This document offers some topics and questions to consider when planning a printer purchase. These are organized alphabetically with a conclusion at the bottom to help consider what might be a good choice for your needs.
The greatest factor in determining what printer you should purchase is availability. The supply of printers has been impacted by chip shortages, supply chain issues, and millions of people now working from home. For this reason, it is hard to provide a buying guide with a conclusive list of models to recommend since inventory levels are constantly changing. However, this guide can help you narrow down what features to look for.
Q: Do you need to print in color?
If you plan to print web pages, or other document in color, then you will want a color inkjet or laser printer.
An inkjet printer sprays ink on paper. A laser printer uses heat to fuze powder onto the page. For this reason, special photo paper can only be used with inkjet printers. Color laser printers can print pictures, and they can do a fairly good job, but they will print to regular paper. This is also discussed below under Photo Printing.
Cost of Purchase and Operation
There is generally an inverse relationship between the purchase price of a printer and the ongoing cost to operate it. Expensive printers designed for shared use in small offices generally have high capacity ink or toner cartridges that result in a low cost per page. Ink tank printers may cost $300 to $400 to purchase, but they come with two years of ink, and replacement ink is inexpensive compared to other printers.
In general, your printer purchase budget should be based on your planned quantity of printing. If you rarely print, you can save money by purchasing a low-cost printer. If you print frequently, then a printer with an initially high purchase price will likely cost less in the long run.
If you print many pages at a time and want to save on paper costs, you will want to make sure the printer you purchase has duplex printing capabilities to print on both sides of each page. This means a 100-page paper tray can be used to printer 200 ‘pages’ if printing front and back. It saves space and weight for documents you will be carrying, putting on a shelf, or filing away.
Inkjet Printer Benefits and Drawbacks
Benefits to Inkjet Printers:
- Inkjet printers can come in smaller more portable sizes.
- Inkjet printers can print to photo paper.
- Inkjet printers are available at lower purchase prices when compared with laser printers.
- When in use, inkjet printers use less electricity than laser printers.
- Ink cartridges are typically smaller than laser printer toner cartridges, so they result in less environmental waste.
- Inkjet printers are now available in a design that uses liquid ink from plastic replenishment containers. This allows for even less environmental waste.
Drawbacks of Inkjet Printers:
- Inkjet printers can be expensive to operate over time if you’ve purchased an inexpensive one that needs to have the small ink cartridges replaced frequently.
Some printers have the option for automatic ink replenishment. This might be done as an order through Amazon or perhaps with the manufacturer’s sales channels.
If you turn the feature on with a Brother printer, for example, you can set the system to automatically order replacement ink when your supplies get low. The Brother printer will still work with regular store-bought ink as well. So, it is very versatile.
If you use the HP ink replenishment system, the printer will be controlled remotely by HP, and it will not work with any printer ink other than the HP brand specialty ink system. You won’t be able to go to the store to purchase HP branded ink because the printer will only work with the special auto-order ink that comes in the mail. If your package is delayed or lost, you’ll be without a working printer. Some people find this to be an inconvenience. The feature can be turned off with permission from HP, but it’s a bit of a hassle.
Laser Printer Benefits and Drawbacks
Black and white printing laser printers are known for being inexpensive to purchase. They print fast and can print many pages from a single toner cartridge. So, they are good for people needing fast economical black and white printing. Color laser printers have these benefits as well, but they would use four toner cartridges instead of a single black toner cartridge. These cartridges may be $100 or more per cartridge. So, you might pay $400 to replace all the cartridges.
A laser printer typically uses a lot of electricity in the brief moment that it is preparing to print, and as it is printing. The components need to be heated up to a high heat. The high electric demand isn’t a cost concern, but it may cause your lights to dim slightly and probably won’t work well in a portable environment such as in a mobile office van or RV. Also, a laser printer won’t work well on a battery backup power system. Laser printers typically have more moving parts, and they may get messy if the toner leaks out of the cartridge. That’s rare, but it does happen on occasion. Also, loose toner may get deposited on the inside of the printer which makes a mess.
When you search websites like Best Buy, Costco, or Staples you can use a filter to narrow the search results to items available in-store and in-stock locally.
Going to visit your local store gives you a chance to see and touch the printer before buying. Removing the paper tray and lifting the lid can give you a sense of how sturdy the printer is. Some inexpensive small printers are very flimsy. Parts may feel like they are going to easily break. If you plan to use the printer frequently, you’ll want one that’s durable.
Another advantage of buying locally is that you avoid the cost and hassle of shipping if a return is needed.
To broaden your choices, you could purchase online from Best Buy, Costco, or Staples, have the item shipped to the store or to your home, and then if a return is needed you can take it to the store.
Otherwise, you are okay with ordering online, then a purchase from Amazon or similar online-only vendor may be okay. Consider also the option of purchasing directly from the manufacturer’s website.
Paper Tray Capacity
Q: Do you usually print one or a few pages at a time?
Many low-cost printers come with a 50-sheet paper tray. Some offer 100-sheet capacity. Some people print rarely, but when they do print, the print job might be 70 to 100 pages. If you have big print jobs, it’s nice to have all the blank pages loaded that will be needed to complete the printing process.
If you only print a few pages at a time, and won’t be using up the entire paper tray every day, then a smaller 50-sheet or 100-sheet capacity tray system should be fine.
