Sarah Tew/CNET

Choosing the right printer can be a daunting task. There are several types of printing technologies to choose from, each suited for different needs. Printers come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny travel companions to work group workhorses; some are geared toward photographers, others are for multitaskers. And the many specifications for resolution and speed can be misleading. As a loose rule of thumb, inkjet printers like the HP Photosmart 7510 and the Canon Pixma MG3220 are a must for vibrant colors and long-lasting photos, whereas Canon's ImageClass MF3010 and similar laser printers are best at producing speedy text documents. To get started, you'll need to decide which of the following profiles best fits your user type.

For a more comprehensive index, be sure to check out our list of Best 5 printers.


Which profile best fits you?

1. Home user

The home user demands a lot from a printer. The device must tackle everything from a book report to a newsletter to the occasional snapshot -- all without breaking the budget. This is why the best choice is a versatile and affordable printer, such as a small-office/home-office color inkjet.

These printers cost anywhere from $40 for a single-function inkjet up to $499 for behemoths with interactive touch panels, Web connectivity, cloud printing, and other features.

The alternative: Get a personal laser printer (starts at $100) for simple setup with fast, quality monochrome text and graphics output. Also consider purchasing a second printer -- either a single-function photo inkjet or a snapshot printer for light-duty digital photography.

Sarah Tew/CNET

2. Student

Writing your thesis on the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies? You'll need a printer that can crank out page after page of text double-time, and a monochrome personal laser printer should fit the bill. It delivers copious crisp, legible text faster than you can say, "Wikipedia is not a valid source."

Personal laser printers start at around $100 or so, but toner generally produces more pages per refill unit than ink cartridges, so you can save money while clawing your way out of debt.

The alternative: A multifunction inkjet is a viable option for power users who will make use of the additional copy, fax, and scan options, plus it gives you the flexibility to print in color when necessary -- photo postcards for the family, perhaps? If you decide to head down this path, spend a little extra, meaning more than $100, for a decent model that will be a little faster and won't chew through expensive ink and paper as quickly.

Sarah Tew

3. Digital photographer

Any inkjet can print photos in color, but if you want results that approach professional photofinishing, you'll need a printer designed to reproduce the dynamic range of a traditional photograph. If you consider the printer a critical aspect of your digital darkroom, you need to look at the gamut and characteristics of the ink set, the supported papers, the color-management tools, and the paper path options.

If you plan to purchase only one printer or are a serious hobbyist, a letter-size inkjet is your best bet, since it can also handle routine printing tasks. Some use thermal dye-transfer technology (also known as dye sublimation) in which heat changes the physical state of solid inks until they infuse specially coated paper, solidifying as they cool.

Snapshot printers can print directly from compatible digital cameras, but the other end of the spectrum (high-quality medium format, or 13x19-inch, desktop models) can cost as much as $800.

The alternative: If you're into digital photography but also run a busy home office, consider a multifunction printer. Manufacturers of these all-in-ones have been working on improving photo output and scanning technology, and many offer multiple ink cartridges that save you money in the long term by allowing you to replace each color as it depletes, as opposed to purchasing a brand-new three-color cartridge every time one color runs out.

Additionally, most all-in-ones boast memory card slots and LCDs on which to preview prints and do light editing, in addition to connectivity options like Ethernet and wireless, with Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print features in the upper tiers.

4. Small business

Small businesses can benefit from a jack-of-all-trades model like a multifunction or all-in-one printer. These space-saving devices come in both laser and inkjet models that also include a fax machine, copier, and scanner along with printing to round out the versatility.

Depending on the extra features you choose (for example, auto document feeder (ADF), autoduplexing, and wireless), this category can get pricey, but many of the lower-end models start at $99 and up for basic copy, scan, and print functions.

The alternative: If you already have a standalone fax or scanner, a personal laser printer should meet your needs; many color laser printers now cost less than $250.

Sarah Tew/CNET

5. Corporate cog

Work group lasers are the obvious choice for your small business or team within a larger organization. Designed to juggle multiple print jobs, these systems have faster processors, more memory, and print engines that are capable of churning out more than 35 pages per minute.

