Multifunction Device / Multifunction Printer Buying Guide
- 24 August, 2009 11:40
What is a multifunction device?What is a multifunction device?
A multifunction device (MFD) — also known as a multifunction printer — lets you print, scan, photocopy, fax, and more. Most multifunctions will let you to carry out more than one of these tasks simultaneously.
There are two main types of multifunction: laser printers (which can be colour or black and white) and inkjet printers (which are only available in colour). Multifunction printers range in price from under $50 to over $5000, and are available with a variety of features and networking options. The design and the quality of printing also vary; some expensive MFDs don't necessarily provide better print quality compared to cheaper multifunctions.
In the home, you would look to a multifunction printer to save money and space, particularly if you want to fax, scan, print and copy on a regular basis. Though standalone printers, scanners and faxes are still available, many (if not all) of their features are available on multifunction devices. The amalgamation of several devices into one unit along with the addition of large LCD panels, networking options, and direct printing features (such as PictBridge) make multifunctions the best choice for many households.
In a business environment, high-end standalone laser printers can often be a better choice as they offer better quality results, faster speeds, and similar networking capabilities to multifunctions. However, MFDs can be valuable to businesses of all sizes, as they reduce the amount of space taken up by standalone printers, photocopiers and fax machines, and often their features can be accessed across a network. This allows businesses to increase productivity, streamline tasks and potentially decrease costs (for example, only leasing one unit instead of three.)
As you are effectively buying three or more devices in one, there are many factors to consider when purchasing a multifunction device. This guide will help you think about different features you may want in such a device, and suggest some important points to consider before making your purchase.
Multifunction devices are commonly perceived to have several downsides. For instance, many people think that although a multifunction can perform multiple tasks, the quality of those individual tasks is compromised. Fortunately, this isn't the case. Though you'll likely spend more for a multifunction device than you would for an individual unit, multifunction devices can still match the quality of their standalone counterparts. However, be aware that high-end monochrome laser printers offer more advanced quality settings (lines-per-inch density settings, for example) that aren't available on multifunction devices. These standalone units are used for printing that requires the utmost accuracy rather than for standard office use.
Security can be a concern when an MFD is networked and used to scan and store sensitive documents. However, technology has improved vastly in the last five years and security features and standards have been enhanced. Most lower-end multifunction devices can be easily set up and secured using accompanying software or a Web interface; some higher-end network multifunction devices will require professional configuration to ensure their security.
A final downside of multifunction printers is maintenance; it is often thought that if one part stops working, you can lose the other functions too. While it's true that if the printer breaks, you will generally not be able to photocopy, most MFDs are designed so that you will still be able to scan. In addition, most business-targeted multifunction devices will provide you with an error reporting system or e-mail notifications when there is a fault, allowing you or a designated maintenance person to fix the machine before it affects productivity.
Factors to considerFactors to consider
When hunting around for an MFD for the home or the office, ask yourself what sort of functionality you require. Maybe you don't need a fax machine? Maybe a memory card reader is not required? Maybe you don't need a network adapter? Asking yourself these sorts of questions will narrow down your search for a machine and will also allow you to save money by not purchasing a device with features that you don't need.
It is a good idea to estimate the maximum number of pages per month that you need to print, and buy a printer that can handle that workload. Printer manufacturers often provide maximum monthly duty cycle figures that give you a rough idea of how much that printer can handle in a given time period. Depending on your needs, you may only need to print 300-400 pages per month, though larger offices will require multifunction devices with a maximum monthly duty cycle in excess of 20,000 pages.
Another factor to consider when purchasing a multifunction device is whether you need inkjet or laser. Inkjet multifunctions are generally much cheaper to purchase and are better suited to printing photos (though you are looking at $300-$400 for an MFD that can produce particularly good quality photos). Laser multifunction printers, on the other hand, are much more expensive but provide better quality documents at a much faster rate. Though the initial outlay and subsequent consumables will cost more, laser printers can also have a lower running cost than inkjets as toners generally have a higher yield.
Printing speedPrinting speed
Since print speed is the easiest performance indicator on a multifunction to quantify, it is also the most-used weapon in the marketing war among vendors. As such, print speed figures are readily available for any model you are looking to purchase. However, this doesn't mean that it should necessarily be taken seriously.