Some printers can hold 250 or more pages. That can be useful for people who print large jobs or don’t want to keep filling the tray for many smaller jobs.
Q: Do you want to print photos?
Color laser printers can print pictures, and they can do a fairly good job, but they will print to regular paper.
A laser printer uses high heat to fuze powder onto the page because an inkjet printer sprays ink on paper at low temperature. For this reason, special photo paper (glossy or matte) can only be used with inkjet printers. If you regularly have large quantities of photos to print, you may find it is easier, faster, and cheaper to print at your local Walgreens or similar photo shop.
When printing photos, if you use regular paper, you may find the sheets become damp and wrinkled from the saturation of ink on the page. So, special photo paper is better.
The high cost of photo paper and abundant use of ink is what makes home photo printing expensive. However, for just a few photos per week or month, it’s very convenient just to print photos at home.
There are some small specialty photo printers that print to 4×6″ or smaller paper. These dedicated printers may do a better job than an all-in-one printer, but the cost may be higher per print due to the cost of materials. [View Photo Printers]
Q: How many pages per day, week, or month do you plan to print?
Low-cost printers typically come with small, low capacity, relatively inexpensive ink cartridges. These are fine for occasional printing of a few pages per day or week.
However, if you plan to print many pages during a week or month (such as 100 to 300 or more), then it may be more economical to buy a more expensive printer that can handle high capacity ink cartridges. Some printers can accommodate low capacity and high capacity ink cartridges. The price is higher for each individual high capacity cartridge, but the output can be twice as much. So, the long-term cost is lower.
Larger printers are generally faster, more durable, and more economical over time to operate. They may cost more initially to purchase, but you’ll save money over time. So, try not to purchase a printer based on a specific amount of space on your desk or a piece of furniture in your office. If you really need a smaller printer, then choose wisely to make sure it is economical and durable.
Q: Do you need to scan documents?
If you need to scan documents, a multi-function all-in-one device typically includes printing, copying, and scanning capabilities. Some also have fax capabilities, which requires a traditional landline.
Some multi-function printers have a flat cover or lid on top that covers a glass surface (called the scanning bed). These work well for receipts, books, and scanning odd-size papers.
If you plan to scan multiple 8.5×11″ pages, then you may want a system that also includes a feeder. These typically have a capacity of 10 to 30 sheets or more. You can place the pages in the feeder, and let the scanning process continue while you work on other things.
Some scanning systems only have a feeder. These are a problem if you also want to scan odd size pages or books which can only scan on a flatbed scanner surface.
If you have a lot of scanning to do, such as 30 pages per day or more, then you may want to consider the scanning speed as a factor when choosing what to purchase.
If the documents you scan have print on the front and back, then having a feeder with duplex capability can be convenient. Some duplex scanners feed the page through a second time to get the other side. Fancier scanners will scan both sides of the page at once which is much faster and avoids paper jams that can occur when a page is fed back through the scanner feeder.
Each manufacturer has its own specialty software to assist with basic printer use and maintenance. It takes years to try and compare the software offerings from different companies, but if you have the opportunity to try software from Brother, Canon, Epson, and HP, you may find that you like the features and operation of one more than another.
Some work spaces allow for a printer to be close to the computer you are using. In this situation, having a printer connected by USB to your computer may work adequately.
However, you’ll want to use a WiFi compatible printer if any of the following are true:
- If you want to have your printer on the other side of the room, or in another location of the home, then having a printer that can connect to your WiFi network will be helpful.
- If you have several devices you want to use with the printer.
- If the printer will be shared with other people using it.
- If you use mobile devices that will be printing, such as an Apple iPad or iPhone.
For best results:
- Use the manufacturer’s software. This will help retain the network connection from your computer to the printer.
- Be sure that all of your devices have a good WiFi connection (or wired connection) to your network.
When purchasing a WiFi capable printer, be sure to check and make sure it is compatible with AirPrint. [Learn More]
Based on all of the above factors and considerations, people typically find that one of the following may work well.
- INKJET – $50 TO $200. The low-end price range offers inkjet printers that are inexpensive to purchase and typically take up less room in small spaces. These may be slower when printing and have limited capacity paper trays, but for light printing needs they can be a good fit. [View Examples]
- INKJET – OVER $200. Higher priced inkjet printers are generally faster, larger, more durable, and have higher capacity paper trays. These are good for people who plan to do a lot of printing. Selecting an ink tank printer can reduce the ink cost when doing a lot of printing. [View Examples]
- LASER – COLOR – $300 to $500. Color laser printers can work well for people needing fast color printing, and reasonable quality color photos on standard paper. The initial purchase price is high, but hopefully the high capacity low cost of toner could save money over time. [View Examples]
- LASER – MONOCHROME. An inexpensive black and white laser printer works well for printing basic text documents with no colors. Options include basic printing without WiFi for $110 [View] or printing with WiFi capabilities for $230 [View] or full-featured rugged high-capacity printing for $415 [View]
The examples and links above mostly go to Amazon pages because of the large range of products available. For your purchase purposes you could use Amazon, or choose one of the other suggestions offered in this document such as Costco, Best Buy, or Staples. Also consider purchasing directly from the manufacturer, such as Brother, Canon, Epson, or HP.