But these $300-and-up printers are more than souped-up personal lasers; they offer work group features, such as network printing, high-capacity toner cartridges, and larger paper input and output trays.

The alternative: A business-class inkjet may be sufficient if your team has modest printing needs, and most models support network printing and wireless connectivity. If you're an employee bound for work-related travel and find yourself hunting for a printer, many manufacturers still produce special mobile printers that make for useful accessories on the road.

The categories

Most buyers start with a general notion of the type of printer they'll need. The reason is that different printing technologies are suited for different printing needs and budgets. Below we'll talk more about the basic types of printers and their pros and cons.

Laser

Sarah Tew/CNET

Though the technology has been around for years (Hewlett-Packard introduced its first LaserJet in 1984), laser printers are still going strong because they combine fast print speeds, sharp output, and a low cost per page. Like copiers, laser printers use a photographic drum to attract electrically charged toner and transfer it to paper, where the image is fused using a heated roller.

Many cheaper laser printers are monochrome (black and white), best suited for printing text and simple graphics, and they're budget-friendly, with prices starting at $100 and up. Until recently, color laser printers were too expensive for individuals or small businesses, but there are now several models for less than $200, and these are viable alternatives to color inkjets for printing fliers, spreadsheets, and brochures.

Spending more nets you multiple functions like a copy machine, scanner, and fax machine built in. Most manufacturers also offer networking -- either wired Ethernet or wireless -- on personal multifunction lasers, making them a good fit for homes with multiple PCs and users whose printing priorities don't include high-resolution photos.

Inkjet

Inkjet printers have come a long way in the last 10 years. Today's versatile inkjets can produce both crisp text and rich photo prints. Most manufacturers offer both general-purpose and photo inkjet printers that shouldn't be confused with snapshot or photo printers designed for only 4 inch x 6 inch or smaller sizes.

Inkjets print an image by applying a precisely controlled stream of tiny ink droplets from one or more cartridges to a variety of paper types. Each manufacturer uses slightly different techniques, and the size of the droplets, the way they are applied to the paper, and the software algorithms for color mixing determine the image quality.

Although inkjets are closing the speed gap, the process is relatively slow compared with laser printing -- and the ink cartridges and the special papers can be costly -- so inkjets are best suited for home users and small businesses with light or intermittent printing needs, or those who need to produce high-quality graphics and photos.

Inkjet printers range in price from less than $100 to as much as $800, depending on features, image quality, and paper-handling capabilities.

Multifunction/All-in-one

Sarah Tew/CNET

Multifunction printers (MFPs) or all-in-ones (AIOs) are the Swiss Army Knives of printers. They combine copier, scanner, printer, and, in some models, fax capabilities in one unit, making them perfect for home offices and small businesses.

MFPs are available with either laser printing for speedy text and occasional graphics, or inkjet printing for vibrant photos. The best models include flatbed scanners, PictBridge-compatible USB ports and memory card bays for quick access, autoduplexers to let you save money on double-sided prints, and auto document feeders for walk-up scanning, faxing, and copying of multipage documents.

MFPs start at around $100 for entry-level inkjets, but prices range depending on printer technology and feature set.

Photo/Snapshot

Sarah Tew/CNET

Some inkjet printers use more than the four basic cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) inks to produce high-quality photos, so if you spend a lot of time printing photos, you may want to pay a little more for a better-than-average inkjet, or opt for a second printer specifically for that purpose.

Some specialty photo printers use inkjet technology, described above, but most rely on dye sublimation, which transfers color dye in a continuous tone from a ribbon onto the paper in a series of passes, followed by a protective clear coating.

The print quality of a photo printer is comparable to that of a traditional photo print. Another big advantage: they can usually print directly from compatible digital cameras (via a special type of USB connection called PictBridge), and many models also accept storage cards such as CompactFlash, SD, or Sony Memory Stick.

A subclass of photo printers, or snapshot printers, is limited to 4x6 or smaller prints; they can't handle standard 8.5x11 sheets, which is why they are suitable as second printers only. Those typically start at $100.

