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.
What type of printer do you need?
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.
In this article:
- Standard or multifunction (all in one) printer?
- Laser or inkjet printer?
- Colour or mono?
- How much does a printer cost to own and run?
- What features to look for
- Will the printer work with my computer?
- Replacing ink cartridges
- What are my printing requirements?
Standard or multifunction (all in one) printer?
The first thing you need to decide is whether you need a standard printer or a multifunction printer (MFP), sometimes called an all-in-one, which can print, scan, copy and sometimes even fax.
Scanners (See our scanner reviews) 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.
Laser or inkjet printer?
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 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.
- Inkjets 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.
- On a per-millilitre basis, the ink in desktop inkjet printers is about the most expensive liquid on the planet.
- 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.
- 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.
Colour or mono 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.
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.
- 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: 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.
What features to look for
Whether you've decided on an inkjet or a laser printer, a standard printer or a multifunction printer, these are some really useful features to look out for:
- 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 will mean that you can connect computers and other digital devices such as your phone or tablet to your printer 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 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 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.
- OCR (optical character recognition): Most multifunctional printers come with 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 if you plan to use it, check reviews of the software that comes with the printer.
Will the printer work with my computer?
Printers are built to work with the latest computer operating systems including Windows, 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.
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.
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.
Replacing printer ink cartridges
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.
Search online for something like "reset toner low" with the model name of the printer to find the specific steps required in each case.
Replacing ink is an expensive exercise, especially if you buy the manufacturer's brand of cartridges. You can definitely save money by buying generic, or compatible, ink cartridges. But are they worth it in the long run?
- Quality: If you need the highest possible print quality, you probably should stick with the branded ink cartridges as they tend to perform a bit better. But for general document printing, generic compatible cartridges work pretty well. The two main issues you may face are:
- Fading: They may be far less durable and more likely to fade over time.
- Colour accuracy: Usually OK but not quite true to life, particularly with skin tones.
- Damage: The jury is still out on whether a generic cartridge will damage your printer. During our past tests on ink cartridges none of the inkjet printers appeared to suffer head damage.
- Warranty: Your printer's warranty may not cover damage caused by a generic cartridge.
- Compatibility: Not all printers on the market will accept generic cartridges, especially newer models. Choosing a less popular printer or relatively new model may mean you have fewer ink cartridges to choose from.
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.
- Use gloves and a syringe to reduce mess.
- Take your time and inject the ink very slowly, to avoid messy bubbling and leaking.
- Refill old genuine cartridges rather than a generic version.
- Third-party compatible cartridges may not be built exactly the same as the original, due to copyright issues, and may not be refillable.
- In order for your refilled cartridge to work like new you may also need to buy a "chip resetter". This is because many ink cartridges have an electronic chip that detects when ink levels are low to prevent further printing. The chip resetter will make the printer treat the refilled cartridge like a new one.
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 and HP have come out with an official system of this type. We have only tested Epson models.
- There are five colour Epson printer models in the big ink range and one mono model.
- Epson says these shouldn't need refilling for around two years in normal usage.
- The colour printers come with a set of four bottles of ink (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) formulated for long life without clogging the print nozzles. The black and white printer costs around $250 and comes with a single black tank.
- The bottles have a resealable cap for storage and hold enough ink to print 4000 pages in black and 6500 pages in colour.
- But you need all colours to be able to print at all, so if you run out of one ink, all printing stops until you add some more.
- Using third-party inks will void your warranty and quite likely cause problems, including ink streaking and clogged heads.
- While the Epson EcoTank range brings cost-per-page to unheard-of low prices for home printing, the catch is that the initial buy price (including ink) is higher.
Continuous ink supply system (CISS)
If you go through ink like there's no tomorrow, a 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.
What are my printing requirements?
Before you buy, consider what you need the 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?