Choosing a printer may seem easy, but once you start diving into all of the available features, making a choice can quickly get daunting. Do you need a basic printer, or do you want it to have scanning and copying abilities, as well? How do you choose between inkjet and laser technology? What’s the difference between a $200 and a $500 model? Here are some pointers to help you find both the right category of printer and the right model within that type. (And if you're finding it hard to pinpoint printers in stock in these COVID-challenged times, check out our guide to landing tough-to-find tech.)
How Do You Intend to Use Your Printer?
Printers vary widely based on whether they’re for home or business use (or dual use in a home and home office), what you intend to print with them (text, graphics, photos, labels), and whether you need color or if monochrome output will suffice.
Most printers, including many inkjets that manufacturers market as photo printers, are general-purpose models, meant for printing text, graphics, and photos. Special-purpose options include dedicated and near-dedicated photo printers and label printers. (Even among specialty printers, 3D printers are a special case, and beyond the scope of this discussion.) If you're looking for a model to print, say, photos, consider whether you want to print only photos or want a model that can also produce other kinds of output. Here is an overview of the most common types of printers.
Home printers (approximate price range: $50 to $250) are almost exclusively inkjets, and are built for low-volume printing. They tend to be slow, and have high ink costs. They print photos better than text and graphics. Nearly all are multifunction devices that are able to scan and copy documents as well as print.
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Home-office printers ($100 to $400) are largely inkjets, and are built for low- to mid-volume printing. Most are multifunction devices that have scan, copy, and fax capabilities. They are geared toward text (and often graphics) printing over photos. Paper capacity starts at about 100 sheets, while higher-end models can hold up to 500 sheets. Most of these printers can also be used in so-called micro offices (with up to five people), and many can serve double duty by supporting household printing as well.
Home-office printers are a subset of business printers ($100 to more than $2,500), which range from compact, single-function models for low-volume use to humongous floor-standing units that can anchor a department. The majority of business printers are lasers, and most are multifunction devices. Many are monochrome, and favor text and graphics printing over photos. For many businesses, speed and paper capacity are paramount. Generally, the more expensive the printer is to purchase, the lower its per-page printing costs will be. Most offer security features like password-protected printing, and some even employ accessories such as an encrypted hard drive.
Near-dedicated photo printers ($400 to $2,000) are designed for professional photographers and photo enthusiasts. Although they can print text and graphics, they are all about printing high-quality photos. They have wide frames to accommodate large-format paper, and many can print from paper rolls as well. For precision color, they use up to a dozen ink cartridges.
Small-format photo printers ($80 to $250) are dedicated devices, built to print only photos. Print sizes can range from wallet-size to 5 by 7 inches, though many models can only print a single size. Most are highly portable, and often either come with a battery or offer one as an option.
Consumer wide-format, or tabloid-size, printers ($150 to $300) come in handy when letter- or legal-size pages just aren’t big enough. You won't be able to print poster-size 24-by-36-inch output on these models (at least, not on one sheet without tiling), but these wide-format machines can do 11-by-17-inch prints (and in some cases, 13-by-19-inch) in small quantities.
Label printers are built to churn out paper or plastic labels. Some include label-design software and connect to your computer, while many are standalone devices, letting you design and print labels using a small, built-in keyboard. Manufacturers of standalone label printers offer a wide variety of label colors and types.
Output includes text, graphics, and photos, and printers vary widely in quality among these types. Generally, business models use laser technology and are geared toward text (and sometimes graphics), while home printers (generally inkjets) favor photos. Within these considerations, printers still vary widely in output quality for these categories. Some business printers can handle text, graphics, and photos well enough that they can be used for in-house printing of brochures and other marketing materials.
The two most common technologies, laser and inkjet, increasingly overlap in capabilities, but there are still differences. The most important are that nearly all lasers (and laser-class models, such as solid ink and LED-based printers) print higher-quality text than nearly any inkjet, and almost any inkjet prints higher-quality photos than the overwhelming majority of lasers. Ask yourself whether text or photos are more important, and pick a technology accordingly.
Do You Need a Single-Function Printer or an MFP?
