How to choose a printer

Features James Hunt Jan 7, 2013

Printers: love them or loathe them, we can’t do without them. James helps you decide which you want

In a world increasingly dominated by digital information, printers can sometimes feel like a relic from times past. After all, the underlying technology in most printers hasn’t really changed since the introduction of the home inkjet, Hewlett Packard’s original Deskjet, and that happened in 1988!

However, the fact is that printers still do something no other device can, and that’s get information off computers and into the physical world. Email might mean we have less and less need to print off letters, forms and business documents, but what about restaurant vouchers or gig tickets, or even postage bought online? What about photos? The simple fact is that sometimes you need (or want) a bit of paper that you can give to someone, and companies are more than happy to sell you the chance to do it for yourself.

That said, few devices have done as much to add to the collective misery of computer users as printers have. Shoddy drivers, wonky paper problems and inconsistent ink-consumption habits can turn even the simple act of printing an address label into something far more complicated and frustrating than it needs to be.

However, until the day when humanity can collectively agree that no one should ever have to use a printer again, you really do need access to one. That doesn’t mean you’re completely at the mercy of manufacturers, though. There are good printers, and bad printers, and over the next few pages, we’ll help you decide which of the many available types can fill the printer gap in your life.

How much should you spend?

It all depends on what type of printer you want. The barest, most minimally functional inkjets can be picked up for as little as £25, but that doesn’t mean they’re very good. Inkjet printers tend to be low maintenance, but only because such low prices mean that if they break, you simply replace them. The ink doesn’t cost a huge amount, but one quirk of the budget printer is that they’re often cheaper to buy than a set of cartridges, and because they come with a free set, in some cases it actually makes more financial sense to buy a new printer than to buy new ink. Admittedly, that’s not very good for the environment, though.

In terms of economy, however, it actually makes more sense to buy a multi-function printer. These pack a scanner, printer, fax machine and stand-alone photocopying function into one unit, and can be picked up for as little as £30, giving you access to vastly more functionality.

However, cheap inkjets (whether in an MFP or stand-alone) have a habit of breaking under heavy use, and if you get one to last more than a couple of years of regular use you’re doing well. We’d recommend spending a little more to get something manufactured to a slightly better standard. More expensive inkjet printers (£50+) also tend to have useful extra features, such as network support, which are definitely worth paying for. Try not to exceed £60, though, unless you’re buying a specialist photo printer, because at that level you’re paying for brands and high-end specifications, which are useless to the home user, rather than reliability or build quality.

Laser printers are slightly more expensive than inkjets. The cheapest mono printers can be picked up for around £36, but these are designed for home use, rather than the typical office setting of a laser printer. Colour lasers start at £89, and for that amount, they’re hard to recommend in a home context unless you do a lot of colour printing. We’re not really sure who would.

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

Choosing a printer brand is largely an exercise in loyalty. Some will swear by Lexmark, while others wouldn’t dream of anything other than a Hewlett-Packard. The problem is that the varying tiers of printer manufacture mean that even single brands aren’t consistent in their own output. Their cheap inkjets might be bad, while their expensive MFPs aren’t.

Trying to find an objective metric is tough. Canon is the printer brand with the most Facebook likes, according to a recent statistics from Amplicate, with Panasonic an unexpected second, and Hewlett Packard third. Well-known printer manufacturers Lexmark and Epson were less popular with their customers, however, placing at sixth and seventh respectively in the overall list. However, all of this doesn’t necessarily tell you about customer satisfaction - just which company managed to mobilise their users most convincingly.

One reason Canon may be popular is because many of its printers typically use individual tanks for each colour of ink, meaning that you can potentially save money compared to buying combined tri-colour cartridges such as most other manufacturers offer. The cheapest offerings, however, still use dual-cartridge systems, perhaps reflecting the need to make back the manufacturing cost of such models on cartridge sales.

In any case, the printer market is full of brands that have been in the game for decades, and it’s virtually only those brands competing. As long as you recognise the name, it’s not going to have any major flaws or nasty surprises waiting. Price and capabilities are far more important criteria to judge on.

With that in mind, we recommend the HP Deskjet 1000 (£32) if you’re looking for a cheap colour inkjet, the Epson Stylus SX130 (£30) if you’re looking for cheap and cheerful MFP and the Kodak ESP C310 (£60) if you want a decent MFP with higher-tier features. Laser printers aren’t top of the agenda for home use, but if we had to pick one, it’d be the Lexmark C540n (£120), which is a little more expensive than the cheapest colour laser printers, but all the better for being so.

What technology should you look for?

In terms of printer categories, you’re probably aware of the three basic options by now: inkjet, MFP and laser. We’ll first explain where you might want to use those, and then go over the features you should look for in them.

First, inkjets. Cheap inkjets are useful if you’re just after something that can print out the occasional form or document. They’re low-priced, low-maintenance and will almost certainly cost more in ink cartridges during the first year than you spent on the printer itself. They’re also sold as very basic devices, which means if you’re planning anything even vaguely fancy (double-sided printing or multiple paper sizes, for example), you can expect a lot of fiddling and failed attempts before chancing on the correct procedure.

