The Dell AIO 966 is quite a beast, but looks the part with its white and metallic livery – a popular combination on multifunction photo printers.

A 2.4in LCD flips up and displays step-by-step setup instructions. The Dell AIO 966's display also makes it easy to select the photo you want to print from a memory card or via PictBridge. You can even preview scans this way. The Dell AIO 966 lacks one-touch hardware buttons.

The lid on the scanner can be lifted off or left upright – a plus if you need to scan in large documents. Printing paper is awkward to load and, even worse, the Dell AIO 966 ran out of colour shortly after we began our tests. But although it is the most expensive printer here, due to its fax capabilities, the AIO 966's ink cartridges are well priced.

The Dell AIO 966 is quiet in operation and, once up and running, the bundled software offers a comprehensive list of paper types and size options. You also get duplex support but little control over print quality. You can, however, realign images, reduce background noise and tweak brightness.

Colour copying is fast but lacks colour depth. Although speedy, mono copying suffers from banding. The Dell AIO 966 was slap-bang in the middle of the pack when it came to photo printing, with average specifications of 4,800x1,200dpi printing and an onboard memory spooler of 32MB. The results had a bluish tinge.

Text printed on Draft setting was quicker than most and of an acceptable quality. We were impressed by the standard and speed of prints using the Normal setting. The scanning time at 300dpi was 32 seconds, while the 1,200dpi scanning performance was mid-pack.

Buying advice - August 2007

Multifunction devices - also known as all-in-ones, MFDs or multifunction printers - have a reputation as a dull but functional computing essential. Being saddled with such a pedestrian, practical moniker has hardly helped; neither has the fact they used to have a reputation as a compromise product. You'd buy an MFD only if you had neither the space, nor the financial means, to have a separate printer, scanner and copier (some also have fax facilities).

More recently, these less-than-glamorous devices have grown in popularity. You no longer have to jeopardise print quality and, with improved resolutions and some canny marketing ploys, multifunction photo printers have caught the attention of digital photo enthusiasts.

For home use, a combined unit makes sense. Not only is it far less expensive to purchase an MFD than it is to buy separate devices, but it's a good way of saving space in an increasingly gadget-strewn home. The MFD is ideal for students in cramped lodgings, or for family environments where you need to print, scan and copy documents quickly and cheaply. Many manufacturers have even begun integrating wireless capabilities into their MFDs, enabling family members to access the printer from anywhere in the house - rather than having to use a PC to print and scan.

In most cases, a printer manufacturer's range of MFDs starts with printing, scanning and copying features; step-up models offer wireless and/or Bluetooth, networking and fax functions. As well as increased resolutions, the pricier products may offer useful document collating, duplex printing and transparency adaptor support - so you can scan in slides and negatives.

Choosing a multifunction photo printer

Print resolutions in the increasingly competitive photo MFDs market are impressive, with most of the models in our round-up boasting 4,800x1,200dpi (dots per inch) and some offering 6,000x1,200dpi.

But as so many all-in-ones today offer high print quality, it can be hard to choose between them. With specifications so similar, your choice may rest with the extra options that each offers. But, as with any other sort of printer, running costs should be a major consideration when choosing an MFD. There's no point buying a cheap model if it costs a lot to replace the inks when they run out. And it's worth checking whether the printer comes with inks or photo paper, as this can influence the initial setup price.

Although most all-in-one printers are compatible with Apple Macs and Windows PCs, check on this if it's to be used in a cross-platform network. And Linux users need to be wary, too. Somewhat surprisingly, not all multifunction printers (or PCs, for that matter) support USB 2.0, so check on connectivity too.

Your photo printer's dimensions and weight may be important too. You'll want something neat and compact if space-saving is a priority, but should consider the trade-off between a lightweight model that can easily be repositioned and the unit's robustness.

Also, check what paper weights and finishes the printer is willing to accept. Most multifunction devices can print on various different sizes of photo paper, while some can also print on specialised media such as envelopes.

Bundled software

The quality of printing, scanning, copying and image-enhancing software that comes with multifunction photo printers varies. Epson's comprehensive Creativity Suite enables you to produce some professional results, but others, such Lexmark's Imaging Studio, sell themselves on one-touch enhancements and fixes. Some bundled applications even have special capabilities that can apply effects such as sepia or black and white to your photos. Whether these effects are of value to you depends on your needs, of course.

Models usually come with basic software to enhance, crop and rotate images. Features such as autostraightening slanted images, or cropping at a document's edges, can be invaluable time-savers and are common inclusions since it's tricky to align a document to scan perfectly first time.

One piece of software we recommend you look out for with your printer bundle is an OCR (optical character recognition) program. Scan in a report or a book you want to quote from and the OCR application will translate the page into editable text.

Canny connections

Many all-in-one printers have ethernet cards. Ethernet is used to connect to a network, but for home environments you may prefer a Wi-Fi setup. Built-in wireless printing sends photos straight to print from the PC, with no cables required.

PictBridge is worth looking out for. Cameras and printers that support PictBridge are able to 'talk' to one another, allowing you to print directly from the camera without needing to copy images to your PC. You can select the print size, number of copies, layout and even the type of paper from your printer's onscreen menu.

Even if your multifunction printer doesn't support PictBridge, it may offer useful features such as borderless printing, index proof sheets - where thumbnails of all your images are printed out on a single sheet - as well as scaling, all from dedicated buttons on the device itself. HP's models even offer document filing, where scanned images are sent to specific folders and locations. If your PC has memory card slots, you may not need to print from your computer at all - provided the photos you've taken don't need editing.

Dell AIO 966: Specs

  • Maximum printer resolution: 4,800x1,200dpi
  • maximum optical scanner resolution: 1,200x4,800dpi
  • quoted/actual print speeds: 20/12 (mono) 15/8.3 (colour)
  • photo print time: 183 secs
  • copy time: 17 secs (mono), 49 secs (colour)
  • scanner speeds: 32 secs (300dpi), 2 mins, 43 secs (1,200dpi)
  • USB 2.0
  • ink cost: B=£14 C=£16
  • cost per page: 5.8p (mono), 5.9p (colour)
  • CF, MD, MMC, SD, miniSD, MS, MS Pro, MS Duo, xD
  • 441x539x183mm
  • 5.4kg
  • Maximum printer resolution: 4,800x1,200dpi
  • maximum optical scanner resolution: 1,200x4,800dpi
  • quoted/actual print speeds: 20/12 (mono) 15/8.3 (colour)
  • photo print time: 183 secs
  • copy time: 17 secs (mono), 49 secs (colour)
  • scanner speeds: 32 secs (300dpi), 2 mins, 43 secs (1,200dpi)
  • USB 2.0
  • ink cost: B=£14 C=£16
  • cost per page: 5.8p (mono), 5.9p (colour)
  • CF, MD, MMC, SD, miniSD, MS, MS Pro, MS Duo, xD
  • 441x539x183mm
  • 5.4kg

OUR VERDICT

Overall, the Dell AIO 966 doesn't do enough to convince us it's worth the money. Including fax functionality may add to the manufacturing cost, but there's no Wi-Fi and not a lot else to distinguish this model.

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