Printer Buying Guide: A Buyers Guide for Finding the Right Printer

by Reads (46,203)

We know that buying new printer can be daunting, especially since it’s considered just an accessory by many big box chains and retailers. Often, they even include a free printer with new digital camera or notebook purchases to create the semblance of a deal. Rarely, though, do these freebies address your printing needs and they can cost you more in ink replacement and paper refills than the initial purchase.

So the staff at updated our brief, handy guide to the different mainstream printer categories to help clarify the differences among printing styles in order to make your purchasing decision a little easier. 

We’ve fleshed out the information on each style page and added links to all the reviews of current and past products to help sort through products in each individual style. We want to help you make the best decision or at least avoid having to pull an “Office Space” smash-up on your “free” printer. 

Laser Printers
These printers use precision lasers (hence the name) to glue toner to a light sensitive drum which then applies the ink to your print medium. Laser printers may make you think of the huge ’80s-style copiers from the movies, but in reality, they come in all different sizes and are extremely popular. They are sold as single function units or multifunction units (see all-in-ones) in either monochrome (all black) or color. You will often find them in offices due to their fast print speeds, low cost per print (thanks to long lasting toner cartridges), and large monthly duty cycles, but the high initial cost usually alienates the consumer looking for a home printer. However, a laser printer could find its way into a home office if you are willing to cough up a little extra money in the beginning to save money over the long term.
Pros: High quality prints, fast print speeds, low cost per print

Cons: High initial cost, consume a greater amount of energy

LED Printers

An LED printer is similar to a laser printer in that it fuses dry ink (toner) to your print medium through heat. The difference is that an LED printer uses a Light-Emitting Diode array (hence the name LED) instead of using precision lasers to affix the toner to the imaging drum or belt.

Because this process is less complex, LEDs often have a slight advantage over laser printers in cost, efficiency and reliability while laser printers win the battle when it comes to print resolution. But both laser and LED printers will have a higher intial cost, but a lower cost per print than most other print technologies available.

Pros: High quality prints, fast print speeds, low cost per print

Cons: High initial cost, consumer a greater amount of energy

Inkjet Printers
Inkjet printers are confusing because there are so many of them out there, which isn’t surprising since they dominate the consumer market thanks to a low initial cost and ease of use.  

There are three sub-styles of inkjets on the market these days. I’m not going to explain in detail how each works but all three sub-styles – thermal, piezoelectric and continuous – focus on creating prints the same way: by spraying various sized liquid ink droplets through print head nozzles onto the print medium. 
What can be important to know about inkjet printers is whether the one you purchase has a fixed print head or a disposable print head. 
A fixed print head often has a more precise spray and is built to last during the printer’s lifetime, which saves consumers money because the ink is often cheaper to replace. However, if something goes wrong with your print head, you will typically have to purchase a new printer.
A disposable print head often means more expensive ink cartridge replacements since you are replacing the print head every time you replace the ink.  

However, most printers on the market, as of this writing, have a fixed print head, which means you will only need to replace ink. The biggest choice for most consumers looking at inkjet printers will be between a single function machine or an all-in-one printer. 

Pros: High quality photo output, vivid colors, ease of use, low initial cost
Cons: Higher cost per print, slower print speeds, print head clogs

Dye Sublimation Printers
A lesser known style of printer – the name is not often included in the branding – dye sublimation is often used in dedicated photo printers because of its superior amount of color choices and unusual method. Dye sublimation uses a solid dye ribbon that is heated until it turns into a gas and then spread over the print medium in four layers. The first three layers are colors; the fourth is a clear laminate to keep prints from being destroyed when exposed to heat, which also helps extend the life of a photo print well beyond what an average inkjet printer may give you.

Dye sub printers are often more flexible than their counterparts because there is no worry about ink spills or need for an excessive amount of energy. New models often include optional battery packs for truly portable units.
Pros: A vast amount of color choices, prints are ready to handle immediately, no ink clogs, portability

Cons: Can only print on certain print mediums, wasted ink, print speeds can be slow
Solid Ink Printers
A solid ink printer works much like dye sublimation with a few key differences. First, it uses solid sticks of ink that have the consistency of candle wax. Second, they are heated into a liquid and sprayed onto a print drum. The print drum presses the ink onto the print medium.
The Xerox Phaser line is currently the only series of solid ink printers being marketed, but Xerox has continued to add to the successful line; the latest addition being the newsworthy Xerox ColorQube.
Pros: Low long term cost, print quality, ease of use, eco-friendly
Cons: Slow warm-up, high power consumption, high initial cost

Thermal Printers
Thermal printers produce images by heating thermochromic paper and when the paper passes over the heated print head the coating on the paper turns black. Sometimes, a thermal printer can produce black and red prints, but the majority produces strictly black prints. Like Dye Sub printers, they can be portable, but are often used in stores for printing receipts.

Pros: Low long term costs, no ink necessary
Cons: No color options, smudging dye

Inkless Printers
Inkless printers are relatively new to the market, but the technology is similar to thermal printers. They use a special paper embedded with colorless dye crystals between two outer layers. When heated by the print drum, the crystals colorize. 

Currently, ZINK Imaging has partnered with Polaroid and Dell since both manufacturers have printers on the market using the technology. Polaroid also released a camera/printer combination with the Zero Ink formula.
Pros: Produce color photos anywhere, works with multiple wireless devices
Cons: Battery life can be a factor, prints are small

All-in-One or Multifunction Printers
These do-it-all printers can be purchased from almost every major printer manufacturer today. Known as all-in-ones (AIO) in the consumer market and Multifunction printers (MFP) in the business world, they transcend over all of the above. They vary on features but most include three basic devices: printer, scanner and copier. Often, products also include fax, photo or email functionality.

Recently, two manufacturers, HP and Lexmark, have released Web-connected AIOs centered around iPhone style applications, making the multifunction printer realm even more diverse.

AIOs are particularly popular because users get three, four or five devices for the price of one or two. They can keep desk space from getting cluttered and make an office or home more functional.
Pros: Includes the latest features, a choice of print technology, reduces gadget clutter
Cons: High initial cost, some devices are rarely used

These are just the basics – the nitty gritty, so to speak. Every one of these printer categories will offer a million different options/features at various price points. Click on the header links to get an in-depth overview of each category, such as which brands excel, and more information on typical price ranges, various features, and links to reviews.

Read to make a purchase?  Check out our Buyer’s Checklist!



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