It’s all there in Black and White (and Color): How to buy a printer

It’s a Wrap! Cut! Print!

But with what? Laser? Inkjet? Photo? What’s the difference? Do you want to pay more up front and less per page, or do you want to go the cheap route and get sticker shock when you buy refills?

Printers and Scanners are almost a necessity. All the new ones will have a USB connection; some will also have a Network, or Wireless Network connection. A network connection on a printer, scanner, or all-in-one machine is great, because you can have one printer for everybody. You set up the software for the printer on each of your networked computers (Making sure to select the network connection option), and then you can print to the same printer with any of the computers. Most mid-price and SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) printers now have wireless or wired networking built in.

The current trend is in the direction of the all-in-one (AIW) printer that combines the functions of a printer, scanner, copier, and sometimes a fax machine. These will save a lot of space on your desk and probably save you some money as well. Units that include a fax are great for the home office crowd, although they typically add 20-50 dollars to the price.

If you want to print photos, look for a printer that is designed for that function; you’ll get better results and it’ll still print everything else you need to print. Photo printers often have slots to insert camera memory cards for direct printing, and preview screens so you can select which photo to print. Be aware, though, that printing photos yourself will probably be more expensive, in terms of paper and ink, than farming it out to your local lab, and their results will probably be better.

There are some specialty printers on the market that are designed to do nothing but print 4 by 6 photos. You can’t very well use these for your document printing, so you’ll have to have a general purpose printer as well. You can install as many printers as you like on one computer, although you have to select one as the default. The others are selected from the print dialog box that comes up when you command the computer to print something.

Most home and small office users will get an inkjet printer; they are the best for home photo printing and generally less expensive than laser printers. Laser printers should be considered when you have a large volume of printing to do, because while the up-front cost is higher, the price per page is much lower. While there are (expensive) color laser printers available, inkjets usually do a better job of printing photos, if that’s one of your considerations.

If you’ve ever bought inkjet printer ink, you know that printer ink costs more than French perfume, and it’s not nearly as glamorous. It’s the old razor blade marketing scheme: Give away the razors, and people will buy overpriced blades for them forever. Usually, the cheapest printers will have the highest operating costs per page.

Contrary to what the printer manufacturers would have you believe, you will not void the printer warranty by refilling your cartridges. Not all printer cartridges can be refilled, however, and there is often a lower quality result with refills. Eventually, after refilling the cartridge 3 to 10 times, you’ll wear it out and need a new one. If you want the advantage of refills without doing the messy work yourself, there are plenty of places that sell refilled cartridges at a substantial discount over new, and some stores will now refill cartridges while you shop. If you want to save money this way, check to see whether refill kits for the printer you want are available.

There are now a lot of low-priced (Around $100) laser printers on the market. They print in black only, so they are great if you print a lot of documents and send your photos out to be printed at a lab. (They will do a much better and cheaper job than you can do at home, anyway; After all, they are using a $25,000 printer!) There will still be sticker shock when you find out the cartridges cost $75, but remember you’ll get four to ten times the number of prints on a laser cartridge compared to inkjet.

Another consideration is ink longevity once you’ve opened the cartridge. Inkjet ink is a water-based liquid. Water dries up, especially here in Arizona. If you use your printer only rarely, there is an excellent chance that the ink will dry out in the cartridge.. And that’ll be another forty bucks. Laser printers, on the other hand, use a finely powdered ink that never dries out, so in some cases waste is reduced.

Bottom line: Always look at the cost of consumables (per page) and ability to refill (if that’s important to you) before you decide a printer is a great deal, and give some thought to what kind of printing you’re likely to be doing most.

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