Buying a printer is hard — if you've been asking the wrong questions and don't know what are the truly important things to pay attention to.
Before you even drill down to specific models, consider these first:
The first few questions you should ask yourself are: what do you usually print, how much of it is in colour and how important is the colour quality to you?
Laser printers are known for their quality text and graphics output. Their printouts don’t smear as much too, which is a huge plus if you print a lot of important documents. All this is why businesses tend to favour laser printers over their inkjet cousins.
But for the longest time, colour laser printers were too expensive for individuals or small businesses — and fast colour laser models cost even more. Thankfully, prices have come down quite a bit in recent years, so it’s not difficult today to find a speedy colour laser printer that SOHO (small office/home office) users can afford today to print their business documents, brochures and the like. For instance, the new Canon imageCLASS LBP623Cdw color laser printer has a high print rate of 21ppm, supports wireless printing and direct USB printing, and is reasonably priced at S$389.
That said, monochrome-only laser printers are still a thing, so you’ve options too if black text is all you print. Case in point: this S$159 imageCLASS LBP6030w.
Inkjet printers remain an option, of course. If you print more photos using glossy media than documents or homework on plain papers, or if the split is fairly even, then an inkjet printer like the Canon PIXMA TS707 may be a more sensible choice. Finally, there exists a special category of printers for photographers who want to print their own masterpieces, and these are usually inkjet printers because the system allows for extremely fine-grained control of a dozen or so inks.
If you start all your print jobs from a computer, a single-function printer with USB connectivity is enough. For those with very tight budgets, the cheapest printers are usually single-function inkjets.
If you need to make duplicates or convert hard copies into digital copies from time to time, then getting a multi-function (a.k.a. all-in-one) device is a no-brainer. In general, I recommend an AIO over a single-function printer because that’s always less expensive than if you were to buy separate devices.
For AIOs, you should pay attention to the scanner design. A flatbed scanner is the minimum as it gives you the flexibility to scan other things such as photos or even books. The downside is that it’s not as convenient as printers that lets you scan through the ADF or paper feed.
If you scan multi-page documents frequently, get a printer that includes an ADF to save time. A typical ADF allows multiple single-sided pages to be copied or scanned at a go without any user intervention. Some AIOs have something called an RADF (reversing ADF) or a DADF (duplexing ADF), which is capable of scanning double-sided documents without you flipping the stack over.
Finally: fax. You’ll notice that many printer makers often sell two very similar AIOs with maybe a S$100 price difference between them. The most likely reason is that one of the models include fax functions. Just get the print/scan/copy model if you have no need for fax and save some money.
In addition to their fast print speeds and sharp black-and-white text, businesses like laser printers because they’re usually designed to handle more users and tougher workloads.
Because they hold the entire job in memory, laser printers, especially workgroup models, typically sport faster processors and more RAM than inkjet printers. If you print a lot of large images or complicated graphics and you’re trying to decide between two laser printers, it helps to get the one with more RAM.
Most printer manufacturers publish a duty cycle spec expressed in number of pages per month. Because there’s no industry standard for deriving this figure, in my opinion, this is best used for comparing the robustness of different printers from the same manufacturer than the reliability of printers across different brands. If the printer lists it, use "recommended monthly print volume" instead — this is a more realistic number that tells you how much you should use the printer to keep it performing at its best.
That said, it’s generally true that laser printers, because of their traditional target audience, are built to be used more frequently than inkjets. Again, don’t treat any of these numbers as a be-all and end-all durability spec, but take note of them so that you get an idea how much stress the printer can take.
Lastly, whether you’re buying a family printer or a business printer for the team, you need to get one with network connectivity, either wired Ethernet or wireless. Wireless will give you more flexibility in terms of placement.
Most laser printers outperform inkjet printers when it comes to yield. While it’s true that laser toner cartridges cost more than ink cartridges, they also let you print more pages (thousands vs. hundreds).
But this equation is changing in the last few years thanks to the arrival of ink tank printers, which are basically inkjets that use large built-in tanks to hold more ink. And because their replacement inks (in bottles rather than tiny cartridges) are affordably priced, the result is some of the lowest cost per page numbers we’ve ever seen.
