Buying a printer: how to choose the best printer for home or business

We show you how to pick the best printer for your home or for your small business, whether it's an inkjet or a laser printer
This printer buying guide covers inkjet printers and laser printers, as well as multifunction devices like scanners, copiers and faxes.

This printer buying guide covers inkjet printers and laser printers, as well as multifunction devices like scanners, copiers and faxes.

Running a business? Look at our guide to buying a laser printer.

Need an inbuilt scanner, fax or copier? Read the multifunction printer buying guide.

Buying for your home or small business? Have a look over the inkjet printer buying guide.

Not sure what automatic duplex, Wi-Fi sharing or a waste cartridge is? Check out our guide to understanding printer specifications.

It's inevitable that sooner or later you will need to print something from your computer. It may be photos, school reports, bank statements, concert tickets you've ordered online or office documents. A good printer can make your digital photos sparkle or your school assignments stand out from the pack.

There are many models to choose from, and they can range in price from $60 to well over $1000, depending on the features and the technology.

Choosing the right printer for your needs and workflow is an important process. For example, if you seldom use a printer, then it's not worth getting a printer that will give you the best quality and fastest performance – you could choose a budget model that is perfect for occasional print jobs.

Inkjet or laser

Technologically, there are two types of printers that you need to be familiar with: inkjet and laser. A printer with inkjet technology releases ink through thousands of tiny nozzles in order to create well-detailed images on paper. A laser printer uses ink toner (which looks like dust), and an electronic charge, which helps attract the toner particles to produce the images you see on the paper, and a fuser to 'melt' the toner to the paper and make it stick.

Inkjets can vary in price from $60 to $1500, depending on how many features you need and what level of print quality you want. They can print at a much higher resolution than laser printers, making them well-suited for photo printing too.

Generally, an inkjet printer will have at least one colour ink tank and one black ink tank, which combine to produce the colours that you see on the page, although some printers have individual tanks for each colour and might also include more than three colours. Some models designed for high quality photo printing may have six individual colour ink cartridges or more.

A laser printer is useful if you have high volume printing needs – such as in the office – as its toner can print many more pages than even the largest inkjet tanks. Laser printers are also generally faster than inkjet printers for completing large print jobs.

There are two types of laser printers: monochrome, which will only print in black and white; and colour, which will print in colour or black and white. Colour laser printers are more expensive than monochrome lasers, and are generally bigger in size too, unless you opt for a compact laser printer.

A basic monochrome laser printer can be bought for as little as $70, while a basic colour laser might cost around $150. Prices will vary greatly depending on how fast the printers are and also what type of features are installed, such as an extra paper tray or a duplex unit for printing on both sides of the paper.

Laser printers are designed for work or home office environments but some small units are available for personal use, too. Laser printers are great for printing large jobs quickly, with crystal clear text. Many lasers don't print photos well at all, so if you regularly print out only pages of text and charts, and don't mind printing your photos at a store, then a laser printer may be a good choice for you.

Multifunction printers

If you want to buy a printer, and also need a device that can scan photos and documents onto your computer, then a multifunction printer is what you should consider.

Multifunction printers are basically a standard inkjet or laser printer, but with a flatbed scanner on top, where you can place the documents you want to copy or scan into your computer. Some models also have a fax/modem built in, so they can be used as a fax machine. The benefit of a multifunction printer is that it is an all-in-one device, so you don't use much desk space, nor do you need extra power outlets and computer ports to plug it in.

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Ink cartridge costs

The cost of the ink cartridges for your printer is an important buying factor, and inkjet printers can quickly churn through a lot of ink. Before buying a printer, find out how many ink cartridges it will need, and how much they will cost. If you're buying a printer with individual ink tanks for each colour, then expect to pay around $20 for each cartridge. Cartridges for photo printers, which use high quality pigment inks, can cost $30 or more each.

If you mainly print office documents that use few colours, then your ink cartridges will last longer than if you are printing plenty of 6x4in photos. Most inexpensive printers use one black and one tri-colour cartridge, so if one colour in the tri-colour cartridge runs out, you have to replace the whole cartridge. Printers with individual cartridges have an advantage here, as you can replace each colour as it runs out.

If buying a laser printer, you need to find out how much the toner cartridges cost, and if other parts may need replacing over time, for example the drum unit or a waste bottle. Calculate how much you'll print each month, and what types of documents, and buy a printer that will fit those needs. The printer’s duty cycle is a rating that tells you how many pages the printer can print during the month without breaking down.