Portable

Sarah Tew/CNET

These pint-size printers are designed for life on the road. They weigh anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds and are just large enough to squeeze out a standard 8.5-inch-wide sheet of paper. Portable printers use the color-inkjet printing technology described above.

The print speeds and the image quality are hardly top-notch, and you'll pay a premium for these travel partners, but if you really need to print on the go, they can do that. They typically cost $100 or more.

Sorting out the specs

When evaluating printers, the first thing you're likely to see is a long list of specifications chock-full of acronyms such as dpi and ppm. Not only are all these specs confusing, but they also often have little or no bearing on the performance you'll actually get in the real world. Here's how to keep it all straight.

  • Resolution

    One of the most widely cited specifications, the resolution, refers to the maximum number of dots per inch (dpi) that can be printed, measured both horizontally and vertically. For example, a 600x600dpi laser printer lays down a 1-inch square composed of 600 dots both vertically and horizontally.

    Frequently, you'll see resolution with different values for horizontal and vertical. That's because while the printhead has a fixed number and density of nozzles that determine the horizontal resolution, the vertical resolution is determined by the increments at which the paper feed mechanism can reliably move the paper through the printer.

    Sarah Tew/CNET

    The lower of the two numbers, which is usually the fixed, horizontal resolution, generally determines the real detail resolvability or resolution of the printer. Related to the concept of resolution is droplet size, measured in picoliters. Smaller droplets -- these days 2pl or less are the smallest -- allow the printhead to have better control over drop placement, especially at higher resolutions.

    Though manufacturers have inflated the resolution numbers for marketing purposes, and the numbers no longer correlate directly with higher image quality, resolution still has some bearing on the quality of text and curves, especially on premium types of paper.

    You can produce good text at 600dpi, which is about the lowest resolution you can buy in a modern printer, anyway. You should probably bump it up to to about 1,200dpi if you want to print tiny text of 6 points or smaller or print graphics with thin lines and curves. For most photos, 600dpi is sufficient and you probably won't notice any benefit beyond 1,200dpi.

    Keep in mind that the paper you use makes a big difference. For example, on the typical 20-pound plain paper most people use for their everyday printing, ink will bleed and wick (climb along the fibers), defeating the purpose of using high resolutions. On the other hand, high-quality coated paper that can hold droplet shapes and sizes will benefit most from higher resolutions.

    For inkjets, you might notice that Epson specs its resolutions in different multiples than other manufacturers, with numbers like 1,440 rather than 1,200. That's because Epson's print heads are historically based on 180-nozzle heads, whereas other manufacturers followed more traditional printing technology conventions and base theirs off 150-nozzle heads. The most important thing to remember is that one system isn't inherently better than the other simply because of the resolution differences.

  • Print speeds

    This spec measures how many pages or photos per minute (ppm) a printer spits out. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Unfortunately, it's not so simple. To come up with the fastest-possible speeds, some manufacturers test using basic text documents at the lowest-quality print settings (Draft mode) on plain paper -- not exactly a real-world test. Based on our experience, you can expect to see about half the speed promised by the manufacturer.

    In recent years, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) developed a set of standard documents and criteria for measuring and reporting print speed (here's a marketing-speak-free description).

    These are a mixed blessing. While all the manufacturers now report their speeds for a common test, and the standard mandates that all tests be done at the default settings, it doesn't mandate that the manufacturers report what those default settings are. So the so-called "apples to apples" comparisons aren't, and buyers are just as much in the dark as they ever were.

  • Connectivity

    The USB (Universal Serial Bus) is truly universal; all printers now have a USB 2.0 port. Work group printers also support printing over a network using a standard Ethernet cable with an RJ-45 connector. For even better mobility, many models support printing wirelessly, using infrared, Wi-Fi with built-in print servers, and cloud printing.

    Sarah Tew/CNET

    With so much data being sent from devices without traditional hardwired ports, companies like Google, HP, Lexmark, and others are jumping on the cloud-printing trend. This makes it easy to produce printed copies of word-processing documents, Web sites, and articles without the need for a mobile printer.

