Essays. Vouchers. Last minute directions to Grandma's house. Whatever you need to print, there is a home printer that can do it. The intense competition between competitors such as HP, Epson, Canon and others has forced prices to such absurd lows that you can now go to a store – even your local supermarket – and get out with a new printer for $ 60 or less.
However, choosing a home printer can be difficult given the variety of options on the market, not to mention the intricate terms that only seem to complicate the process. That's why we've put together a quick and dirty buying guide for choosing a home printer that provides simple explanations of some of the most common terms and recommendations that serve the majority of users.
Inkjet or laser?
The first question every printer buyer has to ask is a simple question of what and how much you plan to print. Inkjet printers use ink cartridges that are wet on paper and dry quickly, while laser printers use toner, a type of ink dust that binds to paper for quick results and efficient use of resources.
Color inkjet printers make up the majority of the market simply because they can print just about anything: essays, pie charts or glossy photos, as you call it. Today's inkjet printers and all-in-one devices are fast and often offer printing speeds that are comparable to or exceed those of lasers.
Laser printers are still a good choice for office settings when most of the printing needs to be done in black and white. Monochrome laser printers are largely affordable, have good print speeds, and in most cases offer prints at a lower cost per page than a color inkjet printer. However, you have to decide whether to give up the flexibility of a color inkjet printer. Color laser printers are another option, but generally have a higher cost per page than color inkjet printers.
In the past, laser printers have offered higher page yields per cartridge than an inkjet printer. However, this is changing with some newer inkjet printers that offer up to 10,000 printed pages from a monochrome ink cartridge and 7,000 pages or more from each color cartridge. This leads to lower cost per page and less frequent cartridge changes.
A multifunction printer is a printer that can scan, fax, and print. They are available in both inkjet and laser versions and are usually referred to as "all-in-one".
A multifunction device is very useful for home use, not only because it is cheaper than buying a printer and a standalone scanner, but also to save space. Since all-in-one devices are very common and manufacturers rarely charge a high premium for them (you can often find some for just $ 50 to $ 60), we recommend it to home users.
Scanning is especially useful as part of your printer because it makes it easy to scan documents straight to your computer. Fax functions are a hit or miss: They are used more in the office, but even then faxing has largely disappeared in the business world, with the exception of a few selected industries, so that the added value is not great.
If you're more interested in getting family photos on paper than printing homework and pie charts, consider using a special (one-function) photo printer. Although they lack the flexibility of multitaskers, the quality of the prints is usually better and can often match or exceed the quality of kiosks or mail order companies like Shutterfly. However, the price you pay for this type of comfort comes from the printing cost.
Many of the printers that are sold for special photo or graphic purposes are small devices that can print photos up to 4 x 6 inches in size, or large-format models that are designed for media up to 24 inches wide . The accessories for these specialty printers are also generally more expensive than those for the typical multifunctional printer. Both Canon and Epson have models that print 8.5 x 11 inches and use five or six colors of ink to take photos with higher color accuracy. Many all-in-one devices can take photos up to 8.5 x 11 inches in size if you use the right paper.
Speed, resolution and color requirements
In the past, it was fairly easy for a printer manufacturer to make outrageous statements about how fast their printers were or what you can expect from the yield of an ink or toner cartridge. Nowadays, almost all providers use standardized tests that have been developed and licensed by the International Standards Organization. The ISO test protocols offer the same competitive conditions – all claims and evaluations are developed with the same document sets and the same test procedures. Important specifications are:
PPM: This means "pages per minute" and indicates how fast a printer can print pages. That seems easy, but ppm can get complex quickly. For example, printers have very different ppms for black and white and color. Therefore, many printers often offer two different ppms if they are color focused. PPM is not particularly important for home printers unless you are under time pressure for a print job or need to print a lot at once. The average black and white ppm is 15 to 20 pages. The color tends to be lower at around 10 to 15 pages per minute.
DPI: This refers to “dots per inch” or how many ink dots the printer can apply to one square inch of paper. This specification is useful for examining how well a printer can produce high-resolution, detailed images. However, it's also a little dated: newer printing methods and software can improve the resolution of a printed image without changing the DPI. So don't let it be the final decision.
Degree of utilization: This number indicates how many pages per month a printer is expected to print. You want your expected number of pages per month to be well below that number so your printer isn't worn out as much. It's an important number for a busy office with a lot of printing needs, but less important for the normally less intensive home use.
Use these specifications as a basis for comparing one device with another. However, keep in mind that these factors don't include all factors, especially if you have other features you're looking for.
Do you remember the mantra "give away razors, sell blades"? This centuries-old business model is still alive and well in the printer business, where many companies attract consumers with unimaginably low prices for their budget printers and know that they can milk them again and again when it comes to replacing the ink cartridges.