Quoted print speeds often bear little to no relation to a multifunction device's real-world capabilities. Vendors frequently cite ratings based on standardised ISO tests, but these are often very simple text documents printed in draft mode or at an arbitrary resolution. As a result, print speeds — particularly in regards to inkjet multifunction devices — can simply be confusing. Many vendors don't even include the first page out time — the time it takes for the PC to send a job to the printer.
Although the speed of multifunctions (especially for photo printing) has improved in the last few years, there is still substantial difference between devices. While some multifunction devices can print full-colour A4 photographs in 35 seconds, others take up to 5 minutes, and the results are often worlds apart in terms of quality.
To further confuse the issue, laser and inkjet speeds are measured and quoted differently. While it is generally a good rule of thumb to ignore inkjet multifunction print speeds, figures given for laser multifunction devices are often more accurate.
Speed is an issue in an office environment — especially if there are peak printing times when you need to meet deadlines, such as monthly reports. Buy a multifunction device with plenty of memory: this will allow it to store big files locally and print them out with a minimum of waiting time. More memory, and a fast processor, will also help keep things moving if people want to scan a document while you're printing, for example.
If speed is important to you, don't just go on what the advertising material tells you. The best way to work out whether an MFD is fast enough is to read independent reviews that involve tests conducted in real-world scenarios.
At a certain price point, the print speed difference between multifunction devices becomes negligible, which means the deciding factor will come down to the features of each multifunction device.
Since quoted print speeds can't really be trusted, PC World conducts its own standardised testing. We include the results in our reviews so you know how a device will perform in the real world. Below we have compiled some basic information about what you can expect these days from a multifunction device, and how it compares to what the vendor claims. As you can see, laser printers are generally truer to claimed speeds, though there can still be a slight discrepancy. The inkjet figures here are only representative of draft mode speeds; normal quality printing is usually much slower.
• Claimed speeds: 22 to 30 pages per minute (ppm) monochrome
• Test results: 21 to 30ppm text
• Claimed speeds: 30ppm colour graphics
• Test results: 24 to 30ppm colour graphics
• Claimed Speeds: 28 to 40ppm monochrome, draft mode
•Test results: 17 to 25ppm text
•Claimed Speeds: 22 to 40ppm in colour, draft mode
•Test results: 11 to 25ppm colour graphics
Print and scan resolutionPrint and scan resolution
Like speed, print and scan resolution specifications can often be misleading. Inkjet multifunction printers can boast maximum colour print resolutions of up to 9600x4800 dots per inch (dpi), though this is not always the resolution of the scan engine. Many devices use software to interpolate an image, smooth and sharpen colour, and generally optimise a picture to provide an image with a higher resolution than the scan engine itself.
Ink droplet size can often be a good way to determine an inkjet multifunction device's ability to handle fine detail when printing; better printers offer droplet sizes as low as 0.5 picolitres, while lower-end printers have droplets of 1.5-2 picolitres.
For the most part laser multifunction devices offer a print resolution of 600x600dpi. If you're after better quality results from a laser multifunction, be sure to note if the device has half-toning capability. This allows it to produce higher quality documents than printers that have the same hardware print resolution. More advanced printers also provide line density settings, which can help produce more accurate text.
Laser multifunctions are generally designed to work with text documents, so their optical scan resolutions are often lower than inkjet multifunctions'. Expect an average resolution of 600x600dpi, with some higher-end laser multifunction devices managing 600x2400dpi. Most low-end inkjet multifunction devices have an optical scan resolution of 1200x600dpi, but some of the more expensive models can scan at 9600x4800dpi (a resolution generally used for scanning film negatives or 35mm slides).
Media HandlingMedia Handling
The amount of paper a multifunction printer can handle in both input and output trays is worth considering, even if you're buying one for home. Some of the more expensive inkjet multifunction printers offer several paper input methods, such a paper cassette. Some also offer separate input trays specifically for 4x6in media (for printing photos).
For businesses, media handling is vital to ensuring that you have enough paper to get through a large document and that you don't have to continually refill supplies. Most low-end laser multifunction printers, and even some of the more expensive devices, can only fit 250 sheets at a time in the input tray. Many small to medium businesses will require in excess of 500-1000 sheets at a time. Even if you don't need the extra paper capacity immediately, make sure to consider whether the vendor offers increased media handling through optional trays.
Also be aware of the supported paper types on various multifunction devices. Most inkjet multifunction devices will support standard A4 paper though may not print well on transparencies. Similarly, photo paper may not work so well in high-end inkjet multifunction devices which use pigment-based inks.