    A service like Google Cloud Print temporarily hosts files you attach on its own servers, then sends the document to your printer for output to unshackle you from the confines of a tethered connection. HP and Kodak also just added e-mail print to their feature portfolio, letting users print any document or picture from the Web by attaching it to a message and sending it to a unique e-mail address assigned to every printer.

  • Processor and memory

    Though you don't hear the terms used a lot anymore, it helps to know an important technological distinction between inkjet and laser printers in order to judge whether you need to care about processor and memory specs: inkjets are line printers and lasers are page printers. For line printers, the computer composes the page in its memory and streams it to the printer in small packets; that means it generally doesn't matter how fast the printer processor is or how much memory it has.

    Page printers, on the other hand, need to hold an entire page in memory so it can image the whole thing at once. That means more printer memory allows it to buffer more pages. While you generally won't see a significant speed difference for typical jobs -- text documents don't take up a lot of memory -- if you often print large images or big graphics files, especially at higher resolutions, more printer memory can make a difference.

  • Paper handling

    The typical paper-handling specs on a printer include everything from the size and thickness of various types of paper to the standard and optional input- and output-tray capacity.

    Sarah Tew/CNET

    Generally, all inkjets and personal laser printers print on standard paper (letter and legal sizes), accept envelopes, and have input and output trays that hold at least 100 sheets, except for snapshot and portable models. Many models also include advanced paper-handling features -- such as tabloid-size printing, duplexing (printing on both sides), and auto document feeders for faxing and copying.

    Printers move paper in a variety of paths with names like "L-shaped" or "U-shaped." Notice that those letters have bends in them. If you plan to work with relatively stiff media, then you need a printer that has a straight-through paper path, which typically runs from back to front.

    They're not terribly convenient -- you generally need to have extra clearance in back of the printer as well as the front and you can usually only feed a single page at a time -- but they do keep from bending the media.

Judging print quality

The cardinal rule of purchasing a printer is to print before you pay. Otherwise, there's no surefire way to tell exactly how text and images will appear. While many retail stores let you print demonstration pages to get a feel for the output quality, unfortunately they tend to do a miserable job of maintaining the demo units.

So the prints may end up not reflecting the true quality of the units, if you can print at all. But if you can somehow see output samples, here's what you should look for. For printers with card slots, you might want to arrive armed with an SD card with your own photos on it and see if they'll let you print a couple.

Text

Most demonstration pages will include rows of text at varying sizes, which can show different types of flaws. At the smallest font sizes, the individual letters should be legible and fully formed with no breaks, and they should not bleed into one another.

Medium-size fonts should be crisp with no fuzzy edges. And the largest fonts, especially bold ones, should be filled in with a solid, even black -- not a muddy bluish or brownish tone.

If the tops and bottoms of characters are slightly offset or you see a pattern of dots incorrectly aligned from one row to the next, forming jagged outlines, that typically indicates misregistration of the printhead.

You should also be able to see well-defined counters (the openings) in letterforms; if not, that's usually a sign of the printer laying down too much ink. Keep in mind that on plain, 20-pound paper, inkjet printers will usually display some wicking, as the ink bleeds along the paper fibers. Also watch for ink spray, also called satellite, which appears as random dots of ink in what should be empty space.

Graphics

The printer demonstration should print several geometric shapes of different sizes and shading. The outlines should be crisp with smooth curves; inside areas of solid colors should appear dense and evenly shaded.

Also look for gradients, meaning areas where a color goes from dark to light. Is it a smooth transition, or can you see color banding, distinct bands progressing from darker to lighter? Large areas of flat color should appear solid and even, rather than muddy.

Some printers try to dazzle the eye with overly saturated colors; others skimp on ink, leaving images that appear washed-out. Look for a nice, natural-looking balance between the two.

