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.

No matter how digital our lives become, printers remain essential in any office and convenient at home for schoolwork, maps, fliers, and photos. PC World tests and reviews three types of printers — inkjets, color lasers, and snapshot models — on an ongoing basis. We also regularly test multifunction printers, both inkjet and laser. No matter which kind of printer you're looking for, here's the information you need to make a well-informed purchase.

The Big Picture

The major printing technologies available — inkjet and laser/LED — are all capable of printing typical documents competently, but some differences remain. Inkjet printers excel at printing photos on many sizes and types of media, but they achieve their best results when using special papers. Laser and LED printers both achieve crisp results on a wide array of papers, but they struggle with the subtler colorations of photos. Snapshot printers, which use either inkjet or dye-sublimation technology, are limited to printing photos of specific sizes.

Inkjet Printers Offer Versatility

Home and small-office users who print a light volume of pages but also a fairly wide variety — anything from a letter or driving directions to children's vacation photos — will enjoy the versatility of today's inkjet printers. While the truly low-end models can still be pretty slow, some high-end models can be impressively fast. For the best print quality, you'll need to invest in an assortment of papers, and you'll have to learn your way around the printer's driver settings. You can reduce how often you swap paper types by purchasing a model with two separate paper trays.

In the past, almost all inkjets had the same features: one paper tray (for 100 to 150 sheets and ten envelopes), minimal buffer memory, and no networking options. These days, inkjets sport an array of features, such as larger displays or touch screens, integrated Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and more paper-handling options. Makers of business-oriented inkjets are also offering higher-yield ink cartridges, optional paper trays, standard duplexing, expandable memory, and more features for networked environments.

The real cost of an inkjet printer lies in its replacement inks. Many of the less expensive, home- or student-oriented models have fairly low-capacity ink cartridges that can run out sooner than you'd think — and they cost nearly as much as the printer itself. The tricolor cartridges that combine cyan, magenta, and yellow into one unit are also a bad deal: As soon as the cartridge runs out of one color, you have to replace all three. If your printing plans include tons of photos or lots of pages, look for a model that offers individual cartridges for each color, or high-capacity cartridges, which contain more ink and cost less per page.

It's hard to discuss cost per page because of all the variables, including page content, paper type, driver settings, and more. Suffice it to say, the more complex and colorful the job, the more ink you'll use — and paper can be expensive, especially with inkjets. In tests of inkjet printers conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology on behalf of PC World, the cost per text page ranged from 2.1 to 7.7 cents (US) per page. The cost per color graphics page ranged from 7.7 to 15.8 cents per page. For full-size (not snapshot) photo printers, the total cost (including paper) per 4-by-6-inch photo ranged from 46 to 97 cents.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Printers

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

PC World Staff

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?