For instance, the new Canon PIXMA G6070 is a 3-in-1 ink tank printer that uses high page yield ink bottles. Each black ink bottle costs S$14.70 and prints up to 8,300 B&W pages, while the three colour ink bottles (each S$13.70) combine to print up to 7,700 pages.
Of course, being inkjets, such ink tank printers inherit most of the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying tech I’ve listed above. In my experience, for the same price, laser printers still offer better text and graphics sharpness and zippier print speeds — so if you’re deciding between the two, you’ve to ask yourself if the low cost per page is important enough for you to ditch the laser’s other benefits.
By now, you should have a preferred printing technology and a clearer understanding of your priorities. Your next step should be to drill down on the features (not technical specs!) different printers offer and decide which of them will have a meaningful impact on real-world performance and user experience.
Here are a few considerations:
A printer that supports auto duplex printing is able to prevent paper wastage by automatically printing on both sides of the sheet. If a printer claims to have “duplex printing”, don’t assume the “auto” — it may well support manual duplex printing, which means you still have to turn over the page yourself!
Also, know that auto two-sided printing and auto two-sided scanning or copying isn’t the same thing. While auto duplex printing is now increasingly being added to home printers, auto duplex copying (which requires a scanner that can scan both sides) remains a premium feature usually reserved for business-oriented machines. The cost is also higher if you want the duplex ADF to be able to do one-pass scanning.
Thanks to the popularity of smartphones, tablets and laptops, any printer worth its salt today will offer a few mobile printing solutions, such as wireless printing over the same network or via a direct connection without a router and cloud-powered scan and print services for when the user is away from the home or office. What used to be premium features, Apple AirPrint, Google Cloud Print and Mopria features are built into most printers now, save for the most entry-level offerings.
Some printer makers will make their own apps to offer features that you can’t get through third-party standards. For example, Canon’s free PRINT Business iOS app for its imageCLASS laser printers lets you print photos, documents and webpages, read scanned data, adjust print settings and check device status right on your iPhone or iPad.
To help you work smarter and more efficiently, the Japanese manufacturer has even gone the extra mile to create what it calls an 'Application Library'. In a nutshell, these are little apps that help to automate common workflows, or frequently-used forms that are stored on-device for you to quickly retrieve and print.
A good example is the Name and Scan app, which lets you send scanned documents to pre-defined destinations and easily retrieve saved files according to usernames. Another is Enhance Text Copy, which allows you to enhance the quality of copy output with pre-determined settings — useful if you print a lot of receipts with very fine text. Always scanning documents and sending them to the same places? Scan to Preset Destination lets you scan documents with preferred settings and send to pre-defined destinations, essentially condensing a multi-step process into a one-step operation.
For organisations that handle a lot of confidential information, secure printing solutions, which can be on-device or server-based solutions (or both), are big selling points.
For small business printers (especially shared printers), it’s good to have the ability to secure a document with a PIN, which you only unlock when you walk up to the machine to print it. Some form of administrator control, like allowing system admins to authorise functionality for different user groups is also good to have.
If you want to protect the data as it moves across your network, there are high-end printers (usually laser printers) that offer features such as IPsec encryption, IP traffic filtering and device/network authentication. Some manufacturers offer online solutions too: for instance, Canon's new imageCLASS MF645Cx and MF746Cx work with uniFLOW Online Express, which is an online print management solution that also offers simple but secure cloud-based authentication.
For big companies or businesses that are growing, printer expandability is another important consideration. Print more than 1,000 pages a month? Unless you’re willing to keep loading the paper, maybe that printer with a single 250-sheet tray isn’t the right one to get.
Or what if you don’t print that much now, but foresee the volume to increase over the next year? Then maybe that printer that comes with a standard 250-sheet tray but has the option of another 550-sheet tray is a better choice than the other model that has a 300-sheet tray but can’t be expanded.
Also, do you know that some printers allow you to upgrade the RAM? This is usually a feature in enterprise printers because when you’ve hundreds, if not thousands of users accessing the machine to print complex documents, it’s easy to hit a memory bandwidth wall.