Choosing a printer can be tricky, as there are so many different types on the market. You not only have to choose between technologies, such as inkjet and laser, but also between printers with different levels of functionality. For example, some models are designed only for printing black and white text and graphics, while others can be used to produce top-quality photos.
If you're a home user who needs a range of features, including the ability to print colour graphics and photos, an inkjet printer is probably the best option. Inkjet printers are generally cheap to purchase, but the running costs can be quite high, so they're best for people who print a few pages every month, rather than someone who needs to print hundreds of pages per week. If you fall into the latter category, look for a laser printer instead.
Inkjet printers work by propelling a small, but tightly controlled, stream of ink droplets from black and colour cartridges onto paper. This process generally makes inkjet printers a good deal slower than laser printers. Manufacturers approach the technology from slightly different directions, but the end results are usually pretty similar.
There are two dominant ink types in use on today's inkjet models -- dye and pigment. Manufacturers like Kodak and Epson use pigment-based inks, while Canon and HP rely on dyes. Brother often uses both, opting for dye-based colours and a pigment-based ink for black.
Traditionally dye-based inks were seen as the best option for people who needed bright and bold colours, whereas pigment inks were better when you needed output that was less prone to fading or water damage.
Over time though, manufacturers have improved the robustness of dye-based inks, and there are now also more colour variations and brighter pigment inks available. As a result, the gap between the two isn't always as pronounced as it once was. If you want to check the longevity of various manufacturers' inks, a good place to visit is Wilhelm Research, as it has lots of testing data about the performance of the inks used by them.
Ink cartridges don't last forever and, when you come to replace them, you'll often find that they're quite expensive. In fact, replacing a whole set of cartridges can cost you more than the printer did in the first place.
Normal inkjet printers use three colours -- cyan, magenta and yellow -- along with a black ink to produce their ouput. Some models use a single cartridge for the three colours, while others use individual cartridges for each colour. More complex inkjet models may use extra colours such as light cyan and light magenta to improve colour reproduction, especially when printing photos.
Single versus multiple ink cartridges
There is plenty of debate around whether printers that use multiple colour cartridges are better than those running on a single colour cartridge. Usually, ink cartridges for each separate colour are considered the better option. This is because if one colour runs down, you simply replace that cartridge and carry on printing. If one colour runs out in a combined cartridge, you have to replace the whole cartridge.
However, it's not always as clear-cut as this, partly because when you change a single ink cartridge the printer will usually have to purge some ink from all the other cartridges. This purging process can use a lot of ink. As it has to be done each time a single cartridge is replaced, it can add up to significant ink loss over time.
There's also the issue of cost to factor in. If your printing needs are modest -- that is, if you don't print lots of photos or colour documents on a weekly basis -- you may prefer multi-ink cartridges as they are relatively cheap to buy. Replacing all the colours in a printer that uses individual colour cartridges can be quite expensive as there's simply more ink to buy. However, if you print lots of colour sheets and photos, then you might be better off with a model that uses a individual colour cartridges as they're likely to be more economical over the longer term.
Genuine versus third-party inks
The biggest cost associated with inkjet models isn't usually the price of buying the printer itself, but rather the cost of the ink to keep it running. You can often end up spending way over the initial purchase price of the printer on ink over its lifetime, especially with budget models.
Generally, printers are sold on the old razor blades sales model, where the printer is cheap to buy -- typically sold at or below cost -- but new ink cartridges are priced at a premium to rake back some profit. The only company to really try an alternative strategy is Kodak. It prices its printers slightly higher than is typical, but it charges less for ink cartridges.
The high price of most ink cartridges has led to a whole third-party industry offering lower-priced copies of cartridges and refill packs for existing cartridges. Buying ink in this way is undoubtedly cheaper, but manufacturers warn that these products can cause a range of problems, from poor print quality to reduced durability of photo prints. Some even go so far as to claim that these inks can damage your printer by clogging up the print head.
In their defence, third-party companies say that these are simply scare tactics designed to encourage punters to continue buying expensive inks that subsidise artificially inexpensive printers.
The speed of a printer is measured in pages per minute (ppm). The speeds that manufacturers quote are often misleading because they don't include processing time. This is the time between hitting the print button on your computer and your printer actually starting to print a page.
If you tend to print shorter documents, then long processing times can be annoying. This is why, when we test printers, we give the time from 'click to clunk' -- that is, the time that elapses between clicking 'print' in an application on your computer and the last sheet dropping into the output tray of the printer. This gives a more realistic indication of printing speeds.
Print speed isn't a constant with inkjet printers. It changes according to the quality settings and whether you're printing in black and white or colour.
Using the draft setting in your printer's control panel will greatly speed up the printing process, but will also decrease the quality of the output. This might not matter if you're just printing off some documents to review yourself, but, if you're printing a letter, you'll probably want to use a slower, higher-quality setting that will produce crisper, darker text. Also bear in mind that printing colour documents is always considerably slower than printing black and white pages.
Generally, when you're buying a printer, you'll want one with the fastest print speed possible but, at the same time, it needs to be able to produce good-quality prints. Make sure it doesn't sacrifice quality for speed.
A higher-resolution image looks sharper to the eye on a computer screen and it's no different when it comes to printed paper. With printers, resolution is usually measured in dots per inch (dpi), so the higher the dpi figure, the finer the detail that the printer can reproduce.
