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Inkjet printers are now the standard for home-computer output. 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 going for less than $200,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 themselves 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, Epson, and Lexmark.

The type of computer a printer can serve depends on its ports. A Universal Serial Bus (USB) port lets a printer connect to Windows or Macintosh computers. A few models have a parallel port, which lets the printer work with 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 ink. For photos, many inkjets also have additional cartridges that contain lighter shades of cyan and magenta inks; some have added red, gray, blue, or green inks.

Most inkjets print at 2 1/2 to 11 pages per minute (ppm) for black-and-white text but are much slower for color photos, taking 1 1/2 to 21 minutes to print a single 8×10. The cost of printing a black-and-white page with an inkjet varies considerably from model to model—ranging from 3 to 7.5 cents. The cost of printing a color 8×10 photo can range from 80 cents to $1.50.

Price range: $80 to $700.

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 and graphics. Laser printers usually outrun inkjets, cranking out black-and-white text at a rate of 12 to 18 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 4 cents. Color laser printers are also available. Price range: $150 to $1,000 (black-and-white); $400 and up (color).

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, count, too. At their default settings—where they’re usually expected to run—inkjets currently on the market typically have a resolution of 600×600 dpi. For color photos the dpi can be increased. Some printers go up to 5,760×1,440 dpi. Laser printers for home use typically offer 600 or 1,200 dpi. Printing color inkjet photos on special 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. Generic ink cartridges usually costs less, but most produce far fewer prints than the brand-name inks, so per-print costs may not be any lower. And print quality and fade-resistance may not be as good.

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 through the printer. A few printers can automatically print on both sides, but doing so 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 scores 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 a decision 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 to have better print quality overall, 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’ve gotten the best results using the recommended brand of paper. You may be tempted to buy a cheaper brand, but bear in mind that lower-grade paper can reduce photo quality and may 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 support, 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. And with a 4×6 printer, you give up the ability to print on larger media.

Weigh convenience features. Most printers 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 4×6-inch sheets. Otherwise you can trim the edges off.

If you plan to use 4×6-inch paper regularly, look for a printer with a 4×6-inch tray, which makes it easier to feed paper of this size. With these small sheets, though, the cost per photo may be higher than ganging up 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 you have to replace the black for text or graphics. This can get tedious. Models that hold all the ink tanks simultaneously eliminate that hassle.

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

Decide whether you need scanning and copying. A multifunction unit provides scanning and color copying while saving space. The downside is that multifunction units’ scanners may have lower resolution than the latest stand-alone scanners. Stand-alone scanners are best for handling negatives and slides. And if one part of the unit breaks, the whole unit must be repaired or replaced.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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