The vast majority of general-purpose home printers, and many business printers as well, are multifunction models (aka MFPs, or all-in-ones). Those other functions include some combination of scanning, copying, and faxing from your PC, standalone faxing, and scanning to email. Office printers also typically add an automatic document feeder (ADF) to scan, copy, and/or fax multipage documents and legal-size pages. Many ADFs can handle two-sided documents--either by scanning one side, flipping the page over, and scanning the other side, or employing two sensors to scan both sides of the page on a single pass.
Some MFPs offer additional printing options. Photo-centric inkjets can print on DVDs or other optical media. Web-enabled printers, both home and office models, can connect directly to the internet via Wi-Fi to access and print selected content without needing to work through a computer. Many Wi-Fi models let you print documents and images from handheld devices. Some models let you email documents to the printer from anywhere in the world, and you can then print them out.
How Much Do You Plan to Print?
If you print only a few pages a day, you don't have to worry about how much a printer is designed to print, as defined by its recommended (not maximum) monthly duty cycle. (Maximum duty cycle is how much a printer can print per month, whereas recommended is how much it can handle before it becomes overstressed.) If you print enough for the duty cycle to matter, however, don't buy a printer that doesn't include that information in its specifications. Figure out how much you print by how often you buy paper and in what amounts. Then pick a printer designed to print at least that much.
Also consider minimum and maximum paper size and whether you need a duplexer to print on both sides of the page. For input capacity, a useful rule of thumb is to get enough capacity so you should need to add paper no more than once a week.
How Fast Do You Need to Print?
If you print only one or two pages at a time, you probably don't need a speed demon. In fact, most home printers are not built for speed. If you output a lot of longer documents, however, speed is more important, and that means you probably want a laser printer.
As a rule, laser printers will be close to their claimed speeds for text documents, which don't need much processing time. Inkjets often claim faster speeds than more expensive lasers, but usually don't live up to these claims. Inkjet printers have been getting faster, however, and a few recent high-end models (sometimes dubbed "laser alternative" inkjets) can hold their own speed-wise against comparably priced lasers. (See how we test printers.)
What Will Be a Printer's Running Costs?
Be sure to check out the total cost of ownership. Most manufacturers will tell you the cost per page, and many give a cost per photo. To get the total cost of ownership, calculate the cost per year for each kind of output (monochrome, color document, photo) by multiplying the cost per page for that kind of output by the number of those pages you print per year. Add the three amounts together to get the total cost per year. Then multiply that by the number of years you expect to own the printer, and add the initial cost of the printer. Compare the total cost of ownership figures between printers to find out which model will be cheapest in the long run.
The high cost of printer ink has traditionally been a sore spot among both home and business customers, but the major manufacturers have introduced ways that users can lower their per-page ink costs while preserving their own revenues. HP does this through its Instant Ink subscription program, in which owners of select DeskJet, OfficeJet, Envy, and Tango printers can choose among three levels, paying a monthly fee for printing up to a certain number of pages. (The levels are 50, 100, and 300 pages per month.) The same fee applies for either black or color printing. HP automatically sends you more ink when you run low. These programs can save you a considerable amount of money, particularly if you print mostly in color.
Other manufacturers offer printers that accept high-capacity cartridges. Brother’s INKvestment models ship with large ink cartridges--in some cases, several sets of them--so you may pay extra up front for the printer, but the ink supply will last a long time, and additional cartridges can be bought for a low price. Brother’s INKvestment Tank printers are similar, except that their high-capacity cartridges offload ink into reservoirs within the printer.
Epson’s EcoTank and SuperTank printers use bottled ink that you (carefully) pour into internal tanks; Canon's MegaTank printers also come with bottled ink. These models are primarily geared toward small and home offices, but there’s no reason a thrifty consumer who prints a lot couldn’t buy one as well. (See more about how to save on printer ink.)
How Are You Going to Connect Your Printer?
In addition to a USB port, most office printers, and an increasing number of home printers, include Ethernet ports, which allow you to share the printer with your home network. Many also include Wi-Fi capability. If you have a Wi-Fi access point on your network, you can print wirelessly to any printer on that network, whether or not the unit itself offers a wireless connection. Printers that support Wi-Fi Direct (or an equivalent peer-to-peer protocol) can connect directly to most Wi-Fi-enabled devices, even if your computer or handheld isn't designed to support Wi-Fi Direct. We're also seeing options that can connect to and print from a mobile device via NFC (near-field communication) merely by tapping the phone or tablet to a particular spot on the printer. Bluetooth connectivity is on the rise, mostly in small-format photo printers.
