How to choose a home printer

It sits quietly in a dusty corner of your office, surrounded by invoices, long-forgotten school projects, and stacks of brightly colored paper. Although you might not ask too much of it, it always seems to be there for you when you need it. It soldiers on without complaint, until one dayÖ.nothing. No matter how much you shake it, curse it, poke around inside it, or plead with it, there is no bringing it back to life. Yes, itís the home printer, and it has just died on you!

Like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, printers only ever get noticed when something goes wrong. In exchange for a regular supply of fresh paper and the occasional ink cartridge, we expect them to be uncomplaining workhorses, ready to go whenever we flick the on switch.

Unfortunately, like the computers and cameras we hook them up to, printers have a shelf life, and every few years or so we are left scrambling to find a replacement. The good news is that the choice of home printers has never been better and prices have never been lower. Competition among printer manufacturers is now so fierce that itís possible to pick up a quality brand name machine for less than a $100.

But having lots of printers to choose from can often lead to indecision. Inkjet or laser? Black and white or color? Stand-alone or all-in-one? Make the wrong choice and it could lead to months of frustration. Before you commit, here are a few pointers on what you need to consider.

Inkjet vs. Laser

This comes down to two things: the type of documents you will be printing and the volume. Typically laser printers are faster and the text they produce looks sharper. Thatís why most businesses prefer them. If you are going to print lots of reports and you want to do it quickly, then a laser printer is the way to go.

However, if you are going to be printing out pie-charts, photos, or illustrations for colorful school projects, then you will need the flexibility of an inkjet printer. Keep in mind that they are slower and they cost more to run. A set of replacement ink cartridges can cost $50 or more. At that price, it might only be a year or so efore you have spent more on ink than you did on the printer!

Stand-alone vs. All-in-one

Again, this will depend on individual needs. Do you occasionally need to fax a document or make copies? Have you ever wished you could scan a document? If the answer is yes, it might be worth buying an all-in-one. Although all-in-ones can still be a little bulkier than stand-alone printers, designs have improved and they rarely take up much extra room. Plus, there is now very little difference in price; leading brands like Canon and HP both offer all-in-ones for under $100.

Networked and wireless printers

Do you plan on printing from multiple computers? If so, buying a printer with networking capability would be a good investment. Also, unless you want to add to the number of cables running through your house, make sure your printer has built-in Wi-Fi. This will also allow you to place the printer in a central location, where everyone can have easy access. (Note: you will probably need to download drivers to additional computers to allow them to connect with your wireless printer; most manuals or manufacturer web sites will walk you through this process.)

Photo printers

If you plan on printing a lot of photos, then you may want to consider a dedicated photo printer. Though they lack the flexibility of regular printers, the print quality is typically much better and they will also better handle the various sizes of special paper. Again, you need to be aware of the replacement cost of ink and paper, but the cost of printing photos at home will often compare favorably with the local pharmacy or one of the many online services.

If you do opt for a photo printer, then consider one with built-in memory slots or Bluetooth capability. This will allow you to print directly from your camera, rather than using a PC and photo software as a go-between.

Other considerations

If you plan on printing envelopes, labels, or other specialty jobs, then make sure your printer can handle the task and the stationery is easy to load. If you were happy with your previous printer, then take print samples with you to the store to make sure you can match the color, sharpness, and overall quality.

Above all, donít be afraid to return a printer if you get it home and you find itís not what you were looking for. Remember, a good printer is one you never notice!

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