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.

Laser Printers

Important consideration: text and graphics print speeds. This is the rate at which the printer can output full pages of text or graphics. Vendors' quoted engine speeds frequently exceed what we experience in our tests or what you'll experience in real life, sometimes by a wide margin. Take the vendor's numbers with a grain of salt.

Important consideration: print quality. Both color and monochrome lasers print text extremely well. Color lasers print color charts and other two-dimensional graphics well, but they still can't quite match inkjets in handling glossy photograph prints — yet.

Minor consideration: maximum print resolution. The resolution refers to the number of dots per square inch (dpi) that the printer can output. More dots provide a finer level of detail, which is especially important with graphics (but a negligible factor with text). Resolution mattered more when early laser printers could manage only a chunky-looking 300 dpi. Once 600 dpi and higher resolutions became available, image quality improved across the board. Many vendors enhance the true resolution to make it look even better. Color lasers usually have a maximum resolution of either 2400 by 1200 or 2400 by 600 dpi. Even those fairly modest resolutions for lasers suffice for printing sharp text and simple grayscale graphics.

Major consideration: memory. Low-end lasers in a home or small office can rely on the host PC for all or most of the needed memory, but networked printers require their own to perform efficiently. More memory lets you print more documents more quickly, or upload fonts for higher-quality text. Most high-end lasers include at least 64MB of RAM, with expansion options permitting up to a gigabyte of memory for queuing multiple print jobs at once. For a busy office, equip your laser with at least 128MB to 256MB of memory.

Major consideration: connections. A USB port is all that most home or small-office users need to connect a printer to a single PC. Business users or those with home networks will want an Ethernet port or Wi-Fi capability. Some high-end business models have an infrared (IrDA) port option, which allows laptop or PDA users to print by pointing their infrared ports at the printer, or a USB port for printing from a USB-connected flash drive.

Major consideration: paper tray capacity. Make sure the printer can hold enough paper to accommodate all your users without excessive refilling. For home and small-office users, low-end lasers' 100-sheet to 150-sheet main trays are adequate. Lasers designed for a networked office usually start at 250 or 500 sheets standard, with additional paper trays for greater quantities or different sizes of media.

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