How to buy a printer

What you print, and how much of it you print, should guide your buying decision. We explain how to choose a printer that's appropriate for your needs.

Key Buying Considerations

Here we discuss the top buying criteria for the three most popular types of printers: inkjet, snapshot, and color laser printers.

Inkjet Printers

Important consideration: print quality. While price doesn't always indicate the print quality of an inkjet printer, there is some correlation. Before deciding on a specific model, check our Top 10 Inkjet Printers chart to see how recent inkjets stack up in our print-quality tests.

Important consideration: ink replacement cost. For inkjets, the cost of ink has the biggest impact on the overall cost of the printer over time. Before plunking down your cash, find out how much the replacement ink cartridges cost and how many pages each cartridge can print. Vendors generally charge $10 to $40 for a three-color cartridge and $5 to $35 for an individual color or black cartridge. Usually, the cheaper a cartridge is, the less ink it holds; yields range anywhere from 100 to 1000 pages per cartridge, though a few models now yield up to 2000 pages per cartridge.

Worthy of consideration: multiple black ink cartridges. Some inkjets, notably models from HP such as the Photosmart D5460, use dual black cartridges: one for laser-quality text (often called "pigment black") and the other for printing photos on glossy paper (sometimes called "photo black" or "dye black"). Pigment black ink is optimized for printing text on plain paper. If you splurge on the printer manufacturer's recommended paper, all the better. Dye-based black ink is optimized for printing on photo paper but can also print text.

Worthy of consideration: maximum print resolution. The resolution is the number of dots per square inch that a printer can spit out onto a sheet of paper. More dots give you a finer level of detail, which is especially important with graphics but negligible with text. Inkjet printers generally have a maximum color resolution of 4800 by 1200 dots per inch (dpi). Many printers also use software to interpolate an image and to smooth out patches of color, fill in gaps, and sharpen more-detailed sections. Such enhancements can affect print quality as much as the printer's resolution. The best way to determine print quality is not to look at the resolution specs but to print out a sample and judge for yourself.

Worthy of consideration: paper tray capacity. If you print just a few pages at a time, the single input tray found on most inkjet printers won't bother you. If you print longer documents, share the printer with other users, or like to have a few different kinds of paper loaded at one time, look for a model with a second paper tray or a dedicated tray for photo media.

Worthy of consideration: color LCD. A front-panel display makes navigating menus or selecting photos from a media card easier.

Minor consideration: PictBridge. Many mainstream photo-oriented inkjets include a feature called PictBridge, which is a dedicated USB port for connecting your digital camera directly to the printer.

A few lasers, such as the HP Color LaserJet 2605dtn and Konica Minolta Magicolor 2430DL, have media slots or a PictBridge port for printing from a digital camera.

Minor consideration: media card slots. Many inkjet printers have media slots for printing from your camera's memory card or for transferring the images to your PC. Check that your digital camera's specific media type (SD Card, Memory Stick, xD-Picture Card, and so on) is supported.

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