Do You Need Printer Security Features?
Printer security is often overlooked, but at your business’s peril. Hackers can gain access to a network through the printer, and sensitive documents in the paper tray can be seen by prying eyes. Many better business-centric models incorporate password protection, so that once a user launches a print job, they must enter a PIN into the printer to release it. This ensures that confidential documents don’t fall into the wrong hands.
In the case of business printers, firmware should be kept updated, as it often repairs vulnerabilities, and any printer hard drives should be encrypted. Many manufacturers offer administrative tools to help IT departments ensure printer security.
How to Gauge Size and Weight?
To a large extent, printer size and weight is dependent on its intended use, but even so, there are considerable variations. Make sure the printer will fit in its allotted space (in all three dimensions, including paper in feeders and output trays that may need to extend), and is not so heavy that it can’t be easily moved if need be. Very compact printers are available for people who live in a dorm room or other tight space.
As a general rule, though, printers get bigger the more features you add on: additional paper trays, automatic document feeders, and high-capacity ink tanks can all add size and weight to your printer. If space is a concern, choose wisely when it comes to these add-ons.
Printers: Frequently Asked Questions
Should you buy third-party ink or refill kits?
Third-party ink often costs significantly less than name-brand products. But be aware that it can come with a whole tank full of issues. First of all, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get the same quality ink from a third party that you would when buying a name-brand product.
Also, using ink that isn’t approved by the manufacturer can violate your warranty. And don’t think you can get away with secretly using that renegade ink: If your printer has an internet connection, it’s possible it could report your violation to the manufacturer. Sometimes, with firmware updates, we've seen the use of third-party ink "deauthorize" the use of the aftermarket cartridge.
What is the best printer for home use?
What kind of printer you get for your home depends on what you plan on printing. As a general rule, if you churn out lots of text-based pages, a laser printer will do the trick. If color documents or photos are on your agenda, you’ll want to go with an inkjet. If you plan on doing any scanning or copying, you should look to an all-in-one or multifunction printer. Decent AIOs aren’t that much more costly than their printer-only counterparts, and they offer a ton of additional features.
Should you buy a refurbished printer?
This can be tricky. On the one hand, printing technology doesn’t update often, so buying a printer that’s a few years old isn’t going to mean sacrificing any groundbreaking technology. On the other hand, buying a refurbished printer means that ink or toner has already run its course through the printer, meaning that you have no idea what’s going on inside or, for instance, how clean your printhead is.
If you do buy a refurbished or used printer, make sure it has been recertified by the manufacturer, and look for a reasonable warranty and return period. Printers are one of the few kinds of tech that we are leery of buying remanufactured models of except from a trustworthy source.
So, Which Printer Should I Buy?
Based on our advice above, and our key picks for various usage cases below, you should be ready to shop. Remember always, though, to factor in the primary kind of printing you'll do (text versus photos, for example), the amount you'll print day in and day out, and the cost per page of what you'll print on a given model. Keep all those factors in mind, and you can't go far wrong in today's mature printer market.
Where To Buy
The Best For Micro Offices, Small WorkgroupsBrother HL-L8360CDW$349.99 at Amazon
The Best For High-Volume, Wide-Format Office WorkEpson EcoTank Pro ET-16650$1,129.99 at Dell
The Best For Homes and Home Offices with Heavy Print NeedsCanon Pixma G7020 MegaTank All-in-One$599.00 at Amazon
The Best For Home Offices and HouseholdsCanon Pixma TR8520 Wireless Home Office All-In-One Printer$223.88 at Amazon
The Best For Low-Cost Long-Term PrintingEpson EcoTank ET-4760 All-In-One Printer$499.99 at Amazon
The Best For Consumers Printing Wide-Format PhotosEpson Expression Photo HD XP-15000 Wide-Format Inkjet Printer$436.76 at Amazon
The Best For Cramped Micro and Home OfficesHP LaserJet Pro M15w$108.90 at Amazon
The Best For Tight-Budget, Low-Volume General Family PrintingHP Envy Pro 6452 All-in-One$179.99 at Amazon
The Best For High-Volume Office Text PrintingHP Neverstop Laser 1001nw$279.99 at Amazon
The Best For Portable Photo PrintingHP Sprocket 2nd Edition$89.99 at HP
The Best For Smart HomesHP Tango X$199.89 at Amazon