What printer should you get?

I’m often asked about what printer to get and the answers usually boil down to a combination of budget and what you need it to do.  Without giving a recommendation on a specific printer, I’ll run through the kinds of questions you should ask yourself before buying one.

To satisfy the budget question, you just need to know how much you’re willing to spend.  My experience is entry-level (the cheapest) printers generally work, have few “bells” or “whistles,” and often cost less than what it costs to replace the ink or toner.  They aren’t the fastest, quietest, or highest quality, but they get the job done.

After your budget is determined, you want to decide on the features.  Multi-function devices are becoming more common.  It’s easy to find a printer that also scans, copies, and faxes.  The ability to fax would be the one feature that might be missing on a multi-function unit since not everyone needs or wants that feature.  Do you want a flatbed scanner or will a sheet-fed unit work?  Do you want both capabilities?  How many pages in the sheet feeder?
Next up is print quality.  This is often answered by looking at what you will be printing and how often.  Looking to print photos?  You might want to consider a unit with more than four colors.  Doing mostly casual web pages and documents?  Four colors should be enough.

Speed is often the next criterion.  The speed specifications quoted will be in pages per minute and there may also be a time to print first page.  For inkjet printers, the page per minute value will vary depending upon the quality of the output (a high-quality photo printed on photo paper will take significantly longer than a black text document on plain paper).  Laser printers will normally not vary much in how quickly they print, although the time to first page might.

The type of printing technology is also important.  Inkjet printers tend to be less expensive initially and produce very good photographs.  Laser printers tend to be faster and have less costly consumables (when you consider cost per print).  There are other technologies, but they are often used for specific purposes (e.g. some dedicated photo printers use dye-sublimation technology).

One recommendation I give people for inkjet printers is to make sure they get used.  If you don’t use them, the ink will dry up.  Just printing a full-color web page once a week is normally sufficient to keep the ink flowing without costing you the amount of ink the printer’s cleaning procedure would use.

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