Hit the high street or scout around online and you'll find hundreds of printers available, each offering different qualities and weaknesses. As well as checking PC Advisor's unrivalled Printer Reviews, there are five key things you should look for to ensure you purchase a printer that over its lifetime will prove to be a bargain.
1) The price of prints
The initial purchase price of your printer is just the beginning. It's also important to consider TCO (total cost of ownership) when using the printer to turn out documents month after month. This is particularly important for small businesses or home users who print a lot – after all, there's no point in buying a cheap printer if the ink cartridges run out quickly and cost a fortune to replace.
Most manufacturers quote a ‘page yield' estimate for their ink cartridges, which is the typical number of pages that you can expect to print before the cartridge runs out of ink. You can use the page yield to calculate the average cost per page and you'd be surprised to find how much this can vary from one printer to another. But printer manufacturers have been known to produce favourable figures: it's always worth checking out independent reviews websites and forums to get the true low down. And it's usually a good idea to go for a good brand.
Kodak, for instance, works hard to reduce the running costs of its printers, and offers some of the lowest costs for replacement ink cartridges (see www.printandprosper.co.uk for more info). Its high-capacity XL black ink cartridges cost only £11.99 but can print almost 700 pages, giving you a typical cost of less than 2p per page for black-and-white printing. Printing costs for photographs are attractive too, coming in at around 3p per page. Those printing costs are far below the industry average, making Kodak printers some of the most affordable printers in the world. Kodak's latest models are also much more energy efficient, with a special low-power mode for use during printing, and power consumption of just 0.25W when in Standby mode.
At the other end of the cost spectrum there are more specialized printers from companies such as Canon and Epson that use five or even six inks for printing photographs. Those additional inks can produce excellent results for your photo prints, but they obviously add to the cost, sometimes pushing the cost for photos up to 10p or more per page.
2) Multifunction vs standalone
A printer needs to earn its keep, so why not purchase a model that can do more than just print? Most modern printers are multifunction ‘all-in-one' devices that also include a scanner too. This allows you to scan photos and other documents and convert them into digital files that you can store on your computer or share with friends or colleagues. You can also print copies of your scanned documents, allowing you to use the printer as an office photocopier too (a great money-saving and space-saving advantage for home workers and small businesses). In fact, the ability to scan and copy photographs and other documents in colour makes an all-in-one printer even better than an ordinary photocopier.
Most multifunction printers on sale at the moment are ‘three-in-one' printers that can print, scan and copy. However, many manufacturers also make ‘four-in-one' models that include a fax machine (remember them?) as well. That makes the printer a great choice for home workers or small businesses that need a versatile and space-saving device that can handle all their printing and document needs.
3) Wired vs wireless
It's easy to connect a printer to your computer with an ordinary USB cable, but that means you can only use the printer with just that one computer. Many home users and most businesses need to share a printer with multiple computers, cameras and other devices that they need to print from.
Many printers are now equipped with built-in wireless networking features that allow them to connect the printer to a home or office network so that they can be used by anyone on the LAN. Wireless networking is such a common feature that it adds little to the cost of the printer. However, it's also possible to get printers that have Ethernet network ports too. These can be handy for larger office networks where Wi-Fi isn't always ideal, but Ethernet tends to be available only on more expensive models that are specifically aimed at business users, and will require you to tether your PC to a wire – not great for surfing on the sofa.
Other useful features to look out for here include additional USB ports and memory card slots that will allow you to print photos direct from a digital camera. Quite a few manufacturers also provide apps that will allow you to print from mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad, and Google Android or Blackberry smartphones.
4) Printer speed, and the ability to take the pace
Everyone wants a printer that provides good quality for a wide range of documents, but there are other features to consider, too.
Business users may need to print many different documents every day, so it's important that they choose a fast, reliable printer that can cope with a heavy workload. This is one area where you get what you pay for – cheaper printers in the sub-£100 category tend to be slower, and aimed at home users who only need to print the occasional document or photo. Business users who need a faster printer will need to pay at least £150 - £300 for an office workhorse.
It's also worth looking out for other useful features, such as high-capacity paper trays capable of holding hundreds of sheets of paper, or an automatic document feeder that can handle scanning and copying work while you go and do something more important. Double-sided printing is also handy for everything from printing school reports to marketing brochures.
Just remember that the speeds quoted by manufacturers aren't always ‘real world' printing speeds. If a printer claims to turn out 30 pages per minute, you'll probably find that you only get that speed using a low-quality ‘draft' mode in perfect conditions. Actual printing speeds for high-quality printing may be less than half the manufacturer's quoted figure – consult reputable reviews websites such as PC Advisor for true real-world figures.
5) How do I look?
Photography used to be an expensive hobby, but there are now millions of people who have digital cameras and mobile phones with built-in snappers. It's therefore important that your printer can produce high-quality photo prints too.
A key factor here is the number of inks used to print photographs. Epson is a favourite with many photographers thanks to its use of six separate coloured inks in many of its Stylus range of printers, as these really do produce excellent results for photo printing. Even so, there are many general-purpose printers that use four inks that can still produce very good photo prints for calendars, cards and sales materials – and generally at a lower cost than more specialized photo-printers. A good Kodak printer comes with much smaller printhead nozzles than many of its rivals, for instance, ensuring greater levels of detail.
It's also worth thinking about the bundled software that comes with your printer. Some printers include software that provides basic editing features, such as red-eye removal or adjusting the colour balance – in fact, some even allow you to perform simple editing tasks using controls on the printer itself, so you don't even need to turn on your computer.
It's also handy to be able to grab still frames from video clips and print them out as photos, and we've even seen one new printer from Kodak that lets you print 3D photos and includes its own 3D glasses!
See also: Group test: what's the best printer?