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Printers Buying Guide


A printer is the one absolutely essential peripheral for your computer. You're not using your PC to its full potential if you can't print reports, letters, presentations, photos, and the rest of your creations. Significant technological advances have produced very affordable ink-jet printers that deliver top-notch color print quality and a new breed of personal laser models priced right for small office/home office (SOHO) users. Now high-quality printing is within reach of most computer users.

Print technology
Ink/toner configuration
Cost per page
Paper handling
Driver software
Application software
Control panel

The printer performs a critical role in the computer setupit lets you translate electronic ideas into tangible records. A good printer supports multiple applications, from simple text to complex color graphics. Today's laser printers let you quickly print reams of documentation, while color ink jets let you make brilliant prints of photos and graphics. Choosing a printer can be confusing, especially in the current competitive landscapethis guide will help you understand what you need to consider before you buy.

Print technology
The biggest decision you're likely to face when choosing a printer is which print technology to go withlaser or ink jet. While mainstream laser printers use a toner cartridge/drum assembly, ink jets accept ink tank cartridges. Your pick should reflect the way you work and the jobs you plan to send to your new printer. Lasers are generally better for high-volume printing and have higher duty cyclesthe manufacturer's rating for the unit's recommended monthly workload. Lasers also produce better-quality black text than most ink jets, though some ink-jet models rival low-end lasers.

Lasers still hold the high ground in terms of speed, while ink jets offer the important advantage of color printing. For home use, you'll probably want to print out digital photos or graphics, which makes color a must. The traditional differentiation between lasers and ink jets has been office versus home use; however, color offers obvious presentation advantages for business use as well. Fortunately, prices for both categories of printers have come down enough to make it practical to purchase both a laser and an ink jet if you absolutely need both color and high-quality text.

A printer's resolution predominantly determines its print quality. Resolution refers to the number of dots per inch that appear on the pageusually represented as a horizontal and vertical measurement (e.g. 600 x 300 dpi). Today, most printers support a basic 600 x 600 dpi resolution that produces adequate quality in most instances. Many ink jets, however, offer a higher vertical resolution than horizontal, so resolutions such as 600 x 300 dpi and 720 x 360 are common.

Bear in mind that resolution ratings do not tell the whole story. Most printer vendors implement their own techniques for smoothing curves and enhancing resolutions through software algorithms. Consequently, some output from 600 x 300 dpi printers looks just as top-notch as that from a 600 x 600 dpi unit. Bear in mind that although some printers go as high as 1200 x 1200 dpi, you're not likely to notice any difference in quality with common print jobs once you go above 600 x 600 dpi resolution.

Performance is a crucial consideration when choosing a printer. Printers rarely deliver the manufacturer's rated performance specification, but ratings can be used to gauge relative performance between a given vendor's models. When it comes to printing typical black text documents, personal laser printers still hold an advantage over ink jets. SOHO lasers are typically rated between 6 and 10 pages per minute (ppm), while ink jets usually carry black text ratings ppm and above.

Ink/toner configuration
With lasers, you usually have to replace a toner/drum cartridge when the printer runs out of ink. With ink jets, you replace ink tanks when they're depleted. Both of these types of cartridges vary quite a bit both in rated pages and price so be sure to include cartridge details in your pre-purchase research. Some of these replaceable modules contain both ink and the print head nozzles; some just the ink. Separate ink tanks are usually cheaper to replace than those combined with print heads. Ink jets also vary in their cartridge configurationssome use a single four-color cartridge that includes black, some use a tricolor cartridge and a separate black one, and still others use totally separate tanks for each color. If you plan to print a lot of monochromatic documents on your ink jet, you should look for a printer that offers a separate black ink tank; some vendors even offer a high-capacity black cartridge for day-to-day monochrome printing.

Cost per page
The purchase price is just the beginning of the overall cost of your printer. Ongoing cost is measured in cost per pagean often-nebulous figure measured in cents. If you print even a fair amount, this per-page cost adds up quickly. Lasers offer the lowest cost per pageusually only a couple of cents per page. Ink jets, on the other hand, can cost four or five times as much depending on what you're printing. Ink-jet printing cost depends on how much ink you use (determined by the percent of page coverage you're printing) and the cost of the paper. Unlike laser printers, which usually use normal-weight, uncoated paper, with an ink-jet printer you likely will opt for more expensive, coated and glossy paper for higher quality color output.

Ink-jet tank configuration is part of the cost evaluation as well. If your ink cartridge combines black ink with colored ink and you've printed lots of text recently, you may find yourself throwing out a cartridge with plenty of ink in it just to replace your black. To avoid such waste, consider getting an ink jet with separate black and color cartridges.

Paper handling
How your printer moves your paper and envelopes can make all the difference in the world. Each manufacturer tends to use its own approach to paper paths and models vary in their input and output page capacity, as well as their compatibility with special media such as envelopes and card stock. Take a look at a printer's multipurpose input trayusually a fold-down or stationary slot that can accept odd-sized media. Does it adjust to stock of any width? Does it have sliding paper guides? Can you leave five or 10 envelopes in the slot for occasional mailings?