Since laser multifunction devices are designed for text and graphics printing, they tend to handle glossy paper poorly; again, this differs from model to model. Be sure to check the specifications for a list of supported paper types.
You will find that many multifunction devices offer more than one form of connectivity. Beyond the basic USB 2.0 port, see if the multifunction offers an Ethernet connection and integrated Wi-Fi so you can share it across a network.
Also be sure to check that the memory card reader (if it has one) on the multifunction device is compatible with the card format you use for your camera or mobile phone. Many inkjet multifunction printers will have one type of memory card slot. High-end models will often ship with a built-in memory card reader that supports CompactFlash, SD, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, MMC and xD Picture Card formats. Laser multifunctions don't tend to offer slots for removable media, but some mid- to high-end models do offer direct printing from USB flash drives.
Some devices provide additional connectivity through optional accessories such as Bluetooth adapters, which allow you to do things such as print from mobile phones.
Check the location of the ports on the multifunction device to make sure they suit your needs: if you're squeezing the multifunction device into a tight spot, having the power connection on the side of the device won't help. Some vendors also offer some form of cable management by hiding connections under the scanner cover.
There is no real security issue when dealing with a multifunction device connected to a PC through USB 2.0. However networked printers can jeopardise the security of personal documents and files, particularly in larger offices.
Higher-end laser multifunction devices offer various security features to combat this, including document encryption, password-protected printing, and scan boxes for individual users. Some also offer 802.1X authentication and Web-based security features to ensure that no-one can tamper with settings.
Size can be a major reason to pick one multifunction device over another. MFDs come in many different shapes, so a unit's dimensions aren't always an accurate way of determining whether your chosen multifunction will fit in the desired space. Instead, have a look at the unit in real life and check whether, for example, an output tray needs to be extended before you print.
Inkjet multifunctions are often not very big. Laser multifunctions are generally quite sizeable, and extras like an automatic document feeder can cause them to be even taller. As a result, you may not be able to place the multifunction in your desired location.
Another important consideration is the location of the multifunction's paper trays. Cheaper inkjet multifunction devices tend to have a foldable paper tray at the rear that holds paper vertically, often doubling the height of the unit. The best way to save space is to buy a unit which offers front-facing paper cassettes, as these don't add to the size of the device while in operation.
A number of things can contribute to the noise of a multifunction printer, including paper feeders, rollers, eject mechanisms, and the build quality of the machine itself. In some poorer quality multifunction devices, the printer can shake while in operation.
The way the ink is fed also contributes to noise. Most multifunction devices have ink cartridges directly attached to the printhead, but others feed ink from the cartridges to the printhead via capillary tubes. This makes the printhead much lighter, minimising vibration. It is best to test the device before buying, in order to determine whether the noise levels are acceptable.
Ease of useEase of use
Ease of use is an important consideration, especially if the device is to be used by a number of people with varying technical skills. Vendors take different approaches to multifunction control schemes. Devices can have shortcut buttons, scroll wheels and even touch panels. How easy a multifunction is to use relies largely on how well the control scheme is implemented by the vendor. Be sure to buy a multifunction that offers quick access to core functions like printing, scanning, copying and faxing. Read independent reviews and try the control scheme out yourself. Be wary of control panels with too many shortcut buttons as this can easily become confusing.
It's a good idea to make sure that there are rising hinges on the scanner lid, or that it is removable, so that you can copy and scan thick books. Also, if you plan to copy from books make sure that the control buttons are located in such a way that they do not accidentally get pressed if half a book is hanging down over them.
Multifunction devices with integrated memory card readers on the front of the unit make it easier to directly print photos. PictBridge-capable USB ports offer similar functionality as they allow you to directly connect your camera, mobile phone or sometimes even USB flash drives to the printer. However, some multifunctions feature USB ports which are depressed into the unit, making it hard to insert oversized USB sticks.
A large and clear LCD panel is also a helpful feature. It makes it easier to navigate the menus and view photos. Some devices might even let you edit photos.
