No matter who you are or what you do there’s a printer out there designed for you. There are home printers, business printers, photo printers, printers for students, etc. The focus of this buying guide will be on home printers.
Most people associate home printing with inkjet printers. I refuse to recommend inkjet printers for any reason. Yes, they print pretty colors, and yes, they are usually cheap, but if you don’t use them on a regular basis the ink dries up and the nozzles clog. If you do use them on a regular basis it won’t be long before they start smearing and smudging. Many times all four replacement ink cartridges cost as much or more than the printer itself. In an effort to save money in the short term you can end up costing yourself money and frustration in the long term.
That being said the type of printers I recommend for home use are affordable, light-duty laser printers designed for home office or small business use. Laser printers are quieter, faster, and print much better quality documents than inkjet printers. Even after months of neglect, they’ll be there for you at a moment’s notice ready to print whatever you need with no muss and no fuss. I won’t be covering photo printers in this guide either. I consider them expensive, specialty printers that don’t fall into the small home office category.
Laser printers use static electricity to force a very fine powder called toner to stick to a page in a specific pattern determined by negative and positive charges. That toner is then permanently fused to the paper using heat from a fuser. The positive and negative charges are applied by a laser that is very fast and quiet. The whole process to print a single page takes seconds. It’s an amazing technology that’s becoming more commonplace and affordable as time goes on.
Good quality laser, monochrome printers can be had for $100 and up. For just over $100 you can get a WiFi printer that prints good quality text at 19 pages per minute. These printers are usually basic models that don’t offer much in the way of configuration options or special features like duplexing. If all you need to do is a few 100 prints per month these printers can be cheaper than some inkjet printers that can get messy and are usually more expensive in the long run.
Laser printers are capable of higher volume than inkjet printers. They can knock off 10 copies of a 3-page document in a minute or two without breaking a sweat while you’ll find yourself tapping your foot impatiently wondering if an inkjet printer will survive a 30-page job without one or more of its colors running out of ink.
Inkjet printers use USB or WiFi connections almost exclusively. You’ll very rarely find an Ethernet inkjet printer. Ethernet is usually reserved for laser printers. WiFi Direct is another option that allows a direct WiFi connection to a printer via its own internal WiFi signal. This allows anyone with a mobile phone and the password to the printer’s WiFi to print directly to it without connecting to the local WiFi network.
Duplex printing is another feature that’s becoming more and more common in affordable laser printers. Duplex printing saves you the trouble of reloading paper, flipping it over, and reprinting to get printing on both sides. Duplex printers have a “duplexer” mechanism inside that flips the paper over for you and feeds it back through to print on the other side. This saves time and paper.
Another feature that’s becoming more commonplace is card readers or media slots. These allow you to print directly from memory sticks, portable hard drives, or memory cards from your camera or phone.
It may be tempting to run to the local electronics store, grab the cheapest off-brand printer you can find, and take it home. That strategy may work for you short term but it’s wiser to consider a printer a long term investment and get something that will last several years instead of several months. Sticking to trusted brands like Brother, Canon, Epson, and HP with strong warranties and technical support is a safer bet.
A printer’s speed is measured in ppm or pages per minute. Printers in the price range I focus on in this guide are usually 16ppm to 36ppm. Faster speeds than that are usually for higher-end, more expensive high-volume printers.
You get what you pay for and if you want something you have to pay for it. There’s no getting around it. A major factor in deciding on a printer is printing costs. More expensive, high volume printers will have a lower price per page cost in terms of paper and toner. Less expensive, low to medium volume printers will have a higher per-page cost.
Per page, costs can range anywhere from 1 cent per page to 5 cents per page. It’s unavoidable. They get you coming or they get you going. The main decision is to decide if you want to pay for most of that cost
upfront or spread it out over time. The best approach is to look at the average toner costs per 1000 pages and decide how much you’ll be printing to arrive at an estimated annual print cost you can live with.
Sometimes you just want to print. Other times you want to print, scan, copy, and fax. Whenever you see MFP in the name of the printer that designates it as a Multi-Function Printer. That means at the very least the printer will usually have a glass plate on top you can use for copying and scanning. Even if it’s a black and white printer you’ll be able to scan and make copies in color.
These are usually very handy features to have. The cost of a multi-function printer is usually not that much more than a regular laser printer. Some multi-function printers will have an analog phone port built-in to be used for faxing.
We can go two different ways with this. Four colors or three colors. The four colors are Magenta, Cyan, Yellow, and Black. If you have a four-color printer and print mostly in black and white you should be able to get away with replacing the black toner cartridge most often. A color printer with three colors uses all three colors to create black. That means you may find yourself having to replace all three toner cartridges just to continue printing in black and white.
As you can imagine color laser printing can get expensive. You shouldn’t expect photo-quality prints unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of money on a special photo quality printer. This type of printer is usually used by photographers and graphic design studios. A color laser printer for a home office is best for mostly text documents with colorful charts and graphs.
Most people are familiar with toner cartridges. They’re long plastic cases full of toner that the laser printer uses to print an image on the page. Most printers will have indicators to tell you when your toner is low. If you get an indication your toner is low taking it out and giving a quick sideways shake or two will spread it out more evenly and give you a few more print jobs while your waiting for more toner.
The fuser is a box in the back of most printers that applies heat to the paper one is has toner stuck to it and fuses them together permanently. Maintenance kits for printers usually contain a new fuser. When replacing a fuser make sure to unplug the printer first and give the fuser some time to cool down before removing it because it can get very hot.
The drum is an electrically charged cylinder in the printer that creates the difference in charge between the paper and toner that causes them to stick together (Opposites attract.) Once the toner is stuck on the paper the fuser fuses them together with heat.
In some printers, the drum may be incorporated with the toner cartridge so when you replace the toner cartridge you also replace the drum. In some printers, a drum is a separate unit.
The Imaging Unit is the same thing as the Drum. If your drum or imaging unit is separate from the toner cartridge you probably won’t need to replace the drum as often as the toner. You many be able to go through 3-4 toner cartridges before having to replace the drum.
Whenever replacing a drum or imaging unit it’s important to make sure you DON’T TOUCH the shiny surface of the transfer roller. The oils on your finger can destroy the coating on the roller and ruin the quality of your print jobs. The only fix is to replace the drum.