Choosing a printer can be difficult simply because there are so many different makes and models with different features available.
The first decision you'll need to make is whether you buy an inkjet or laser printer. After that you'll need to work out what extra features you may need, such as the ability to use your printer to photocopy documents or print high-quality photos.
This guide will walk you through the different options available so you can find the right printer for your needs, no matter whether you need one for a small business or just for printing documents at home.
Inkjet Printers – Typical price: £25 to £200
When most people buy a printer they opt for an inkjet model. Mainly this is due to their low price as a colour inkjet can be bought for as little as £35. Inkjets are versatile as they can produce great quality photos prints, as well as crisp black and white text and good looking business documents.
However, although they have a low up-front cost, they're more expensive to run over the longer term than laser printers. The price of a new set of inkjet cartridges is often a lot more than the initial cost of the printer, which comes as a shock to many buyers. It also means that per page printing costs are generally high. For example, a black and white page costs around 3p or 4p to print on an inkjet printer, but on a laser it's typically 2p or less.
If you want to print photos, though, you will need an inkjet printer, as they produce the best quality prints. Bear in mind that printing photos at home isn’t cheaper than printing them at your local Boots store, for example, so you won't be saving any money by going this route. What you will gain, though, is convenience. Also, some photographers prefer to print at home because they have more control over the printing process and can experiment with printing to different types of photo paper.
Inkjet printers generally rely on three colour cartridges -- cyan, magenta and yellow -- as well as a black cartridge, to produce their results. Some models combine the three colours into a single cartridge rather than using separate ones. If you're going to print a lot of photos it's usually best to avoid models with these combined colour cartridges as they'll end up being more expensive to run.
Generally the more you pay for an inkjet printer the faster it will print pages and photos. Cheap models can take a long time to produce their printed results, which can be frustrating if you're in a hurry.
A printer's resolution is measured in dots per inch (dpi). It's much like the resolution of a computer monitor, so the higher the number the shaper text and photos will look. However, most inkjets today produce good quality text, so the dpi figure is only really worth worrying about if you're looking for a printer to produce unusually high-quality photos.
The very cheapest inkjet printers connect to your computer via a USB cable, but a lot of models - and even budget printers - now include wi-fi, so you can wirelessly print from not just computers, but also smartphone and tablets.
So, the upshot of all this is that Inkjet printers are a good option if you only print documents on rare occasions or you really want to be able to print photos at home. If you need to print a lot of documents on a regular basis, opt for a laser printer instead.
Laser Printers – Typical price: £120 to £500
A laser printer is the best option for most people who need a printer for a home office or a business. Laser printers are more expensive to buy initially, but much cheaper to run over the longer term. They also print much, much faster than inkjet models and are generally more reliable.
Pretty much all laser printers have a USB port for direct connection to a PC, but most mid-range products now include an Ethernet port and wi-fi so you can share the printer over a network with multiple different PCs, smartphone and tablets.
The cost of printing a black and white page on a laser printer is generally about half that of an inkjet printer. Over time, when used in a home office or business, that leads to significant savings. Also, because a laser cartridge generally lasts for 1,500 sheets compared to the 500 sheets you get from most inkjet cartridges, there's less faffing about with cartridge changes.
Most laser printers are monochrome – they only print in black and white. However, there are an increasing number of colour laser printers now available. These are significantly more expensive and are designed for printing colour office documents like PowerPoint slides, rather than photos. In fact, colour laser printers produce very poor quality photos compared to inkjets, so don't buy a colour laser printer thinking that it'll be ideal for printing cute photos of the kids or pets.
The speed of a laser printer is measured in pages per minute (ppm), with a higher number indicating that the printer is faster. With large documents a printer's speed can also be held back by having to constantly wait for data to be passed to it from your PC. This is why a laser printer's Ram or memory is important. More memory means it can store large documents in its own memory to speed up printing.
As with inkjet models, the print quality of a laser is measured in dots per inch (dpi). The higher the figure, the finer the print quality. Bear in mind, though, that even a relatively low resolution is more than good enough for text. It's only for graphics that a higher dpi figure really makes a difference and most work documents don't have particularly intricate graphics or diagrams that require a high dpi count.
Multifunction printers – Typical price: £40 to £500
More and more printers are falling into the all-in-one, or multifunction category. This is true across both inkjet and laser models. Generally they include a flatbed scanner on top so they can be used to scan in photos or graphics to transfer to a computer. The scanner also allows the printer to act as a photocopier, so you just place your document on the scanner and then run off as many monochrome or colour copies that you need using the printer's control panel.
Some models also include a fax capability. To use this you need to connect the printer to a phone line via a socket on the rear. To send a fax the printer scans a document that's placed on the flatbed scanner and then sends it down the phone line. When it receives and incoming fax it just prints it out as if it was a normal document.
There are a few other features that you might find useful if you're looking for a multi-function printer. The first is an Automatic Document feeder. This is a mechanism that sits on the top of the scanner and allows you to automatically scan or fax multipage documents without having to manually feed each page into the scanner. It's a great time saver.
Another feature that many people find useful is duplex printing. This means that the printer can automatically print on both sides of the page without needing you to turn over the page half way through the job. Instead the duplexer sucks the page back into the printer and automatically turns it over so the printer can work on the other side. These features do add to the cost of the printer, but if you're looking for a model to use in a home office they're often worth the extra outlay due to the time and hassle they can save you.
As with standard printers, it's best to opt for a laser multifunction printer over an inkjet one if you need to print a lot of documents. This is due to their faster speed, better reliability and cheaper running costs.