided on an inkjet or a laser printer, a standard printer or an all-in-one, these are some really useful features to look out for when you go on the hunt:
- Speed A printer's advertised speed is the maximum speed of the machine's engine, measured in pages per minute (ppm).
- Status panels Some printers will include an LCD display with menu options, either as text or with graphics. A detailed display with 'paper jam' and 'low toner' indicators can be helpful with troubleshooting.
- Connections Most modern printers will come with a USB port – and the necessary cables – for direct connection to a computer. Some may also have an ethernet port for joining a wired network, which can be located away from your work desk, helping to save on space.
- Wireless Wireless connectivity is becoming more important these days, with the increasing popularity of laptops, tablets and smartphones. Wireless capabilities on a printer will mean that you can connect computers and other digital devices to it without worrying about cables. Variations include Google Cloudprint, AirPrint (iOS only), PictBridge and bluetooth.
- Duplexing Automatic double-sided printing can save you a lot of paper costs and wastage over the life of the printer.
- Tray size The size of the input tray is a big factor in the convenience of a printer, especially if you use it a lot. The input tray on most personal colour laser MFPs will hold 150 to 250 sheets of A4 paper, and some printers have a second tray for a different paper type such as headed stationery.
- Manual feed This feature makes it easier to print on envelopes, letterhead or specialty papers.
- Memory card slot Many printers nowadays support memory cards. This can be very handy for printing a "contact sheet" of thumbnails and selected pictures without needing a computer. Some will be able to handle MiniSD cards with a separate adaptor, but support for Compact Flash and xD cards is less common.
- Print heads on cartridge A printer head that's not part of the cartridge will often last for the life of the printer itself, but if it does wear out it can be expensive to replace. Cartridges that include a print head won't usually wear out over the life of the single-fill cartridge, but this adds to the cartridge cost.
- Printing options There are several printing options you may find useful, so look out for these features as well:
- Page per sheet: Most printers can print multiple pages on one sheet of paper, but some can print up to 25 pages on one sheet.
- Poster printing: This option automatically segments a large file (designed as an A1 page for example) into smaller pages (e.g. multiple A4s) that can then be joined together after printing.
- A3 paper: Some printers can print on larger paper sizes - usually A3, but in some cases even larger.
- Booklets: Booklet printing sorts the pages so you can fold the output and staple it into a booklet. Note that booklet printing is available with Adobe Reader, so if you save or print a document as a PDF file, you can then print a booklet on any printer (although it's not so easy if your printer lacks duplex printing).
- Borderless printing: Not all printers can print right up to the edge of the paper or a photographic print. If you're printing photos or graphics, this is an especially useful feature.
- Optical disc printing: This can be handy, but exists only on some inkjet printers and requires special printable CD/DVD blanks.
- Transparency: A few inkjet printers can print onto transparencies - this may require special ink.
- Watermark: A watermark function lets you print a light mark or outline on the page without requiring imaging software like Photoshop.
Cost of ownership
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.
Tips to keep costs down
- 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) - convenient and cuts paper costs. It's also more environmentally friendly.
- Outsource - 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.
- Compatible cartridges - you can use cartridges from other manufacturers, 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. One tip: spilled toner powder can often be removed with adhesive tape without touching sensitive surfaces. Never buy cartridges from overseas: many manufacturers have software to prevent it and you may find they can't be used.
- Cartridges can be bought online, and often (particularly laser cartridges with high unit cost) delivered free of charge within a day or two, so you can almost certainly save money by shopping around.
- Refill, recycle - refilling your cartridges could save you money over buying new ones each time. Note that not all models have cartridges suitable for refilling. If that's the way you want to go, check with your local cartridge recycler for pricing and availability before buying your printer.
- Power costs - these are usually negligible (less than $10 per year), but watch out for those printers we flag as poor on power consumption.
Has the cartridge really run out?
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. It's likely there's a printer-setting to disable the "replace cartridge" warning, but it may not be mentioned in the handbook.
To find out about a specific printer, search online for something like "reset toner low" with the model name of the printer to find the specific steps required in each case.
Printers range from under $100 to over $1000, but it's not just the printer itself that will cost you money. Running costs and print-per-page costs are the associated expenses that can make you think your bank account has sprung a leak. Ink and toner is the way the manufacturers make their money in this market.