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Printers
Inexpensive inkjets print color superbly, and they do it faster than ever. Laser printers excel at printing black-and-white text. Economical all-in-one models can scan, copy, and sometimes fax.

Inkjet printers have become the standard for home-computer use. They can turn out color photos nearly indistinguishable from lab-processed photos, along with banners, stickers, transparencies, T-shirt transfers, and greeting cards. Many produce excellent black-and-white text. With some very good models selling for less than $200, it’s no surprise that inkjets account for the vast majority of printers sold for home use.

Laser printers still have their place in home offices. If you print reams of black-and-white text documents, you probably need the quality, speed, and low per-copy cost of a laser printer. Printers use a computer’s microprocessor and memory to process data. The latest inkjets and lasers are so fast partly because computers have become more powerful and contain much more memory than before.


WHAT’S AVAILABLE

The printer market is dominated by a handful of well-established brands. Hewlett-Packard is the market leader. Other major brands include Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson, and Lexmark. Printers designed for printing 4x6-inch snapshots are also sold by Kodak, Olympus, Samsung, and Sony.

The type of computer a printer can serve depends on its ports. The most common by far, a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port, lets a printer connect to Windows or Macintosh computers. Very few models also have a parallel port, which allows connections to older Windows computers. All these printers lack a serial port, which means they won’t work with older Macs.

Inkjet printers. Inkjets use droplets of ink to form letters, graphics, and photos. Some printers have one cartridge that holds the cyan (greenish-blue), magenta, and yellow inks, and a second cartridge for the black ink. Others have an individual cartridge for each color. For photos, many inkjets also have additional cartridges that contain lighter shades of cyan and magenta inks, or gray ink.

Most inkjet printers output black-and-white text at a speed of 1.5 to 12 pages per minute (ppm) but are much slower for color photos. Various models we tested took 2 to 11 minutes to print a single 8x10, depending on the complexity of the image. The cost of printing a black-and-white text page with an inkjet varies considerably from model to model, from 2 to 12 cents. The cost of printing a color 8x10 photo can range from 85 cents to $1.60. Printer price: $60 to $700. You can also get them with scanning, copying, and sometimes fax capability. These all-in-one models typically cost more than stand-alone inkjets. Price: $80 and up.

Specialty snapshot printers. For printing photos at home, a speedy snapshot printer can be more convenient than a full-sized model. Most are limited to 4x6-inch snapshots, but a few models can also print on 5x7 paper. These models use either inkjet or dye-sublimation technology. Like most full-sized inkjet printers, most of these models can hook up directly via cable to a digital camera through the PictBridge connection, so you can print without using a computer. This is the simplest and quickest way to print at home, provided you don’t want to edit the photos. Price: $90 to $240.

Laser printers. These work much like plain-paper copiers, forming images by transferring toner (powdered ink) to paper passing over an electrically charged drum. The process yields sharp black-and-white text. Laser printers usually outrun inkjets, cranking out black-and-white text at a rate of 9 to 24 ppm. Black-and-white laser printers generally cost about as much as midpriced inkjets, but they’re cheaper to operate. Laser cartridges, about $50 to $100, can print thousands of black-and-white pages for a per-page cost of 2 to 3 cents. Price: $100 and up.

All-in-one laser printers add scanning, copying, and sometimes fax capability. Price: $200 and up.
Color laser printers are also available, but they are considerably slower than black-and-white models, cost as much to use as the better inkjets models, and can’t print on glossy photo paper, so they’re not a good choice for printing photos. Price: $300 and up.


IMPORTANT FEATURES

Printers differ in the fineness of detail they can produce. Resolution, expressed in dots per inch (dpi), is often touted as the main measure of print quality. But other factors, such as the way dot patterns are formed by software instructions from the printer driver, also count. At their default settings—where they’re usually expected to run—inkjets currently on the market typically have a resolution of 600x600 dpi. The dpi can be increased for color photos. Some printers go up to 5760x1440 dpi. Laser printers for home use typically offer 600 or 1200 dpi. Printing color inkjet photos on photo paper at a higher dpi setting can produce smoother shading of colors but can slow printing significantly.

Most inkjet printers have an ink monitor to warn when you’re running low, but they vary in accuracy. Generic ink cartridges usually cost less but most produce fewer prints than the brand-name inks, so per-print costs may not be lower. And print quality and fade-resistance may not be as good (see below).

For double-sided printing, you can print the odd-numbered pages of a document first, then flip those pages over to print the even-numbered pages on a second pass. A few printers can automatically print on both sides, but it slows down printing.


HOW TO CHOOSE

Be skeptical about advertised speeds. Print speed varies depending on what you’re printing and at what quality, but the speeds you see in ads are generally higher than you’re likely to achieve in normal use. You can’t reliably compare speeds for different brands because each company uses its own methods to measure speed. We run the same tests on all models, printing text pages and photos that are similar to what you might print. As a result, our print times are realistic and can be compared across brands.

Don’t get hung up on resolution. A printer’s resolution, expressed in dots per inch, is another potential source of confusion. All things being equal, the more ink dots a printer puts on the paper, the more detailed the image. But dot size, shape, and placement also affect quality, so don’t base your choice solely on resolution.

Consider supply costs as well as a printer’s price. High ink-cartridge costs can make a bargain-priced printer a bad deal in the long run. Shop around for the best cartridge prices, but be wary of off-brands. We have found brand-name cartridges that have better print quality and fade-resistance, and per-page costs are often comparable.

Glossy photo paper costs about 25 to 75 cents a sheet, so use plain paper for works in progress and save the good stuff for the final results. We got the best results using the recommended brand of paper. You might be tempted to buy a cheaper brand, but lower-grade paper can reduce photo quality and might not be as fade resistant.

Decide if you want to print photos without using a computer. Printing without a computer saves you an extra step and a little time. Features such as memory-card reader, PictBridge support (a standard that allows a compatible camera to be connected directly to the printer), or a wireless interface are convenient. But when you print directly from camera to printer, you compromise on what may have attracted you to digital photography in the first place—the ability to tweak size, color, brightness, and other image attributes, though you can do some editing on a printer with an LCD screen.

Weigh convenience features. Most printers can make borderless prints like those from a photo developer. This matters most if you’re printing to the full size of the paper, as you might with 4x6-inch sheets. Otherwise, you can trim the edges off.

If you plan to use 4x6-inch paper regularly, look for a printer with a 4x6-inch tray or a second paper tray, which makes it easier to feed paper of this size. With these small sheets, though, the cost per photo might be higher than combining a few images on 81⁄2 x11-inch paper.

With some models, if you want to use the photo inks to get the best picture quality, you have to remove the black-ink cartridge and replace it with the photo-ink cartridge. Then, to print text or graphics, you have to swap the black cartridge back in. This process can get tedious. The models that hold all the ink tanks simultaneously eliminate that hassle.

Consider connections. Printers with USB 2.0 ports are fairly common now. But they don’t enable much faster print speeds than plain USB. All new computers and printers have
USB 2.0 ports, which are compatible with plain USB. Computers more than seven years old may have only a parallel port.

Decide whether you need scanning and copying. An all-in-one unit provides scanning and color copying (and often faxing) while saving space. But scanners in all-in-one units might be slower than stand-alone scanners. Stand-alone units are best for negatives and slides, although some all-in-one units now include a light in the lid and a holder to keep negatives and slides in place. And if one part of the unit breaks, the whole unit must be repaired or replaced.



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