Printers are critical peripherals. They transform electronic information into tangible records. Without the ability to print reports and other documents, letters, photos, etc., your computer will not be at its best. In today’s changing market, it can be difficult to choose a printer. This buying guide outlines some of the most important factors to consider before making that crucial purchase decision.

Printing Technologies

This is the most important decision you will make. This decision should be made based on your work style and what you expect from the printer.

o Inkjet: Inkjets can produce stunning color. This is the best option if you’re primarily concerned about printing photos. While inkjets can print text, they are too slow to be useful for document printing. Inkjets that offer a wider range of colors than the four-color CMYK (cyan magenta yellow, black) will produce more photo-realism. These extra colors offer subtler color gradations for blue skies and skin tones. Consider photo printers that have more than one black ink variant or gray inks if you print many black-and-white photographs. Many photo printers produce a mixed black color using inks that can cause a blurred tint. Two additional black-ink cartridges and various shades of gray are available to maintain a neutral tone. The gray ink allows subtle shading which enhances black-and white photos.

o Dye Sublimation: Dye sub printers can print continuous colors and a greater range of colors than laser printers. This makes them perfect for color printing or graphic applications that require more detail. Dye-sub prints are also less likely to fade and distort over time than dye based ink prints. Many consumer-based dye sublimation printers are able to print directly from digital cameras, and can also accept memory cards. However, they are limited in the size and range of media that can be used, usually letter-size or smaller.

o Laser Laser Printers: If you have to print large numbers of text documents, laser printers are the best choice. They are faster than inkjets, and they have a lower cost of long-term operation — even though it may be more expensive to buy initially. There are some trade-offs. Monochrome lasers are able to print color but can only produce black-and white text. While color lasers can produce excellent graphics and text, they are more costly and require maintenance.

Use of a Printer

Some printers are great for general printing. Others are better at performing specialized tasks, or combining multiple functions into one machine.

o Photo: A photo printer is a great option if you are a photographer who takes many pictures. Photo printers may be either photo inkjets that can print text and photos, or snapshot printers that can output small 4×6 inch prints. Professional printers can also be used for large tabloid-sized photos. They often include network connections so you can share your printer. Professional and consumer photo printers rely on inkjet technology. Snapshot photo printers, which print 4×6 inches of prints, rely on dye sublimation technology. No matter what technology is used, the most important quality to look for is photorealistic quality. The rest is secondary.

o General Purpose Printers: These printers can be used to print almost any type of material, including photos and text. If you are printing more photos than text, you can choose a general printer with a Laser format. If you prefer to print photos, you can opt for an Inkjet format.

o Multifunction: Multifunction printers combine multiple functions, such as scanning, printing, faxing, or copying. MFPs can be set up in a fraction of the time it takes to set up separate machines and are cheaper than standalone devices. These all-in-1 devices are ideal for anyone who is tight on space and budget. It is important to note that if one of the components fails, it will cause the entire device to go down. Also, individual parts may not be able to be upgraded. MFPs can be equipped with laser printers, which are great for speedy text printing and occasional graphics output. They also have inkjet printers that allow for vibrant photo printing.

Environment and Applications

Think about how and where you intend to use your printer when choosing a printer. The printing requirements of a home user are different from those of a photographer, office worker, or traveler.

o Home use/General: These printers can be versatile and inexpensive. Inkjets will usually meet the printing needs of most home-users who need to print photos from their digital cameras or for other light printing purposes. You should look for cartridges that are separate for each color inkjets as they can be costly. You don’t have to throw away entire cartridges just because one color is used up first; you can only replace the ones that are empty.

o Home office: An MFP can be a useful device for your home office. The extra memory onboard increases efficiency and makes it possible to process larger documents and graphics with greater ease. If you are interested in photocopying and scanning, an MFP with higher resolution is the best choice.

If you are primarily interested in printing photos, photo printers are the best choice. You can choose either a smaller snapshot printer that prints 4×6 inches or a larger professional photo printer that prints tabloid-size 11×17 inch prints. These printers are also capable of producing full-bleed 13×19 inch prints, which include a border for registration marks.

Monochrome standard laser printers can produce pages of crisp text quickly. These printers are great for printing simple graphics and text in black and white. You may need a separate inkjet printer or photo printer to print color photos, unless you want to spend more on the color lasers that can print both color and black-andwhite documents.

o Small network: If your small office or home office is connected to a network, a group laser printer could be the best option. Workgroup lasers can print faster and have more memory to manage multiple print jobs. These lasers may also have more advanced handling capabilities, such as larger trays and the possibility of duplex (double-sided printing), sorting and stapling. The majority of workgroup lasers cost more than regular laser printers. They are monochrome and are designed to print text and simple graphics.

o Traveler: Portable printers offer the perfect solution for businesspeople who travel and need to print. Their compact size (small enough that it can fit in a briefcase) and light weight (less then 5 lbs.It can be charged with batteries or a car charger. Modern models can print wirelessly, making it easy to forget your USB cable. Many portables have great features such as an automatic page feeder, the ability to handle envelopes and transparencies, and the option of an optional scanner cartridge. This cartridge replaces the ink cartridge, turning the printer into a scanner. Although portable printers can be more expensive than regular printers and may print slower, the benefits of using them are worth it.

Printers that are PC-free

PictBridge support allows photo printers to print photos without the need to be connected with a PC. PictBridge is a standard that manufacturers of digital cameras and printers have adopted for PC-free printing. It allows photos to print directly from the digital camera to a printer by simply connecting them to a USB cable. This works as long as both the printer and the digital camera are compatible. Another variation of this idea is that printers can read memory cards directly from digital cameras or other image-storing devices by inserting them into designated slots.

