FAQ: What Printer Should I Get?

Rory Bowman at MacRory.com

Q: My old printer is failing and I’m not sure whether to go with a color or laser printer. What printer should I get?

A:Like all good questions, what printer you should get depends on what you want. In deciding what sort of printer to get it is important to clarify

  1. What sorts of things you will be printing
  2. How often you will print them
  3. How many you will print
  4. Where they will be used (read when wet? for use in archives?)
These will determine the main criteria: inkjet or laser, monochrome or color, how many extras and how much to spend.

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Most people who don’t think about it much will go out to their nearest office supply or computer store and purchase the least expensive inkjet printer they see, and for many people this might be the best choice. All modern inkjet printers print in color, most accept a variety of papers and they are inexpensive to buy, with a very low “cost of acquisition.” Inkjet printers, though, are not necessarily the best value over time and over the life of the device will frequently have a much higher total cost of ownership or “TCO.”

Give Razors, Sell Blades

The reason inkjet printers are so expensive over time is that the real money in consumer printers is not in selling printers but in selling ink. The free printer that everyone offers is extremely unlikely to be efficient and even for the highest quality and efficient inkjet printers, replacing ink cartridges is where the money is. The store that makes a 10% margin on an inkjet printer may make 30% on the ink, and most inkjet cartridges are only good for 200-300 pages at normal coverage. If you only print out typescripts in a double-spaced courier font, you may do better than this, but if you print high-resolution photos you will get far less. When calculating the cost of an inkjet printer, then, it is very important to know how many ink cartridges it holds (some have as many as six), how much each holds and how much each costs.

The industry-standard “coverage” for calculating the number of pages a cartridge will print is a miserly 5%, about what one would expect for a letter typed in 1945. With smaller fonts and singel-spacing a typical email message might be around 15% coverage, or three times the official measure. If you print such “normal,” modern kinds of text, divide the official estimates by two or three. If you print a lot of pictures or maps, figure more coverage and fewer pages.

Another thing to consider is your personal workstyle. Do you print a few things each day? A lot of things once a month? Are you constantly printing multiple drafts of things and revising? Each of these will determine how many pages you print each month and how likely you are to have difficulties with inkjet printheads clogging or drying out.

I once taught school with a woman who had a computer at home but did most of her work at school. She would enter grades or prepare materials in the evening, then come in and print them at school. The first year I taught with her she phoned me in a panic: her printer was broken just as taxes were due! I went down and determined that her printer was working fine, but because she never printed at home the ink in the inkjet hads had dried up and there was no restoring them. She printed this one personal document at school the next day and bought a new ink cartridge. The next April I got the same call and went to her home again. The previous year she had installed her ink cartridge mid-April and left it again except for a few prints during the summer. Again, the ink cartridge had dried up from disuse. The third April that she phoned I remembered, and we both laughed. For as little as she printed, it made very little sense for her to own a printer. At $300 for the printer and $20 per ink cartridge, her total cost of ownership was something on the order of $20 or $30 for every page. It would have been far cheaper for her to have taken her personal printing down to a copy center.

If you want to print fine art photos in exquisite detail, please do. Buy the good paper (to match your printer and the printer manufacturer’s ink) and enjoy. If you only print a page or two a day (fifty or so per month) and the occasional map or photo, then choose an inkjet printer and enjoy that as well.

Laser Printers

If you don’t print very often or print a lot of drafts and text at once, a laser printer may be a better choice for you. Rather than heating a liquid ink or applying electricy to a liquid (as inkjet printers do) the laser printer (and similar “LED printer”) use a dust-like toner which is fused to the paper, as in a photocopy machine. This creates crisp images as durable as photocopies (unlike some inkjet printers whose ink will “run” when wet). Since the toner does not dry out like ink does and is not as reliant on very small and fine “ink jets,” a laser printer can sit unused for much longer periods than an inkjet, with no loss of ink or quality when printing resumes.

Although they are more expensive initially and the toner cartridges cost more than their inkjet counterparts, many toner cartridges are rated for thousands and thousands of pages, such that a modest home user may only replace theirs every few years.

Prints Per Day

Besides the cost of “consumables” such as ink or toner, printers should also be considered for their physical durability. In addition to the “ink” and heads or fusers which apply it, printers contain a lot of very small mechanical parts: springs and rollers and feed paths which are prone to physical wear and tear. The “duty cycle” of a printer will vary considerably, with higher-cycle and workgroup printers designed to physically push many thousands more pages through without wearing out. If you print a lot of pages or multiple drafts, a more expensive laser printer with better mechanics is worth the cost.

Network and Multi-Function Printers

If you work on a network or in a small office, it makes a lot of sense to share a single printer, whether it is connected to one computer (which “shares” it on the network) or plugs directly into an ethernet jack or “network print server.” The extra $100 or so it costs for such an option is absolutely cheaper than buying and maintaining separate printers, if the physical arrangement and confidentiality allow it.

Another thing which many people consider are “multifunction” printers, which combine a printer with a scanner, copy machine and perhaps a fax. The first models of these were temperamental at best and frequently known as “multi-useless” toys: gimmicks which didn’t do anything very well and took up too much space when one portion of the device stopped working. For home offices or isolated workers, this might make sense, but in most cases I urge clients to consider how many of these devices they are likely to use. For a child a multi-function inkjet may make sense, but for most people it is an expensive gadget. How many color copies do you really need to make each month? Better to consider all of your other options, including inexpensive scanners, software faxing or web-based faxes.

Other options include color laser printers, network color printers and the Xerox Phaser series of thermal-wax printers, each of which has its proper and appropriate uses. There are also large and networkable devices which combine a standard photocopier with network-based scanning and faxing.

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