Budget shopping tips: Printers

Associate Editor Justin Yu shares some general tips on shopping for printers on a budget.

HP Photosmart C8180 All-in-One Printer Sarah Tew/CNET

Shopping for a budget printer doesn't have to be an exercise in anger-management and self-abasement. Contrary to the stigma, many printers can produce great quality photos and documents without breaking the bank or eating up expensive consumables. Now release your fingers from your hair, put down that club, and check out these tips for getting the best deal for your money.

Before you even start shopping, decide whether you want a laser printer or an inkjet printer. Laser printers use bulky toner cartridges and are typically reserved for home offices that print monochrome text documents and presentations. Businesses also steer toward lasers because of their quick output speeds and reliable text quality. Monochrome lasers like the Samsung ML-2851ND are a good choice for homes that print a large volume of documents, and can be purchased for less than $200.

Inkjet printers are the more versatile choice for color photo printing, Web prints, and creative projects like greeting cards and calendars. They come in a variety of form factors from small and simple personal devices all the way up to fully featured All-in-Ones with scanners, fax machines, and copiers built right into the machine. Of course, the more features you want, the more expensive the printer gets so be sure to make a thorough list beforehand and stick to it. Some of the pricier additions include:

  • Auto-document feeder: commonly shortened to ADF, the horizontal input tray lets you scan/fax/copy a stack of papers at once.
  • Auto-duplexer: a hardware addition that lets you print on two sides of a single-sheet of paper. Consider this option if you plan to print a lot of pages per month--it could potentially save you money on paper, and it's environmentally responsible!
  • Wired/wireless networking: all modern printers use USB to connect to a computer, but many also offer wired and wireless networking at a higher cost.
  • Full color/touch-screen LCD: a flashy 6-inch touch-panel LCD screen might look beautiful, but the functionality is extraneous and isn't worth the price jack. If you're on a tight budget, consider a single function inkjet like the HP Officejet 6000 that doesn't have a display and only costs $90.

If you do go for an inkjet, shop around and look for one with separate ink tanks for each color so that you don't need to replace everything when only one color runs dry. This technology used to be relegated to photo printers more than $300, but the prices have fallen and now it's common to see sub-$150 printers like the HP Photosmart C6380 All-in-One and the Canon Pixma CMX860 multifunction that feature multiple cartridges. Also, be sure to do a little research to find out if your brand offers high-capacity cartridges. These inks are more expensive but they last longer and will save you money if you're printing a lot of photos.

One final word of advice: don't just think about the sticker price, consider the total cost of ownership. That includes the page yields of the manufacturer's ink and toner, cost of paper including photo and plain, how many pages you'll print per month versus stated duty cycle, and of course, the optional features you might want to add later. Stick to the list you make and buy a machine suitable for your printing needs and you'll be just fine.

About the author

Justin Yu covers headphones and peripherals for CNET. When he's not wading through Web gulch or challenging colleagues to typing tests, you can find him making fun of technology with Jeff Bakalar every afternoon on The 404 show.

 

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