Buying a printer can be a complicated business, there are more shapes, sizes and types of printers available to the home and small business user than ever before. Printers have also become specialised for their intended purpose.
It is no longer a case of “a printer is a printer”. Printers are now designed to be good in a particular area rather than a “Jack-of-all trades”, which will do everything.
An often overlooked issue, is the very serious consideration of cost of ownership, which is all about of how much it will cost to keep your printer running (see below). So making that decision on which printer to go for can be a seriously arduous task, especially if you are keen to buy a printer that is not only affordable to buy but also cheap to run.
So here is the information that you need to know and consider, but no one tells you! We have not expanded on which printer is the best at any given time because models constantly change and you can find that information in any current glossy PC magazine off the shelf. Instead, here you will find the good, bad and ugly bits from the different types of printers available so you can make an informed decision yourself.
Inkjet printers form images by spraying tiny droplets of liquid ink onto paper. The size and precision of the dots of ink and the type and quality of the ink itself govern how good the print quality is. A quality inkjet printer can produce very near photo-quality images using specialist photo coated paper. In general there are two types of inkjet printers, those with the printhead built into the printer like Epson, Brother etc and those where the printhead is actually on the ink cartridge like HP and Lexmark. There are many arguments for and against both technologies, but in our experience we have found both to be very good, the major difference seems to be that the cost of running a printer using the “printhead” type ink cartridge is usually higher.
Inkjet ink is specially formulated for specific printer models and their purpose, much technology is involved in the development of these inks to improve print quality, longevity, drying speeds and printing speeds etc. Most inkjet ink is produced using dye based ink which can flow easily through the tiny nozzles of the printhead, this type of ink is good for photos and colour shades but not so good for longevity or solid vibrant colour, think of it like a water colour painting. In recent years pigment ink technology has advanced considerably to enable use in inkjet printing. Previously ink pigments were too large and would block up the nozzles. This type of ink is good for solid colours and longevity, think of it like an oil painting.
Manufacturers like Epson, HP and Jet Tec are now increasingly using a fusion of dye based and pigmented inks to create superb quality photo printing with vibrant colours and longevity too.
Inkjet printers use anything between two and eight ink cartridges to do their job. Generally speaking the entry-level machines use two cartridges, good all round machines use four and specialist photo printers use six or more. The two cartridge system works fine though can be a bit wasteful on the colour ink, so go for a four-cartridge system where possible especially if you do colour printing. The six or more cartridge systems produce outstanding photos, but can be costly and a pain to keep changing cartridges (printer does not work if any one cartridge is empty).
Inkjet printers are the best solution for most people and are usually the most cost effective way to print – unless you are printing large volumes.
Portable Inkjet Printers
These printers are small, lightweight and ideal for people on the move. Although the printing of high quality photographs is usually beyond this type of printer, basic colour printing is of good quality and the quality of text print is mostly outstanding considering the size of these tiny portable A4 printers. These printers are not suitable for high volume printing.
The Inkjet Printer is the most commonly used type of printer among home and small business users. With excellent all round printing capabilities, from black & white text print and good colour prints through to very hi-resolution, high quality photographs using Inkjet Photo Printers. Inkjet printers are available from cheap entry level to high-end business use machines and can print from photo size prints to massive A2 and bigger sizes, there are models for occasional use and others for high volume print jobs too. One of the many great things about Inkjet printers is that you can use a wide variety of media to print on, including standard paper, photo paper, card, t-shirt transfers, canvas, projector film etc, achieving different looks and textures for your prints and print for different purposes. Most Inkjet printers are USB connections and not suitable for networks, although models are also available for networks and with parallel connections.
Multi-Function Inkjet Printers
Multi-Function Inkjet Printers have been built to meet the needs of home offices and small businesses. These excellent value machines provide multiple solutions in one compact and easy to use machine i.e. printing, scanning, copying and some also have built in fax machines too. Not only are these machines great for saving space on your desk, but they are also very good for printing too using the same technology as standard inkjet printers. The only thing you should be aware of is that you can only use one function at a time and if anything goes wrong with an “All-in-one” machine, you may lose the all the functions at once!