Before you buy a printer, research the cost of replacement supplies to find out what to do when your first cartridges run out. Depending on how often you want to print, it may actually be worth buying a more expensive printer to buy a cheaper set of cartridges. Also consider the option of refilling your own cartridges, which can cost significantly less than buying new cartridges each time. Note, however, that printer manufacturers are now adding tiny chips to their cartridges that track the life of ink or toner to make refilling difficult.
Finally, examine new models and ink plans. HP offers an instant ink program that automatically sends you cartridges when ink runs low and promises a fixed number of pages for a fixed monthly fee. Both Canon and Epson now offer “ink tank” models that you can fill from small bottles of ink, which is very cost-effective per page, while Brother has a number of printers with multiple cartridges in the box so you don't miss out have to buy refills for some time.
Duplex printing (two-sided printing or scanning)
Automatic duplexing is a function that is becoming increasingly common and that we consider a major plus. Duplexing refers to printing or scanning both sides of the page without having to turn the page manually. For a printer, duplexing is done by printing the first page of the page, pulling the page back through the printer, turning it over, and printing the other page.
Many all-in-one devices with an automatic document feeder (ADF) for the scanner also have duplex printing, so you can scan both sides of the page while the document is fed through the ADF. An all-in-one without an automatic document feeder cannot duplex without turning the page on the scanning glass.
Duplex scanning is a great convenience if you frequently scan two-sided pages torn from a magazine. Duplex printing is almost a must these days so you can save paper when no one-sided printing is required.
Nowadays, almost every printing device offers several connectivity options. USB has been the standard interface for years, and each computer has multiple USB ports. Since USB is generally a short, direct connection, the printer or AIO must be close to the PC or laptop. However, there are some WiFi routers with USB ports that you can use to connect to a printer and enable wireless printing on a home network.
Most modern printers can now be shared between multiple devices over a network. This can be done over ethernet, where you connect a cable to the router or switch in your network. Ethernet also ensures a faster connection. However, this wired setup is more common in an office environment than at home, so only a few low-end models have an integrated Ethernet connection.
Wi-Fi, which has become the most popular method for home networking, is more common, and almost every new printer sold to home users or small businesses has Wi-Fi capabilities. Many even offer a one-button wireless setup – if the router it is connected to supports it – making network pairing a breeze. With a newer option called Wi-Fi Direct, you can also connect your printer directly to a device, as is the case with technologies such as Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print.
NFC (Near-Field Communication) is also available on some models, allowing you to connect your printer to a smartphone or tablet simply by touching the device in a specific area of your printer.
Memory card slots, PictBridge and the cloud
If you want to print a lot of photos, consider a printer with built-in memory slots, Bluetooth capabilities, PictBridge, or cloud-based support. All of them let you print photos directly from a camera or smart device, so you don't have to transfer them to a computer first. Memory cards can be inserted from the camera into a slot on your printer. Some printers even have a multi-format card reader, while others only support the more popular Secure Digital or SD format.
PictBridge-enabled cameras, on the other hand, can be connected to a printer using the same USB cable that you may use to connect to a PC – provided your printer has a PictBridge-enabled USB port – while cloud-based connectivity does enables to send photos directly from Google Cloud Print, Dropbox and other internet-based services. Don't overestimate the usefulness of these convenience features. You may still want to transfer your photos to a computer to empty your memory card, and most photographers may want to examine their prints on a larger screen before printing.
Many full-featured printers, especially AIOs, now offer internet-based features that allow you to access photos stored on websites like Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox, and Google Drive, as well as remote printing and access to handicrafts that you can print out. Note that if your printer is not connected to the Internet, you will not be able to access these services or print remotely from devices such as a smartphone or tablet.
Every printer feeds on a fat stack of 8.5 x 11 paper, but what about legal envelopes, index cards, and glossy materials? Fortunately, many printers now have special input trays for printing on special papers with unusual sizes or different weights, which makes handling easier. Also consider the size of the input tray. For example, with smaller trays, you need to add paper all the time, while a 250-page funnel can make this happen once a month.
Some home office users also have an optional second tray that allows them to use different paper stock, check the stock, or simply double the paper capacity so you don't have to replenish the paper supply as often.
Printers for the modern paperless home
Many buyers of printers in the 2020s are faced with another riddle: their homes are mostly paperless, and most of their work is digital. However, you still need a printer for occasional photo art projects or to scan and send a signature. A large printer may not be worthwhile for buyers like this, especially when it comes to space and maintenance of their ink cartridges.
A new type of printer is becoming increasingly popular – compact, often portable, home printers that are manufactured here and there for casual work without taking up space or effort. One example is the Canon Pixma iP110 wireless printer. Another option is the highly portable HP Tango X. Printers like this work directly from your phone or laptop and can be used almost anywhere.