Printhead banding -- that is, visible horizontal stripes across a page -- could be caused by a clogged nozzle, a poorly aligned bidirectional printhead, or a poor rendering algorithm (gradients aren't rendered smoothly). Knocked-out text -- light text on a dark background -- should be sharp, without stray color ink dots around the edges.

Photos

Color accuracy: The importance of color quality depends upon your aesthetic demands. Accurate color costs a lot more than simply pleasing color. It also takes a lot more work, and you'll likely be unable to tell before buying how accurate a printer is.

On the other hand, you should be able to tell if the colors appear pleasing and well balanced, vivid but not oversaturated. Examine skin tones -- are they too warm (reddish) or cool (bluish)? Is there a general color cast that gives the photo an overall wrong look?

Look at a monochrome photo under fluorescent light, incandescent light, and daylight. How badly does the color cast change from one light to another? Does the printer render grays using dedicated black/gray inks or by combining color inks?

If you plan to print a lot of black and white photos, you may want to find a printer that has dedicated black ink tanks. And while you'll definitely see inconsistencies across different paper types and print resolutions, they shouldn't be too jarring.

Detail: When evaluating a printout's level of detail, make sure the original image you're using actually has the level of detail you think it does. For instance, with many digital cameras, elements like grass and leaves at a distance can become soft and mushy, so don't assume that a bad rendering of these elements is the printer's fault.

Look at more-concrete aspects, such as fine lines that you know are in focus. Can you make out fine details in the image? Are the ink dots small enough to become invisible when you hold the page at a reasonable distance, or are they obscuringly large?

Dynamic range and contrast: Once again, in order to judge the printer's quality here you need to have an original image with truly dark blacks, bright whites, and various areas of highlight, midtone, and shadow.

Can you see detail in highlight and shadow areas, or are they clipped -- rendered as solid blacks or whites? Does the printout look like it has a haze over it (low contrast) or have a lot of dense blacks and clipped highlights (high contrast)?

Artifacts: A print artifact -- anything that looks wrong or out of place -- means the printer is incapable of doing what you need it to, in which case it's time to check out other models, or it's incapacitated by some sort of problem.

In the latter case, you need to search the Web for complaints that indicate the problem is chronic, rather than, say, poor maintenance on the part of store staff.

One common artifact is banding, a term that many folks tend to use interchangeably to cover three very different problems. There's color banding, which is caused by an inability to render enough shades of a given color to produce a smooth result. Printhead banding appears as alternating horizontal bands on the image, which occurs when the print density is different on left-to-right passes than on right-to-left passes of the printhead.

Finally, discolored lines stretching horizontally across the page indicate a clogged nozzle in the printhead. Color banding indicates that a printer is simply limited in what it can do; printhead banding suggests that you may have better luck with another unit of the same printer; and the third type of banding suggests that the unit has a probably temporary problem. For the latter two cases, head to Google.

Some problems may be related to specific types of paper. When you print on glossy paper, do all the colors look shiny or do the blacks perhaps look flat and matte? Do they appear bronze? Does the ink bleed too much on plain paper, making photos look muddy?

What will it really cost?

The prices of personal printers look pretty enticing, especially those sub-$100 models. But keep in mind that the purchase price is just the start; the care and feeding of a printer can quickly exceed the original cost. Before pulling out your credit card, be sure to compare the costs of consumables.

  • Ink and toner -- Inkjets are the least expensive printers available, with many models starting at less than $100. The catch is that replacement inks and specialty papers can drive up the cost of ownership.

    Sarah Tew/CNET

    Ink typically costs between $12 and $30 per cartridge and can last for 100 up to 800 pages for the high-capacity models. More expensive printers, however, tend to be more economical to operate because they have higher-capacity ink tanks and separate ink tanks for each color so that you don't need to replace everything when only one color runs dry.

    Sarah Tew

    Laser toner cartridges vary greatly in price, yield, and print capabilities. Toner cartridges generally cost from $10 for a small cartridge for a personal laser printer to as much as $300 for a high-capacity cartridge for a networked work group laser printer. Toner costs seem high, but so is the yield.

