Back-to-school tech guide: printer buying advice for students

How to pick the right printer

Home printers are no longer ugly beige boxes that sit in the corner and jam up at the worst possible moment. These days printers can produce brilliant photos and professional-looking documents, scan and e-mail at a touch, and even back up the contents of your memory card or USB flash drive. There are plenty of printers to choose from, but not all are suitable for students. When purchasing a printer, make sure think about what you plan to use it for, the connections you will need and your budget.

While many multifunction printers are veritable Swiss army knives, it is vital to think about your actual needs. For instance, if you only need to print black and white text documents, a monochrome laser printer is by far the most economical option; they are cheap to buy and run, and they also produce professional-looking documents. In fact, printers like the Brother HL-2140 make excellent companions to inkjet multifunctions — you won't have to use up precious ink printing off text-only assignments.

For $200-400, a mid- to high-end inkjet multifunction printer will produce good quality photos and might even print directly to CDs and DVDs, which is always useful when you want to archive discs. Cheaper printers will give you some of these features, but they will be less convenient to use and the results will be lower quality. It is usually best to choose a multifunction designed for the home like HP's Photosmart Premium rather than an office-focused machine like the Epson Stylus Office TX510FN, since you don't want to pay for features you may never use. Business inkjet multifunctions do have advantages, such as automatic document feeders for scanning and automatic duplexers for printing on both sides of a page. However, these multifunctions often lack consumer-focussed features like memory card readers, and may print poor quality photos.

It is also important to consider what connections you might need. If you only need to print from one computer then a single USB port will suffice, but if you're sharing a printer between multiple computers then an Ethernet port or wireless connectivity will make life a lot easier. Many inkjet multifunction printers designed for use at home have multi-card readers and PictBridge-capable USB ports, which allow you to print directly from a memory card or a digital camera. Some multifunctions can even print from USB flash drives, though often this only works with a limited range of file types; check with the manufacturer or user guides before purchasing.

Printers are plagued by hidden consumable costs. To ensure you are getting your money's worth, calculate the running cost by dividing each cartridge's cost by its claimed A4 page yield. Poor value printers will cost 25-30c per page, while better value multifunctions cost between 15c and 20c per page to run. Some monochrome laser printers have a cost per page as low as 4c.

Although it may be tempting to simply pick the cheapest printer in a store, a considered choice will ensure you end up with a printer that is easy to use, reliable and relatively inexpensive in the long run.

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James Hutchinson

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