PC Advisor reviews the best multifunctional printers, and the sharpest direct photo printers.

The end of the summer holidays always seems to provoke a rush to buy new kit, whether it's because students are moving away and need items that home or school previously provided, or because they want to start the academic year with new tools.

Increasingly, these tools are of the electronic variety, rather than the notebooks and pens of old. Affordability and efficient use of space are top priorities although portability isn't to be prized at any cost.

If you've got a roomful of high-tech gadgets including a computer, games console, DVD player and iPod, you probably don't want to increase the clutter too much by adding a bulky printer and scanner to the mix.

That's why combined units that do both - and often include photocopying and faxing capabilities too - are such a neat idea for students and other space-conscious buyers.

Of course, these very same attributes make all-in-ones (also known as multifunction printers or MFPs) compelling for home use and small businesses too.

An all-in-one inkjet printer, photocopier and scanner saves space and is certainly more cost-effective than separate devices. Accordingly, we've focused our tests on the MFPs that are good at printing photos.

However, if you're in the market for a printer that specialises in handling photos and don't intend to print anything else, a dedicated photo printer may be a better all-round bet. The ones we've looked at for this group test are dedicated models that don't even need to be hooked up to a PC.

Their ease of use means you can have the best of your holiday photos pinned to a noticeboard or displayed in frames with minimum fuss, thus saving them from the ulitmate iniquity - languishing on your hard drive for ever more, never again to see the light of day.

NEXT PAGE: what do you need?

Quick links:

  1. Photo printers reviewed
  2. What do you need?
  3. Making connections
  4. How we test
  5. Direct photo printer reviews
  6. Multifunction printer reviews

Visit PC Advisor's dedicating Printing Zone for the latest printer reviews, plus news, blogs and forums, and our unique printer price comparison service

Visit Business Advisor for the latest business IT news, reviews, tips and tricks - plus sign up for our unique and FREE business IT newsletter

PC Advisor reviews the best multifunctional printers, and the sharpest direct photo printers.

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

Identifying the best printer for your needs involves far more than just choosing between a dedicated photo printer, a separate model for general-purpose use or a unit with additional features such as scanning and copying. However, working out what you want a printer for, and what it's likely to be expected to print, is a good starting point.

So, for example, there's no point paying for a ‘cost-saving' all-in-one inkjet printer if all you really need is a printer for letters and other text-based documents and you're unlikely to make use of the extraneous scanning and copying features.

Do you really need to print your documents in colour? More and more monochrome MFPs are available, which might be a better choice at a lower price.

A similar principle applies to choosing a dedicated photo printer. While undoubtedly a straightforward way of producing photo prints, you should consider whether it's actually the most economical option.

The comparative table at the end of these reviews outlines just how much it costs to print each photo - depending on your needs, for example, you may be better off uploading your photos to an online photo-printing service.

A more likely solution is that an inkjet printer that can produce good-looking photos when called on but also does general-purpose printing to cover your home needs.

Next up, you need to consider the print quality you're after and, in the case of photos taken on multimegapixel digital cameras, whether the printer can cope with the size of image file you've created.

Expect a print resolution of at least 4,800x1,200 dots per inch (dpi) when choosing a photo MFP, and a resolution of at least 300x300dpi on a direct photo printer. If you've got an 8Mp camera and shoot images at the highest-quality setting, will your chosen printer be able to handle it?

You also need to check it can print at the sizes you need. Most photo inkjet printers have adjustable paper trays that include options for A6 (photo-size) prints, but that's not always the case with multifunction devices.

You need a driver that offers the option to print at such small sizes. Printers such as the Polaroid PoGo, meanwhile, will only print at 2x3in - hardly suitable if you're intending to create a photo album as a memento of your holiday.

Another consideration is the type of paper the printer uses - specifically, how much it costs. Photographic paper is a must to make images look like ‘real' photos, but it can become a considerable expense. If the photo paper is prohibitively expensive, you may find yourself reluctant to print lots of images - it may even mean that online digital photo-printing services such as PhotoBox and Snapfish become the more cost-effective option.

NEXT PAGE: making connections

Quick links:

  1. Photo printers reviewed
  2. What do you need?
  3. Making connections
  4. How we test
  5. Direct photo printer reviews
  6. Multifunction printer reviews

Visit PC Advisor's dedicating Printing Zone for the latest printer reviews, plus news, blogs and forums, and our unique printer price comparison service

Visit Business Advisor for the latest business IT news, reviews, tips and tricks - plus sign up for our unique and FREE business IT newsletter

PC Advisor reviews the best multifunctional printers, and the sharpest direct photo printers.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

If you decide it's definitely a dedicated photo printer you need, you'll then have to consider the type of connections it offers. Does it have a mini-USB port to connect directly to your digital camera? Alternatively, if it relies on a memory card slot, does it support the format of memory card used in your camera? A further connection option is PictBridge - a handy way to transfer images direct from camera to printer.