Connections

Most home printers connect to a computer (either your desktop or notebook) using a USB connection. Office devices generally have a USB connection and an Ethernet wired network port – this allows them to be connected to a network and shared with multiple computers simultaneously. Models with wireless networking also exist for home use. Other features to look for on inkjet printers include Bluetooth, which allows you to print photos off your mobile phone; PictBridge, so you can plug your digital camera into the printer and print photos off it directly; and memory card slots, which allow you to insert the memory card from your camera into the printer and directly print photos. Another feature to consider is a USB slot that allows you to print documents directly off a USB device.

Shopping Checklist: Printers

Inkjet printer An inkjet is the most convenient printer type for a household as it's small, relatively inexpensive and can print out regular documents as well as photos. This is what you should buy if all you need is something that will print the odd photo as well as Web pages and office-type documents.

Multifunction device Go for a multifunction device if you also want to be able to make photocopies or if you want to scan old photos and documents into your computer. Consider a model with memory card slots if you'll be printing photos; get one with a fax/modem built into it if you want to be able to send and receive faxes with it.

Laser printer Laser printers are ideal for office environments where many pages will be printed every day. Look for a monochrome laser printer if you'll only be printing basic documents, but if colour output of graphs is required then consider getting a colour laser printer.

Ports and slots Make sure your printer has all the necessary ports and slots that you want to use. For example, look for memory card slots that suit the type of memory card that your camera uses, so you can then simply plug the card into the printer to print off your photos.

Connectivity You'll need a printer with a USB port so that you can connect your printer to your computer. If you have a network in your home or office, you can also choose to buy a printer with a built-in Ethernet network adapter. This will make it easier to share the printer with multiple computers.

Individual ink cartridges An inkjet printer with individual ink cartridges for each colour makes sense because you can replenish each colour as it runs out. With a tri-colour cartridge, you will have to replace the whole thing when the cyan colour runs out, for example, even if there is still some yellow and magenta available.

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Paper handling A typical inkjet printer can hold about 100 sheets of paper at any one time. If you'll be printing photos, you'll also want to ensure that your inkjet printer can handle 6x4in and A4 glossy photo paper in addition to A4 plain paper. If you're looking at a laser printer, make sure it has ample paper storage capacity for you and your employees, so that you won't have to fill it too often. Look for a paper tray capacity of around 500 pages or more. If you want to print A3-sized jobs, you'll need to look for a printer that can handle this format. Printers that can handle A3 paper are more expensive than ones that only do up to A4.

LCD screen On some inkjet printers that are primarily designed to print photos, they feature a small LCD screen on which you can view photos from memory cards before printing them. The LCD screen also makes it easier to change the settings of the printer, especially if it's a multifunction printer with a scanner and photocopying feature.

Double-sided printing A laser printer with a duplex unit can print on both sides of the paper automatically. It's a great feature for an office environment, but it will cost a little more then a comparable printer without a duplex unit. For an inkjet printer, duplex printing can be automatic, but in most cases is it is manual. That is, you have to flip the pages over and re-feed them to the printer. Ask the sales person if the inkjet printer supports duplex printing in its driver, or if it has a built-in duplex unit.

Warranty and support If you'll be buying a laser printer, look for an on-site warranty option, which can come in handy if the printer breaks down during its warranty period. You might also want to consider getting an extended warranty if it's available.

Jargon buster

CMYK: these letters stand for cyan, magenta, yellow and keystone black. You'll often see printer cartridges described by these terms. These colours combine to produce all the colours that you'll see on your printed pages. Some printers may also use light cyan, light magenta and light yellow to increase the number of colours they can produce.

Consumables: this relates mainly to the paper and ink (for inkjet printers) or toner (for laser printers) cartridges that your printer relies on for its day-to-day operation.

DPI: this stands for dots per inch and it's used to describe the printer's resolution. The dpi is an indication of how many dots the printer can print in a one inch area (look for a specification similar to 4800x1200). A higher number means that the printer will be able to print in greater detail. Likewise, dpi is used to indicate the resolution of a scanner in a multifunction printer.

Duplex unit: this is a mechanism, mostly found in laser printers, which facilitates double-sided printing. It can either be built-in or offered as an optional extra. Some high-end inkjet printers might also have a duplex unit built-in.

Duty cycle: duty cycle is the rating given to a printer to indicate how many prints it can produce in a month (its workload), without breaking down. It is a key specification for laser printers, which are often used in busy office environments. An example of a duty cycle for a $1500 colour laser printer is 100,000 to 200,000 pages. Inkjet printers have much lower duty cycles of only between 1000-5000 pages per month, although some business models have higher ratings.

