Gone are the days when you needed to find space for both a printer and a standalone scanner, never mind a fax machine and a photocopier. Today, you're likely to find most or all of these functions built into one svelte device.
All multifunction printers are able to print and scan documents and pictures. They're also capable of acting as a copier. If you want to run off several copies of a document, you'll be able to scan – or sometimes load from a USB flash drive or memory card – and output multiple editions, often without even needing to connect a computer.
Some models add fax facilities. This may be useful, but make sure you're not paying extra for a feature you're not going to use.
Multifunction printers are equipped with either inkjet- or laser printing engines. Inkjets tend to be cheaper and often generate better colour. Lasers are frequently more expensive to buy, are better at printing text than graphics, and offer faster print speeds.
If you're looking for a decent level of quality, it's difficult to find an inkjet that can generate speeds beyond 10 pages per minute (ppm) in text or 5ppm in colour graphics. By contrast, laser models routinely go up to 15ppm and beyond, even in their highest quality modes. If you're a home user, you'll probably be drawn toward the colour-imaging and photo capabilities of inkjet models. Business users are more likely to look for laser models, particularly if they want to generate high volumes of text.
All models can be tethered via USB 2.0. Home models will typically be kitted out with 802.11b/g/n, and Bluetooth is provided on some models. Wireless capabilities can prove invaluable, allowing you to send files to the printer without needing to be in the same room. And in a family home, where you may have multiple computers, the ability to have each connect to a single printer could be a time-saver.
All printers also have a wired alternative, usually ethernet. This allows the device to effortlessly slot into an office network.
Today's multifunction printers can also use the internet to add extra capabilities, such as printing documents stored in the cloud or on a smartphone or tablet, and for downloading apps.
Many multifunction printers have a graphical display, often with a touchscreen. Touchscreen models tend to cost a little more, but these displays can make using your device much simpler – you simply press the desired menu option or icon, rather than having to operate a tricky set of buttons.
A good graphical interface is important if you want to print directly from a USB drive or memory card, bypassing a computer. A nice colourful screen will let you browse images on an external storage device. Many displays will allow you to retouch, crop or rotate an image before printing it out, and some have more advanced features. Generally, the bigger the size, the more visually impressive the screen will be.
If you'll be scanning documents, don't forget to check the scanner specifications. The higher the optical resolution, the more detail the scanner will be able to reproduce. The scanner won't necessarily be as flexible as a standalone model for scanning large items such as thick books – if this will be important, make sure the scanner lid is adjustable (known as telescoping).
Multifunction printer buying advice: How we test
Eight pictures were used to test each printer. Our main speed tests were conducted using a 6.4MB (4000x3000) image. We printed this image on normal paper at the printer's fast-, middle- and best-quality settings, then again on glossy paper at top-quality. We also printed four general photos and three test-card images.
Scanning was assessed with two test pictures at 100dpi (150dpi where this wasn't possible), 300dpi and 600dpi, with the time taken recorded. A Kodak test card was also scanned to assess the colour palette. We also looked at the copying facilities, with the speed at which they were available and the faithfulness of copies noted.
All printers were installed and the setup routines assessed. Where software was provided for optimising print quality, we loaded and ran the programs. However, we didn't use any third-party applications or devices to calibrate the printers.
The user interfaces were extensively analysed. For the purposes of achieving results, the printers were tested using wired USB interfaces, although Wi-Fi connections were also tried to assess effectiveness and the ease of installation.
Multifunction printer buying advice: Conclusion
Which model you plump for may well come down to how often you want to use the device. The Canon MX895 offers the best printing quality, plus a wealth of features. But while light users will adore it, frequent printers will curse its costly consumables.
Epson's Stylus Photo PX730WD has some very nice features, and is slick and easy to use. The software bundle is more versatile than most, and its photos are good but, again, running costs are high.
The two HPs don't suffer from these problems, though, and the Photosmart 7520 combines strong performance with by far the most enjoyable interface we've seen here. While the MX895 offers slightly better quality, the 7520 beats it in overall value for money. If you're not a light user, we'd heartily recommend this model.
Of the cheaper models, Canon's MG2250 comes in at a rock-bottom price. You don't get great performance, but it's a good deal better than it has any right to be. If you can, though, do spend more.
The HP Photosmart 5520 packs in an awful lot. It doesn't excel in performance, but the interface is nice, and the running costs low. Given its £90 price, it's not such a bad deal.