Paper path design is also important. Some printersespecially lasersuse S- or U-shaped paths, while many ink jets use nearly straight-through designs. Generally speaking, the straighter the path the fewer jams; however, curved paths make more flexible input and output tray configurations possible. Remember, gravity countsopt for ink jets that move paper down and not up.

Most printers use a parallel connection to your PC. However, other interfaces are also available. Many ink-jet printers include both parallel and Macintosh connectors, making them compatible with both the PC and Macintosh platforms. Serial connectors are also available for both ink jets and lasers, though they are rarely used with PCs anymore.

More advanced interfaces offer more flexible printing solutions. Some printers now come with infrared I/O ports that allow wireless printing from notebooks or other devices with infrared ports. If your printer accepts an Ethernet option or comes with an Ethernet interface standard, you can quickly attach it to your network to share among several users.

While there are many interface possibilities, a printer seldom comes with the hardware for all of them. Make sure to note which interfaces are standard on a printer and which require optional hardware.

Driver software
The printer driver is no longer just a file that makes a printer work with your computer. Along with its companion programs, it now acts as the software interface to your printer. Most drivers pack in a lot of functionality, so crisp design is key; cluttered driver screens are confusing and intimidating. In addition to basic settings such as copies, page size, and orientation, drivers also provide control for resolution, text smoothing and media types. A useful driver also lets you configure paper-tray usage, apply watermarks, and create your own custom-setting profiles for quick selection.

Graphical status indicators are all the rage in drivers these days. Ink-jet drivers frequently offer graphical indications of remaining ink levels for each color, and any good driver should show you where paper jams occur and where your current print job stands. Some drivers even change their graphical portrayal of the printer to reflect installed options and paper tray status.

Your printer's driver software is likely to determine how much of your printer's capabilities you actually take advantage of. If it offers a quick and productive interface, you'll be sure to learn all the bells and whistles of your printer.

Application software
Software is often an overlooked part of a printer purchasekeep in mind when you're choosing a printer. In a cramped low-end price bracket, ink-jet printer vendors use bundled software as a way to distinguish themselves. For the buyer, this can mean a significant bonus in value-added software. Some companies offer their own integrated bundle of applications, while others include separate programs. Typical bundled applications include greeting card, poster, and banner creators. Other common programs let you edit and apply effects to photographic images.

Many ink jets targeted at home users include software for kids that provide a user-friendly way to create word processing and graphics documents. Some such bundles even include subscriptions to family-friendly online services.

Control panel
Onboard controls vary widely between printers. On laser printers, it's reasonable to expect an LCD panel with text messages, scrollable configuration menus and indicator lights. Such control panels allow you to change setup options directly at the printer without using the driver software. Ink jets typically offer less control. Some ink jets offer only a power button and power indicator light, delegating all real control to utility software in order to reduce hardware complicationand cost. Although software control panels usually work quite well, some ink jets offer more hands-on functionality for flexible use. An ideal ink jet will at least let you change quality modes with a single touch at the unit and offer a light to indicate low ink levels.

Though a slick-looking case may gain style points for a printer, your real concerns should be more practical. A truly well-designed unit will provide you access to all points in the paper path to clear paper jams quickly. Ink jets usually have only one cover to open, but lasers can have multiple access doorsespecially if they use S-shaped paper paths. Removable paper trays and their rails should be sturdy enough to handle quick ins and outs, and flip-down input trays and paper guides shouldn't be so delicate that they break after a few uses. These latter concerns mostly apply to ink-jet modelslook for cases with few hinged appendages and minimal complications.

Footprint is also worth consideringwill the printer fit comfortably in your workspace? If your printer accepts optional paper feeders, do they stack below the base unit or do they require more clearance around the printer? Generally speaking, printers are well designed, but watch for form-factor gotchas.

When choosing a printer, make sure you look down the road to the different types of printing you might need to do. In addition to standard 8.5-by-11-inch paper, you'll probably want to print envelopes from time to time. Make sure the printer you choose can handle envelopes and feed them efficiently. Printers that feed envelopes through manual feeders differ in the number they can handle at one timecheck the capacity. Also investigate whether the printer can handle transparencies, card stock, and special glossy photo paper. Some ink jets are even versatile enough to print on fabric.

While basic printer configurations may be fine for your immediate needs, take a look at the options available for each unit before you buy. Laser printers often accept memory upgrades, optional paper feeders and network cards. Some ink jets also accept optional interfaces, but many are limited to the built-in connectors. Ink jets do often accept optional photo ink cartridges for snappier-looking photographs, however, and some even accept scan heads to turn the printer into a personal scanner. When you check the optional devices available, make sure you note their prices.

Whatever your budget, there's a printer choice for you. Amazingly, printers are now available for as little as $65. On the high end, you can literally spend as much as you want for a faster, more flexible print system. Ink jets are the most affordable, with serviceable models in the $120 to $399 range. Such an investment will get you fine color quality, easy setup, and a home-oriented software bundle. Personal laser printers overlap the prices of ink jets at their low end, with some 8- and 10-page-per-minute models selling for less than $400. You won't always get what you pay for, so be skeptical of the low prices and critical of the high ones. A of similarly equipped models among three or four vendors will tell the real story.


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