Monochrome: this term is mainly used for laser printers and it means that the printer can only print in black and white.

Multifunction printers: these are printers that also include a scanner, and sometimes a fax/modem. They are also known as all-in-one printers or multifunction devices.

PictBridge: This is a port on the front of an inkjet printer (and some laser printers) that allows you to connect your digital camera. By putting your camera in PictBridge mode, you can use the camera's menu system and LCD screen to select the photos that you want to print. This means you won't have to use a PC to transfer your photos, nor remove the memory card from the camera.

Printheads and ink cartridges: inkjet printers store their ink in cartridges, which often sit in a print head, although sometimes the ink is transferred to the printhead through tubes, while the ink cartridges reside elsewhere in the printer. The printhead is what places the ink from the ink cartridges onto the paper. It travels swiftly from side to side as the paper rolls underneath it line by line.

Printer driver: this is the software that interfaces your printer with your computer. From here you can set the paper size, print quality and number of copies, as well as check on ink levels.

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FAQs: Printers

What is the printer's total cost of ownership? Certain printer models might seem like they're good value, but the initial outlay is only part of the expense of owning a printer. The ink and toner cartridges will be an ongoing expense for the life of the printer, as will paper. Ask the sales person how much the ink or toner for a printer is gong to cost to replace, and also how long it is likely to last. As for paper, plain paper is relatively inexpensive, but glossy photo paper can cost up to $1 per sheet depending on its size and quality.

How many ink cartridges should my inkjet have? An inexpensive printer might have only two cartridges, one black and one tri-colour. Tri-colour cartridges aren't always a convenient option, as you have to replace the whole thing even if one colour runs out, so in that respect a printer with individual colour cartridges may be a better option. You can buy printers with four, six or even eight individual ink cartridges; the more cartridges, the better the printer's colour output will be. But unless you are after professional results, you won't need an eight-colour printer.

Can I print on T-shirts, create banners or perform other creative tasks with the printer? Check with the sales person about this. Most inkjet printers can handle iron-on transfers so you can print your own T-shirt designs, and many can also consume banner paper, for printing out large banners on special occasions. Your printer might be able to handle many other types of paper, so find out what options are available and how much they cost.

Is this laser printer upgradeable? Laser printers have memory that helps them store big and complex jobs. Most ship with 32-256MB, but ask if you can upgrade this and also find out if you can install a hard drive or flash memory. This will allow jobs and extra fonts to be stored on the printer and it could also facilitate printing documents from a USB stick. Ask the sales person what the best options are for your needs.

Can I refill ink cartridges? You can, and there are a few companies that specialise in this field. Using ink other than the manufacturers' supplied ink on some printers can cause the ink heads to clog up, or worse. Although you might save some money by refilling or buying refilled cartridges, you could end up with a damaged printer or less than optimal results.

Is this inkjet printer suitable for business use? Just because you want a printer for your business, you don't have to buy a laser. There are some inkjet models, especially multifunction-style models, that cater to small businesses and which offer good total cost of ownership.

Can I print photos without using my PC? Yes. As long as you buy a printer that has a PictBridge port and/or memory card slots. If both your digital camera and printer support PictBridge, you can simply connect your digital camera and use its menu system to select the photos you want to print. If your printer has memory card slots, then you can plug in the camera's memory card and use the printer's LCD screen to print photos off the card directly. Some cameras, and also printers, allow you to edit the photos, too, so you can crop and adjust the colours and brightness without using an editing program on your PC.

Will my printed photos stand the test of time? This will depend on the printer you choose. Ask the sales person to show you a model that uses ink that is splash-proof and durable. Some manufacturers rate their inks and papers as lasting up to 100 years without fading and also as being able to withstand accidental spills.

What else do I need to buy in order to use my printer? Not all printers ship with printer cables; ask the sales person if a cable is included so that you can connect it to your computer as soon as you get home. Double-check to make sure that all ink cartridges are included with the printer and ask if they are 'starter' cartridges. 'Starter' cartridges don't last as long as regular cartridges, so you’ll have to replace them sooner. You might also want to stock up on plain A4 paper for printing out everyday jobs, and glossy paper for printing our photos. Try to stick with the manufacturer's branded glossy paper, as this will give you best results.

Can I use a colour laser printer to print photos? Yes. Some models do produce good photo-quality results, but most don't produce quality that's close to the definition and vibrancy of an inkjet printer. If printing photos will be your main use for a printer, then an inkjet is definitely the best way to go.

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