    A cartridge typically prints between 2,500 and 10,000 pages, although some claim to print as many as 30,000, so the cost per page is a few pennies for text (at 5 percent coverage) and not much more for images (with 15 percent coverage). Pay attention to the expiration dates, though; some cartridges, HP's in particular, will stop working at a set time, no matter how much ink is left.

  • Paper -- If there's one thing we've learned from CNET Labs' extensive printer testing, it's that better-quality paper yields better-quality printouts. For the best results, you really should just buy the coated or specialty paper recommended by the manufacturer of your model.

    Sarah Tew/CNET

    This is particularly true for inkjets, photo printers, and multifunction devices. Special paper can cost 10 cents to $2 per letter-size sheet, but it is essential if you want to print crisp-looking text or high-resolution photos.

    At the very least, spring for a slightly better-quality 24-pound paper with a brightness rating of at least 95. Heavier paper usually has smoother fibers for less wicking, and brighter paper delivers higher-contrast photos and sharper-looking text.

  • Extras -- The biggest gotcha with many printers is the USB cable. Many manufacturers don't even include one because retailers want to sell you one separately for anywhere from $10 to $30.

    Before leaving the store, read the box to determine whether you'll need to buy one separately. For some business inkjets and laser printers, network connectivity is optional, as well.

    If you're purchasing a work group printer or an advanced multifunction printer, you should also consider some paper-handling features that are frequently offered as add-ons, such as larger-capacity input trays; output bins for collating, stapling, and other finishing options; and auto document feeders for copying and faxing multipage documents.

Frequently asked questions

A: What are all those colors for, anyway?

A: At a minimum, a printer requires three primary ink colors -- cyan, yellow and magenta (CMY) -- in order to create enough colors to produce a photo-quality print. It does so using a process called dithering, where it clumps dots of primaries together in ways designed to fool the eye into seeing a multitude of colors.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Printer manufacturers will almost always add black (K) to that mix, usually because it's impossible to generate decent black text from color inks, plus it uses them up at an alarming rate if you're printing documents.

The number of colors a printer can render, called its gamut, is partly determined by the number of primaries it uses. While you can get passable photos cheaply from a three-color (CMY) model, adding black (four-color, CMYK) lets you produce higher-contrast images with the same color gamut.

The inkjet photo printer was born when manufacturers began to add ancillary inks, starting with light cyan and light magenta (six-color printers), for better rendering of light colors and skin tones. Then manufacturers began to take different strategies, such as introducing more shades of black (usually a medium black and a light black) for more neutral black-and-white photo reproduction as well as new primaries such as red, blue, orange, and green for improved nature colors and colors that pop.

Though you can roughly say that more primaries means a larger gamut, that's a dangerous oversimplification: a very good six-color printer may produce better images than a bad eight-color model, simply because one has a driver that's better at making decisions about the optimal placement of dots or because it can create smaller dots for a more granular mix. But a six-color model will usually do a better job with photos than a four-color one.

Q: What about third-party inks and refill kits?

A: To save some money, you may consider purchasing a compatible ink refill kit or cartridges from a separate company. If you do so, however, research it thoroughly first, or run the risk of, at best, buying cartridges/tanks that won't work, or at worst ruining your printer.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Most likely you'll just end up with poorer-quality prints, though for many people that doesn't matter so much and is worth the financial tradeoff. Why wouldn't the cartridges work? For some product lines, the printer manufacturers configure the printers to only be compatible with their own cartridges.

How could they ruin the printer? Nozzles are tiny holes, and the manufacturers' inks are specially formulated to be able to pass through those holes without clogs; a poorly formulated ink could permanently block the printhead. Or it could work, but require more cleaning cycles, which could potentially make the third-party substitute a false economy.

Keep in mind that there is a second type of third-party ink set designed for use with high-end photo printers. These sets aren't necessarily designed to save money, but to provide capabilities not offered by the standard sets provided by the manufacturers, including a wider range of grayscales, different color gamuts, or simply higher-capacity continuous feeds.

Q: Where can I find the latest printer reviews?

A: All the newest laptops news and reviews can be found here at CNET.com/printers.