How to buy a printer for an SMB or SOHO

All the basics you need to know about buying a printer for your SMB or SOHO

In need of a printer for your office but aren’t sure what to look at? Wanting to do some of your own marketing materials and photo printing to jazz up documents? Below are some articles explaining the basics when it comes to printers along with some tips and tricks.

Major Printer Types Explained

Melissa Riofrio

Want to buy a new printer? You have some decisions to make. Do you need only monochrome printing, or color capability? Do you prefer laser, LED, inkjet, or solid-ink technology? What about extras, such as wireless networking or multifunction copy/scan/fax features? Your choices will depend on what you want to do with the printer, how much printing you do, how many other people will also use the printer, and, of course, how much you can spend--for the printer itself and for the replacement ink or toner.

We'll help you figure everything out. In this article, we'll describe the major types of printers available, so you know what your options are. In another portion of this printer buying guide, we'll explain important printer specs to help you figure out which models would best fit your needs. And when you hit a brick-and-mortar store or a Website, our printer shopping tips will make your purchase easier.

A Look at Printer Types

The major printer technologies on the market today are inkjet, laser and LED (which are very similar), and solid-ink. Snapshot printers might also use less common technologies, such as dye-sublimation and thermal printing.

Inkjet Printers: The Thrills, the Costs

An inkjet printer squirts liquid ink through extremely small holes in a printhead to create an image. The primary reason to choose an inkjet printer is for the photo quality: Inkjets are still the best at blending colors smoothly. (The other purposes for which you'd want color output--invitations, flyers, brochures--turn out just as well with other printer technologies. Our reviews of color laser and LED printers have identified a few that can rival an inkjet printer's photo quality, but they are mostly high-end, graphics-oriented machines. If you want a compact device dedicated to photo printouts, take a look at our snapshot printer reviews.)

The other reason to choose an inkjet is because it can print on a wide variety of media. Many inkjet models can print on specially designed canvas or on iron-on transfers; others can print on banner-size or wide-format papers. You don't need to worry about baking your labels or scorching your nice stationery on an inkjet; these printers will gently print on almost anything. For a more detailed look at some models, check out our top picks for single-function inkjet printers and multifunction printers (MFPs).

Inkjets: Speed and Print Quality Will Vary

With an inkjet, what you get in versatility, you lose in speed: Most inkjet printers have slow to average output speeds. Business-oriented models will generally offer higher speeds than home models.

The print quality you get from an inkjet will differ depending on whether you print on plain paper, coated inkjet paper, or glossy photo paper. Inkjets have improved a great deal over the years, but some models still produce gray, fuzzy text or grainy, oddly colored graphics on plain paper. Such results might be acceptable for a school report or a flyer, but not for business purposes; and buying special paper to improve the output will add to your cost per page.

The kind of ink a printer uses can affect print quality. A dye-based (colored liquid) ink, just like watercolors used for painting, is best for blending colors; the trade-off is in the precision of text and fine lines. A pigment-based ink--particles of color suspended in liquid--will generally create crisper-looking text and lines, but it won't mix colors as nicely as dye-based inks will. Not surprisingly, photo-oriented printers normally use dye-based inks, while business-focused printers typically use pigment-based inks. Some printers offer both: pigment-based ink for text, and dye-based inks for color images.

Ink Costs: Do the Math and Don't Get Burned

Because the replacement inks for a color inkjet can be expensive, it pays to shop carefully. Our printer reviews provide details for each model, but you can figure out the cost for yourself, too.

In general, lower-end inkjets might use tricolor cartridges, the kind that have cyan, magenta, and yellow contained in one package. These are generally a bad deal, because once you deplete a single color you have to replace all three.

Inkjets that offer separate cartridges for each ink are more efficient; models that separate the ink tank from the printhead can also save you money. Some printers have high-yield cartridge options, which offer a lower cost per page compared with standard-size cartridges. If you print fairly little to begin with, though, having a large, expensive cartridge sitting in your printer forever isn't any better for you or the ink.

Laser and LED Printers: Business Basics

Though some small offices or departments could get by with a business-oriented inkjet, the standard office workhorse is a laser or LED printer. Each technology uses its light source to beam an image onto a rotating drum; the image attracts toner, and the toner then transfers from the drum onto paper though a quick baking process. Laser and LED printers are usually faster than inkjets and create precisely drawn text (as well as acceptable or better graphics). They are also more expensive to purchase, although their toner costs can be lower than the ink costs of an inkjet, depending on the model.

Choose a monochrome laser or LED printer for the most basic printing need: plain, black text on plain paper. These models are simple to use, their toner is cheap, and they tend to be very reliable. Models start around $100 and rise in cost from there, depending on the features and the expected monthly output. Our Top 10 Monochrome Lasers chart rates personal and small-business models in the sub-$1000 range.

Color Printers Taking Over the Office--Slowly

Color laser or LED printers are expected to supplant their monochrome cousins someday, but the transition is happening slowly. Some reasons are obvious: Offices may delay replacing a machine until it's truly past its prime, for instance. Another, major reason is resources. Color printers are more complicated to manage. They have four toner colors and four drums (one for each color) to replace, rather than a monochrome laser's single drum. Those additional consumables take up more space inside the printer, making a color printer much bigger and heavier than a monochrome model; the spare replacements take up more space in your office's storeroom, too.

Managing the use of colour within an office is a significant concern. No manager wants employees to use colour when it isn't needed--or worse, to use the printer for personal purposes, such as garage-sale flyers or vacation photos. If you're shopping for an office printer, look for models that come with software that can control access to the colour features. Through these applications you can, for instance, designate which users have access, or permit colour usage only during office hours. Some can even limit colour usage to specific applications.

If you think a colour laser or LED printer will print photos that look as good as those you'd get from an inkjet, think again. Most of the machines we've tested can print perfectly pleasing pie charts, logos, colour bars, and simple graphics, but they continue to struggle with smooth-looking photographic images. We've tested a handful of models that can rival an inkjet printer's photo quality, but they are mostly higher-end, graphics-oriented machines with commensurately high prices. Read our colour laser printer reviews for details on specific models.

Next: Solid Ink: The Middle Ground Between Inkjet and Laser/LED

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