Before you buy a printer, here are the key points to consider.
Printers come in two main forms: inkjet, or laser, with colour and mono flavours of each. Lasers tend to be more expensive to buy, but provide better quality output, particularly where lots of text is involved. And they can be faster.
As a basic rule, if you need to print only text, and a lot of it, a mono laser printer will offer the crispest text output and the best combination of fast page-per-minute output and low ink costs. If, however, you need to print in colour - even if only sometimes - choose an inkjet printer. A dedicated photo printer with individual cartridges for each colour (rather than a single combined colour cartridge) will suit those who print only photos, but if photos form only part of what you need the printer for, a decent inkjet will usually do the job adequately.
Printer buying advice: total cost of ownership
When buying a printer, remember that the price you pay in the store is just the beginning. Be sure to consider TCO (total cost of ownership), or the cost of replenishing toner and other consumables over the lifetime of the printer. This is particularly important if you print a lot.
Most manufacturers quote a 'page yield' estimate for their ink cartridges, which is the typical number of pages 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: always check PC Advisor's figures to get the true low down.
Of course, if output quality matters more to you than cost, scoot over to the other end of the cost spectrum where there are more specialized printers that use five or even six inks for printing photographs. Those additional inks can produce excellent results for your photo prints, but they add to the cost, sometimes pushing the cost for photos up to 10p or more per page.
Printer buying advice: multifunction printers
In terms of cost it's also worth considering what kind of printer you want to go for. Most modern printers are multifunction 'all-in-one' devices that 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 the printer to stand in for a photocopier too. Some models even include a fax machine (remember them?) as well. If you require a scanner and a photocopier as well as a printer, you'll save money by buying in all-in-one - but if a standalone printer suits your needs, you may be able to spend less.
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 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.
Printer buying advice: print speed
Printer speed is another issue: the speeds quoted by manufacturers are almost never matched by real-world performance. If you often need to print in a hurry, look for independent reviews when choosing your printer. Other useful features to look out for include additional USB ports and memory card slots that will allow you to print photos direct from a digital camera. 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, may also be worth looking out for. Double-sided printing is also handy for everything from printing school reports to marketing brochures.
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.
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