Usually, printers will have different resolutions when it comes to printing in black and white and printing in colour. This is because black and white text and graphics don't need as much detail as photos do to look sharp. So, while a printer might have a black and white resolution of 600x600dpi, its colour resolution might be much higher, at 9,600x2,400dpi, for example. If you're planning on printing plenty of photos, look for a printer with a high resolution.
Photo printing paper
If you want professional-quality results when printing photos, you'll need to use special photo paper.
If you try using standard paper, you'll find that your pictures go wrinkly from the ink soaking through, and that colours simply don't look as good as they should.
Photo paper is thicker than normal paper, so it doesn't wrinkle, and it also has a special glossy or matte coating to help colours look vivid and resist fading.
Photo paper is available in a range of sizes, from A14 to smaller 4-by-6-inch snapshot sizes.
The vast majority of printers connect to your computer via USB. But some of the latest printers, such as the Lexmark Interact S605 (right), now have integrated Wi-Fi. A Wi-Fi printer may be more convenient for you because it can be placed anywhere in your study or home office -- there's no need to run a cable back to your computer.
Wi-Fi printers are also easy to share among multiple users in your home, as they're accessible to any computer on your network. Some printers also support Bluetooth, so you can wirelessly print photos from Bluetooth devices like most smart phones and some cameras.
Cloud printing, Airprint and smart phone apps
Many Wi-Fi enabled products now support cloud printing, allowing you to send documents or photos to your printer from pretty much anywhere in the world. Most manufacturers also offer free apps that let you print wirelessly from smart phones and tablets.
For example, Kodak's Pic Flick app is available across iOS, Android and BlackBerry devices. You can use it to rotate, crop and zoom your photos before sending them to your printer, or alternatively beam them to one of Kodak's Easyshare Wi-Fi-enabled digital photo frames.
Similarly, HP offers its ePrint Home & Biz app for Android, iOS and Symbian smart phones and tablets. It supports a range of file types including Word, Excel and PDF documents and also allows you to touch up and print your photos.
If you've got a Canon printer, you can download Easy-PhotoPrint for your iOS or Android device and use it to scan or print photos from your phone or tablet, and even create PDFs from your scans. Other apps available from the big name manufacturers include iPrint&Scan on iOS, Android and Windows Phone from Brother and iPrint from Epson on iOS, Android and Symbian.
If your printer supports Apple's Airprint technology, you won't even need to install any extra apps or drivers on your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad device -- you can just select your printer via the Airprint functionality built into iOS.
To find out more about wireless printing, check out our comprehensive guide covering five easy ways to print wirelessly.
An increasing number of printers fall into the all-in-one category. Models such as the Kodak ESP Office 2170 (below) include a scanner at the top so you can scan photos, artwork and other documents to your computer. Some can even be used to scan transparencies and 32mm slides.
Usually, this type of printer doubles up as a photocopier too, allowing you to quickly run off copies of colour or black and white images and documents. Often this function is available even when your PC is turned off, so it works in almost exactly the same way as a normal office photocopier.
The quality of a scanner is largely dependent on its native optical resolution. This is the number of dots it sees when it's scanning a photograph or document. Scanning resolution is given as a dpi figure. The higher the number, the finer the detail that the scanner can capture.
Some manufacturers quote an effective resolution, however, which will be much higher than the optical resolution. The effective resolution is achieved by processing the image after it's been scanned, and it's not a good indicator of overall image quality.
Many printers that are designed to be used in a home office also include fax capability. To send a fax, you'll need to plug the printer into a phone line and then place the document you want to send in the scanner. The printer then scans the document and sends it as a fax. If it receives an incoming fax, it simply prints out the results just like any other document.
Automatic Document Feeder
Increasingly you'll find automatic document feeders (ADFs) integrated into printers. An ADF can be a great time saver if you often need to fax or scan multi-page documents. This is because you can simply place your entire multi-page document into the ADF and it will then run it through your scanner one page at a time, without requiring you to manually place each page on your scanner's glass surface.
Some ADFs can also handle double-sided pages. These are often referred to as duplex automatic document feeders or reverse automatic document feeders.
Duplex printing is another feature that you'll often find on today's mid and high-end models. With most printers, if you want to print on both sides of a sheet of paper, you have to print the first side, wait for the ink to dry and then turn the sheet over, place it back in the paper tray and print the second side. That's every bit as laborious a process as it sounds.
However, duplex printers can automatically print on both sides of a piece of paper. They print the first side and then pull the paper back into the printing mechanism to flip the sheet over, printing the second side without needing any intervention from the user.
Memory card readers, USB and PictBridge
Models that are aimed at those who want to produce high-quality photos generally come with built-in memory card readers. This means that you can simply take the memory card out of your camera, plug it directly into your printer and then use its colour screen to select the snaps that you want to print off. Most models support SD and Memory Stick cards, but some also have Compact Flash slots.
Manufacturers often add a host USB port to allow you to print directly from USB memory keys or hard drives. Usually these ports also support PictBridge technology. If you've got a PictBridge-compatible camera, you can connect it directly to your printer to choose the photos that you want to produce hard copies of. It saves you having to remove the memory card from your camera or having to first transfer your pictures to a PC.