Multifunctions generally come with software that you can install on your PC. Look for software that offers access to the multifunction's range of features in a single point-and-click interface. This means you won't need to load up separate applications to access different features. Some software interfaces are task-based, allowing you to follow on-screen instructions for the particular task you want to undertake. This type of interface is useful for inexperienced computer users. Some business-targeted laser multifunction devices rely on Web-based interfaces that you access through a browser; these can be harder to use than software packages. However, these interfaces generally offer comprehensive security and network configuration options as well as the ability to monitor a printer's usage. Some even offer a job status window so you can monitor a print queue and upload print jobs directly from your Web browser.
Most multifunction devices have a minimum warranty period of one year. Some companies offer extensions of up to three years, and many retailers offer extended warranties that allow you to replace the device up to five years after purchase.
Inkjet multifunction devices can be bought for as little as $50, and can easily reach into the $500-600 range, while laser multifunction devices generally range from $200 to $5000. However, the initial outlay is just one part of the equation; you will also need to calculate running costs.
In most cases, laser multifunctions are cheaper to run than inkjet ones, with an average cost of $0.04 to $0.10 per A4 page. This cost includes all toners and other perishables like fusers, waste bottles and drums. Cheaper multifunction devices often have higher running costs than more expensive printers. Some manufacturers have begun combining the fuser, waste bottle and drum into a single unit.
The running cost of an inkjet multifunction device can range from $0.15 to $0.30 per A4 page, with the ink cartridge being the only real consumable. Some inkjet multifunctions have individual cartridges for each colour instead of one cartridge for all three colours. This means you won't need to replace all the inks when you run out of one colour. Buying the individual cartridges will usually cost a few dollars more than a combined cartridge. If you plan to use one colour more than others, opting for individual cartridges will save you money.
If you require an inkjet multifunction but are worried about the running costs, look for an office-focused model, as they generally have cheaper consumables than those designed for home use.
Ongoing costs are only part of the story when considering a multifunction, but if you are trying to decide between laser and inkjet, the laser will almost always be cheaper.
Extra featuresExtra features
OCR: Optical character recognition (OCR) software is sometimes supplied with the machine. This allows you to scan documents and extract the text for editing.
ADF: An Automatic Document Feeder (ADF) is convenient if you need to frequently fax, copy or scan multi-page documents and don't want to individually feed each sheet. Most ADFs should be able to handle at least 30 pages.
Direct CD/DVD printing: Some inkjet multifunction devices enable you to print directly onto CDs and DVDs with matte white surfaces. The feature is handy for labelling archived data or for simply making discs look more professional when sending them to clients.
Printing on other media: Other media may include overhead transparencies, labels, stickers, envelopes etc. Multifunction device vendors don't always provide detailed information as to which media is compatible with their device, though making note of the media thickness (measured in gsm) will allow to you determine what quality of photo media can be used.
Two or more paper trays, or optional expansion: This feature might be useful for extra capacity if large documents need to be printed regularly. Most devices tend to have room for 100-250 pages at any one time in the input tray; with two trays, this capacity is doubled. Inkjet multifunction devices often have more than one tray, with one tray dedicated to plain paper and the other dedicated to photo paper.
Direct printing: Almost all inkjet multifunction devices these days provide some direct printing functionality, often in the form of one or more card readers and a PictBridge-capable USB port. These features allow you to print directly from your camera or mobile phone without having to first upload the pictures to a computer. Some multifunction devices also allow some form of photo manipulation and editing from the device itself.
Local and networked scan presets: Many laser multifunction devices targeted at large offices provide networked scanning in the form of individual "scan boxes" which can be accessed directly from a Web interface. On lower-end laser and inkjet multifunction devices, network scanning can also be found in the form of direct scanning presets, as well as the ability to scan to e-mail.
Scanning film or slides: This can be handy for photographers, though the quality of the results can be underwhelming if you don't have the right software (third-party software like Silverfast can replace bundled applications if you are serious about scanning your negatives). Make sure you choose a multifunction with a high scan resolution; 9600x4800dpi is ideal for scanning negatives.
Questions to ask / considerationsQuestions to ask / considerations
• How do I plan to use the device? Do I primarily want to print documents or photos?
• Do I plan to network the device?
• How many sheets can the input tray hold?
• How much space will it take up?
• Does the multifunction device's connection options match up with what I need?
• Card readers: can the multifunction read a variety of media, or just one type?
• How much memory does the printer have? More memory allows the multifunction device to handle more print jobs and save documents for future printing.
• What services and support are provided? How long is the warranty?
• Does the MFD support my operating system — e.g. Windows, OS X, Linux?