If you like using the camera on your mobile phone, check the printer supports Bluetooth and whether it's version 1.0 or 2.0 - some devices are only compatible with phones that have Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity.

Onboard editing and previewing functions are important too. Will you need to hook up your digital camera to your PC, remove any red-eye or crop pictures before saving them to a memory card and then printing them, or can basic edits be done through the printer?

Less critical, but still important if you intend to take your dedicated photo printer with you or won't have a permanent home for it, is its weight.

Dimensions are also worth checking on if you're opting for an MFP. While it won't need as much space as a separate printer and scanner, an all-in-one model will be bulkier and a little larger than a standard inkjet printer. In particular, you need enough height to accommodate a unit with a scanner underneath that lifts up, as well as the usual space to get at cartridges and include paper trays.

Don't forget the additional scanning and copying functions either. You'll probably find these features are less impressive than on a dedicated scanner or copier, but may well meet your needs. What you can do with your completed scans could be important to you, though. Some MFPs have dedicated scan to PDF options, while others also come with optical character recognition (OCR) software that can read and extract scanned text.

If you want to scan from transparencies, you'll also need the appropriate adaptor.

What you're unlikely to find, sadly, is a fast multifunction printer. Such units are designed to appeal to the budget-conscious buyer and, in general, you'll find low price tags are prioritised over high print speeds.

Finally, a few tips for keeping down your running costs once you've got your printer.

First, ensure the printer's default settings are on the lowest quality, switching to the highest-quality setting only when you want to print final copies. Second, investigate whether there are further ink-saving modes in the custom option in the printer settings.

And third, economise on paper by printing multiple photos on each page rather than just one.

NEXT PAGE: how we test

Quick links:

  1. Photo printers reviewed
  2. What do you need?
  3. Making connections
  4. How we test
  5. Direct photo printer reviews
  6. Multifunction printer reviews

Visit PC Advisor's dedicating Printing Zone for the latest printer reviews, plus news, blogs and forums, and our unique printer price comparison service

Visit Business Advisor for the latest business IT news, reviews, tips and tricks - plus sign up for our unique and FREE business IT newsletter

PC Advisor reviews the best multifunctional printers, and the sharpest direct photo printers.

HOW WE TEST

To give all the printers a fair chance, we used the same 17MB digital image, shot on a 5Mp digital camera. This measured 238.4x178.8cm at 300dpi. We copied the image on to a 1GB SD Card and to the mobile phone, and used these three images consistently for our tests. We tested every connection option each printer supported.

We printed on plain paper, then on the manufacturers' standard and finally on top-of-the-range photo paper, noting the time it took to print on each. To assess quality, we looked at sharpness and fineness of detail, plus how faithfully and vividly colours were reproduced. We also looked out for colours ‘bleeding'.

With the all-in-one printers, we took them straight from their box and set them up following the manufacturer's instructions. In some cases this included a calibration or alignment process, so this was completed before any images were printed or our other testing began.

We then printed our chosen image at A4 size on plain white paper in draft, normal and best qualities, with the printer connected to the computer via USB to offer a fair comparison. Finally, we printed our image at A4 in the best setting on the manufacturer's highest-quality glossy photo paper and compared the product of each printer.

NEXT PAGE: direct photo printer reviews

Quick links:

  1. Photo printers reviewed
  2. What do you need?
  3. Making connections
  4. How we test
  5. Direct photo printer reviews
  6. Multifunction printer reviews

Visit PC Advisor's dedicating Printing Zone for the latest printer reviews, plus news, blogs and forums, and our unique printer price comparison service

Visit Business Advisor for the latest business IT news, reviews, tips and tricks - plus sign up for our unique and FREE business IT newsletter

PC Advisor reviews the best multifunctional printers, and the sharpest direct photo printers.

Direct photo printer reviews

agfa ap2300

NEXT PAGE: multifunction photo printer reviews

Quick links:

  1. Photo printers reviewed
  2. What do you need?
  3. Making connections
  4. How we test
  5. Direct photo printer reviews
  6. Multifunction printer reviews

Visit PC Advisor's dedicating Printing Zone for the latest printer reviews, plus news, blogs and forums, and our unique printer price comparison service

Visit Business Advisor for the latest business IT news, reviews, tips and tricks - plus sign up for our unique and FREE business IT newsletter

PC Advisor reviews the best multifunctional printers, and the sharpest direct photo printers.

Multifunction photo printer reviews

Canon pixma mx700

Quick links:

  1. Photo printers reviewed
  2. What do you need?
  3. Making connections
  4. How we test
  5. Direct photo printer reviews
  6. Multifunction printer reviews

Visit PC Advisor's dedicating Printing Zone for the latest printer reviews, plus news, blogs and forums, and our unique printer price comparison service

Visit Business Advisor for the latest business IT news, reviews, tips and tricks - plus sign up for our unique and FREE business IT newsletter