The printer can view the photos in many ways depending on which printer model is used. Some printers may have an LCD screen built in that allows you to review the photos, make edits, and print the images directly from the screen. Some models allow you to create an index sheet, similar to a contact sheet for film printing. This allows you to mark the images you want and then rescan it. You can also choose which photos you want to print directly from your digital camera with other printer models. There are many types of memory cards on the market, so ensure that the printer can accept the type of card your camera uses.

Paper handling

Printing is a complex process that involves paper. These are some tips for printers on how to handle paper.

Ensure your printer is capable of handling all paper types and sizes. For example, if you have to print on heavy paper, ensure that the printer is capable of handling it. A printer’s paper path is a good indicator of how it handles paper. Lasers and inkjets typically use straight-through paths. The path is generally straighter, which means that thicker media can be used. Laser printers have curved paths that allow for more flexibility in the configuration of input and output trays.

Your printing will be improved if you use the right type of paper. You can print on either matte or glossy photo papers with inkjet printers. However, you need to choose the right type of paper for your printer in order to get the best results. Matte papers can be used for both dye-based and pigment-based inks. Shiny finishes, however, are more suitable for dye based inks.

o Most inkjets or lasers can print letter- and legal-sized documents. Consider a printer that can print larger sizes, such as 11×17 inches. If you are likely to be changing between paper sizes frequently, you might consider a printer that has multiple paper drawers. Additional features that can make a laser printer more useful include multiple output trays and duplexing (double-sided printing), collating and automatic stapling.

o Make sure your printer can handle third-party papers. You can print a few copies of the third-party printer paper before buying large quantities. Then compare the results.

Printer Specifications and Key Features

Different specifications are available for printers. Therefore, it is important to be able to navigate the spec sheets intelligently.

o Resolution. 300 dpi is sufficient for black-and-white text printing. But, at least 1200 is required for photorealistic grayscale and color printing. Choose an inkjet with 1200-dpi resolution or better and a droplet size less than 4 picoliters for sharp, clear output. Photo printers have different resolutions. Photo printers that use dye-sublimation technology can produce 300 dpi, while photo printers that use inkjet technology can output at 1200 or more.

Speed: Manufacturers often refer to printing at the lowest resolution or draft mode. Speed ratings are variable. A better way to measure actual laser printer speed is to track how long it takes for the printer to heat up, to spool the job into a print queue, and finally to print the output. Print speed is not a strength of inkjets. Don’t worry about this spec.

o Memory: Laser printers can use additional memory to make it easier to print large documents and graphics. You should check whether your printer has the maximum amount of upgradeable memory and if it has a hard disk with similar memory. It is also important to know if the printer can accept generic memory or if it requires the manufacturer’s name. Inkjets are limited in memory and cannot be upgraded. But this isn’t a problem because processing takes place on the side, so inkjets do not require a large amount of RAM.

Connectivity: Many printers no longer support the old parallel connection and instead use USB 1.1 or Hi Speed USB (USB 2.0). Both of these should work with USB computers. To enable printer sharing, printers must have an Ethernet port. If you want more flexibility in printing, consider printers that can be used wirelessly with notebooks and other devices with infrared ports. If you are looking for high-speed printing or long-distance printing, then consider printers with FireWire ports.

Consumables and page cost

The printer’s initial purchase price is not the final cost. As the printer ages, the hidden costs of ink or paper, toner, and other parts will rise. These “hidden expenses” are consumables. Divide the total cost of consumables and the number of pages you can produce from them to get the cost per page. Laser printers are the most affordable, and they also use normal-weight, uncoated papers. However, inkjets have a higher cost per page, depending on how many ink you use and what paper you choose. Glossy, coated paper is usually more expensive to produce high-quality colors. It is important to consider the tank configuration of inkjets. Inkjets that use a single cartridge to color inks will have higher replacement costs. The cartridge must also be replaced when the original color runs out. Inkjets with separate cartridges are better for black and individual colors.

Print Quality

Without solid print quality, whether text or photos, all of the features and specs in your printer will not be worth much.

Text should be crisp and smooth. Individual letters must be easily readable at all font sizes. They should not bleed into each other. Medium-sized fonts should not have any fuzzy edges. Larger fonts, especially bold ones, should be filled with solid black. Also, you should be able see well-formed and rounded counters (the openings), in letterforms. This is usually an indicator that the printer has used too many inks. Keep in mind, however, that some inkjet printers may display some wicking when printing on 20-lb. paper. The ink will bleed along the paper fibers.

Graphics: Look for gradients when a color changes from dark to lighter. You should see smooth transitions and no color bands, which are distinct bands that progress from dark to lighter. A test page will show a gradient bar, which goes from black to light through a series progressively darker grey shades. The transition should not be noticeable. In color-graphic printing, you want to see a good balance of colors. It should not be too saturated or flat.

o Photograph: A photo print should be exactly the same as the original. You should have accurate, balanced colors. They should also be vivid, but not too saturated. All areas should have good detail, without jagged lines, pixels or other visual artifacts. Contrast should be good between highlight and shadow areas. It shouldn’t be muddy, flat or without color. Although you may not be able always to distinguish between great prints, almost everyone can see a problem print. Don’t be afraid to trust what you see.

Source: Jeffrey Lawrence

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