MFPs are printers with scanning, stand-alone photocopying and sometimes even fax capabilities built into them. They tend to be slightly more capable as a result of being a bit more expensive, but the cheapest still contain poor printers, so be careful.

Laser printers offer the best quality and speed of all consumer printers, but they’re also large and hard to maintain. Ideal for small offices, but not normally necessary for casual home use. Unlike the inkjet market, where colour units are simple and cheap enough that monochrome printers have been priced out of existence, there’s still a substantial difference in price, performance and complexity between colour and monochrome laser printers. Check which you’re buying before you get the credit card out!

Whichever type of printer you buy, look out for networking support. This won’t be available in the cheapest models, but the ability to share a printer on a network is a real time and convenience saver for households with multiple computers. In some cases, this is Ethernet-only, but higher-end devices will have wireless support.

Some network-enabled printers come with their own email account, meaning you can email documents to them, which is useful if you’re using a web-enabled device that lacks printer support. Many printers are compatible with Apple’s ‘AirPrint’ standard, which allows you to print documents direct from your iPhones and iPad, which is incredibly useful if you have those devices. Android phones don’t have a similar feature, but most printer manufacturers provide an app that adds the required support for their hardware. Check in advance if you’re not sure!

As for the specification jargon, don’t worry too much about the numbers. Unless you’re a designer or printing photos, any printer you buy will be capable of creating work of high enough quality that you won’t notice any flaws.
To illustrate, printer resolutions are given in DPI (which stands for ‘dots-per-inch’). In practical terms, this describes the level of detail that a printer can reproduce. The higher the DPI, the better the image will look (and the more ink it requires). DPI values higher than 600 are more than enough for photograph reproduction in a home setting (magazines, for example, are usually printed at 300dpi) and even the cheapest inkjets can reach about 900-1200dpi.
In any case, if you want to print at resolutions any higher than that, you need high-quality paper that stops the ink bleeding. So if you can’t imagine yourself buying expensive paper to print on, that’s reassurance enough that DPI isn’t really an issue worth worrying about.

However, in these eco-friendly times, do look for duplex capabilities. Duplex means the ability to print on both sides of a page without human intervention - a real time (and planet!) saver.

Is now the right time to buy?

At the moment, there’s little to suggest that printers will come down any further in price. Indeed, some are already sold at a loss just because the profit margins on ink cartridges are much better! There’s also no suggestion of any particularly relevant advances in printer technology on the horizon, so don’t think that might bring down prices either. If anything, as printing becomes less and less necessary and manufacturers struggle with a disappearing market, you can expect printers to actually get more expensive in the long term, rather than cheaper. They’re already as cheap as they can possibly be!

With that in mind, we can safely recommend you buy a printer now if you need one. 

What are the technical constraints?

Printers need only two things: a power supply, and a connection to your computer. Whether the latter is a USB cable, an Ethernet cable, a wireless network connection or an email account accessed over the web doesn’t necessarily matter. If you can provide those two things, your printer should work. Cheap printers need to be connected to a PC, while stand-alone MFPs and laser printers just need a network connection (so make sure you have the space near your network hub).

However, bear in mind that printers also need drivers (in most cases, at least). If you’re running a particularly old version of Windows (or, indeed, a particularly new version) there’s a chance that the drives might not be available. Check for compatibility or workarounds if you’re not sure!

What’s the alternative?

If you don’t have (or don’t want) a printer, you have two choices: try to live without one (difficult) or use someone else’s (inconvenient). And that’s more or less it. Admittedly, innovations like the iPhone’s ‘PassBook’ are trying to turn printing into a thing of the past, by offering a digital interface for things like tickets and vouchers that you might otherwise have to print, but we’re a long way off that.

However, there is something else that’s like a printer but not: the 3D printer. They’re not used for exactly the same purpose, but far from trying to make everything digital, 3D printers mean you can create all manner of three-dimensional physical objects using nothing more than your computer and printer. The magic happens through a process of additive manufacture: layers of material (for example, plastic dust) are laid down on top of one another, and fused together by heat at each stage, resulting in a solid physical object at the end.

3D printing isn’t quite ready to come into the home, although hobbyists and enthusiasts have demonstrated that it can be used to create simple items like coathooks, backscratchers, replacement parts for home tools and ornaments, as well as more complex items like torches and motors, which use conductive inks to form circuits. Slightly worryingly, someone has even produced a design for a working, 3D-printed gun.

Today, the price of the hardware and materials is far from cheap, but it’s likely that they’ll come down if demand is sufficient. The Solidoodle 2, for example, is a simple 6 x 6 x 6 inch printer which can be bought fully assembled for $499, while the larger and more versatile Fab@Home 2.0 costs as much as $2,000. So while you may be using less paper in the future, it’s possible that you’ll still have a printer in your home - just a 3D one instead.