Laser printers work in a similar way to photocopiers, except they use a laser instead of a bright light to scan with. They work by creating an electrostatic image of the page onto a charged photoreceptor, which in turn attracts toner in the shape of an electrostatic charge. Toner is the material used to make the image (as ink is in an inkjet printer) and is a very fine powder, so laser printers use toner cartridges instead of ink cartridges.
Laser Printers have traditionally been the best printing solution for heavy office users as they produce a very high quality black text finish and offer relatively low running costs. However, laser printers have advanced a great deal recently and their prices have steadily dropped, as a result there are now compact laser printers, multi-function and colour laser printers all at very affordable prices. Laser printers make sense if you need to do a lot of high quality black or colour prints, not photos. The great thing about a colour laser printer is that they can print a very good quality colour image on standard copier paper, so you do not need to use expensive photo paper for large jobs. Do check the prices of the consumables before you buy the printer as these can be very expensive for colour laser printers.
Laser printers are the best solution for people who are printing in large volumes, that is, in 100's of pages at a time or 1000's of pages per month. Colour lasers also take quite a while to warm up, so are not ideal for printing single pages.
Solid Ink Printers
Solid ink printers use solid wax ink sticks in a “phase-change” process, they work by liquefying wax ink sticks into reservoirs and then squirting the ink onto a transfer drum from where it is cold-fused onto the paper in a single pass. Solid ink printers are marketed almost exclusively by Tektronix / Xerox and are aimed at larger businesses and high volume colour printing.
Solid ink printers used to be cheaper to purchase than similarly specified colour lasers and fairly economical to run owing to a low component usage, today it is not necessarily any cheaper than a colour laser printer. Output quality is good but generally not as good as the best colour lasers for text and graphics or the best inkjets for photographs. Print speeds are not as fast as most colour lasers.
Dye-Sublimation printers use heat and solid colour dyes to produce lab-quality photographic images. Dye-Sub printers contain a roll of transparent film made up of page-sized panels of colour, with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dye embedded in the film. Print head heating elements vaporize the inks, which adhere to a specially coated paper, as the ink cools it re-solidifies on the paper. Colour intensity is controlled by precise variations in temperature.
Dye-sublimation printers lay down color in continuous tones one color at a time instead of dots of ink like an inkjet, because the colour is absorbed into the paper rather than sitting on the surface, the output is more photo-realistic, more durable and less vulnerable to fading than other ink technologies.
The downside of Dye-Sub printers is that they are generally more expensive to buy and run, usually limited to photo sized prints only and can only print onto one type of specialised paper as well as being quite slow to print.
Dye-Sublimation printers are best for those who want to link up their digital camera to a purpose built printer and print out the finest quality photos at home without fuss.
Dot Matrix Printers
Dot matrix printers are relatively old fashioned technology today with poor quality print, slow and very noisy output. This type of printer is no longer used unless you wish to create invoices using the continuous paper with holes on both sides. The good thing is that they are very cheap to run!
Cost of Ownership
Many printers today are very cheap to buy, but people are sometimes shocked to discover the cost of replacing the consumables (ink or laser cartridges, imaging drums, fuser, oils, specialist papers etc). The cost of replacing the ink can sometimes cost more than the printer itself! This is one of the most commonly overlooked factors when printers are reviewed and yet one of the most important things to consider before handing over your hard earned cash. Tests run in 2003 by Which? magazine famously compared the cost of HP's ink with vintage 1985 Dom Perignon.
A Sheffield City Council report aimed at helping schools decide on the best-value printers to buy, calculated total cost of ownership over the lifetime of a printer (not sure how long that is!). Adding up all the running costs, ink or toner, paper, maintenance and even electricity, SCC worked out that a colour inkjet costs approx 38p per page to run compared to a colour laser which costs approx 7p per page. Sheffield City Council advised its schools that if they printed more than three colour pages a day (assuming a 40-week academic year) they should buy a laser.
These figures cannot be taken hard and fast due to the many variables involved, but it is generally accepted that the cost per print of a laser printer is cheaper than that of an inkjet, which is in turn cheaper than that of a sub-dye printer. However, you would have to do a fair amount of colour printing to take advantage of the economy offered by a laser printer.
When buying a printer, firstly carefully consider its use, is it mostly general printing or for photographs, is it for occasional use or high volumes, will it be a stand alone device or connected to a network? Then using the guideline information above you will be able to decide on which type of printer is most suitable for you at the time.