Looking for a network printer? Here are the specs and features you need.

All the printers in our network printers group test are network colour laser models. Network-enabled inkjet printers are also available, but are these are less common and their print speeds tend to be slower. Few inkjets can produce clean, top-quality text, and fewer still can do so while maintaining sufficiently high performance levels.

Given that the likely environment for a colour laser printer is a small office or business department, you'll want a printer that's capable of churning out 20 or 30 pages per minute (ppm). Take manufacturers' print-speed claims with a large dose of salt - look for claimed output rates of 1.5 times what you need and it should keep up with your expectations.

Laser printers can regularly churn out crisp text at rates in excess of 15ppm. They're also designed for high-volume printing, and come with toner cartridges that can typically demand lower costs per page (particularly for text) than inkjets.

Print resolutions are a slightly unsatisfactory means of determining print quality. Theoretically, the higher the resolution, the more detail the printer will be able to produce and the better the resulting pages ought to look. However, manufacturers often specify figures that have been inflated via software interpolation rather than hardware resolution.

Most printers have a hardware resolution between 600x600 dots per inch (dpi) and 1200x1200dpi. Anything upwards of 600x600dpi should be sufficient, but it's worth checking out reviews of a particular model or testing it in-store before you buy.

There's no substitute for real-world experience of a machine's print quality.

Network printers buying advice: Access denied?

You'll probably want to control how and by whom the printer is used. Many network printers offer sophisticated controls that let you monitor individual users or departments, and restrict access to expensive features - such as colour - where necessary.

Some printers let you access data stored on a USB memory stick, bypassing the PC. Others can require a password to be entered on the device itself before a document in the print queue can be processed. This lets you send secure files to print, without the risk of them falling into a colleague's hands.

Network printers buying advice: Printing costs

An important consideration in choosing the correct printer for your business is the total cost of ownership (TCO). With hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages being printed each month, the difference between a 1.5p-per-page and a 2.5p-per-page printer will be more significant than you might think. Colour costs are higher than for text and tend to vary more among manufacturers.

It's possible to print a colour page for around 6p, but it can cost twice this amount. If your business will be printing out lots of colour images, 10p or more per page could prove costly in the long run.

Another way to cut costs on consumables is to reduce your paper usage. Most printers offer a duplexing feature, which allows the laser to print on both sides of a piece of paper. To maximise the chances that your staff or colleagues will take advantage of the feature, and save time in the process, you should look for a decent auto duplexing mode. This typically drops the print speed by around 30 to 50 percent, but it could potentially halve your paper costs.

Next page: Connections and printing costs >>

Looking for a network printer? Here are the specs and features you need.

Network printers buying advice: Connections

Workgroup printers are specifically designed for sharing across a network, so you'll find a wired 100Base-TX ethernet connection and may also get support for the far faster gigabit ethernet (sometimes referred to as 1000Base-T). Your network will also need to support gigabit ethernet to benefit from the faster data transfers this mode offers, however.

Wireless connectivity is often offered by desktop printers, but it's not a common feature on a network colour laser printer - particularly given the faster ethernet option. Some of the models we review here offer it as an optional extra. Bluetooth is another potentially useful connectivity option.

Network printers buying advice: Paper chase

With hundreds of pages to print each week, it's important that your printer has strong paper-handling capabilities. This means input trays that can take 200 pages or more, and additional trays that can accommodate different stocks or contain company letterhead paper (also read our guide to creating a company letterhead). Ideally, you'll want a total input capacity of 500 sheets or more.

For output, look for a 200-sheet tray. If you're a particularly productive office in terms of the paper mountain you create, you'll need more capacious feeder and output trays. This will save you from having to keep running to the printer to replenish it with paper or ending up with a mess of printed pages on the floor.

Consider whether you're likely to print more pages in the future than you do now, and whether that means you'll need more generous paper trays. Also bear in mind how many people will be using the main paper tray for the majority of their print jobs each week - is it able to take enough sheets at once to cover your needs? The multipurpose additional tray is just that.

Printing Advisor

Also consider the printer's monthly duty cycle. The higher this figure is, the greater the quantity of prints the manufacturer believes your model will be capable of generating in a month. Regularly push the printer beyond this figure, and you might be inadvertently causing it long-term damage.

Workgroup printers will generally need a good complement of memory. This is particularly true if the documents printed include large, high-resolution graphics. A 128MB allocation will be fine for text-only pages, but 256MB is preferable if you're looking to print full-colour images or documents with a number of images. Most can be upgraded - sometimes to as much as 1,280MB - but retrofitting memory can be expensive.

Another feature that's easy to overlook is the support for printer command and description languages. These can give the printer a faithful idea of how the final page should look. HP's Printer Command Language (PCL) and Adobe's rather more sophisticated PostScript (PS) are commonly supported or emulated by laser printers. If your printer can handle both printer languages, it may make for better results.