In-depth

Pick the perfect colour printer

Some things never change – such as the choice between laser or inkjet. But there are plenty of other issues to consider before buying

The promise of the paperless office has been dangled before us for more than 40 years – yet we’re hardly any closer to it now than we were in the 1970s. True, a gradual move towards digitisation means we don’t need to handle so many physical printouts in our everyday working lives, but businesses still need to produce hard copies of invoices and reports, documents for signing or proofing, sales pitches and more – which means the in-house printer still has a big and central role to play.

The good news is that there’s a huge range of printers on the market that can handle your needs. No matter what your requirements when it comes to price, speed and printing technology, there’s a model to suit every task – and costs for colour models keep on falling, to the extent that they’re making mono printers all but obsolete.

The only downside is that the wide range of options means there’s a lot to take into account when choosing a printer. We’ve reviewed colour inkjets, lasers and LED models from the biggest names in the industry and put them through their paces in the lab to help you make the right choice. 

Good technology

Lasers remain a popular choice for business printing: they’re fast, they’re reliable and they can deliver great results on cheap recycled paper. Even low-cost lasers can produce pin-sharp text, with colour quality that’s good enough for professional reports.

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LED printers work on a similar principle, but instead of beaming a laser across the page, they use a stationary array of LED emitters to generate the static charge that sticks the toner to the paper. Since they have fewer moving parts, LED printers are cheaper to manufacture, yet most can match lasers for speed and produce equally good results. They may, however, produce a slight cross-hatch pattern on large areas of colour.

Finally, there are inkjet printers. The old advice was to avoid inkjets, as they have historically suffered from poor reliability and high running costs. Today’s business models are serious contenders, however, with high-capacity ink tanks and big duty cycles. Running costs are generally lower than for laser or LED printers too, although for the best prints you will need higher quality paper, which may increase overall costs.

Cut the costs

On that note, before purchasing a colour printer, make a serious effort to estimate your current and future printing needs, and calculate the resultant running cost. Cheap printers often use expensive consumables, and depending on your usage you could save a lot of money in the long run by choosing a pricier model.

To illustrate this, let’s compare running costs for some of the printers on test this month. The Brother HL-L3270CDW costs just £132, making it a tempting choice for a low-volume role. However, if your staff print a total of 100 pages per day every working day for a year, you will end up paying a steep £754 for mono prints or £3,405 for colour.

Move up to the Kyocera Ecosys P6235cdn and while you’ll pay £358 for the printer itself, yearly running costs fall to £266 and £1,300 respectively – a significant saving of £2,105 on colour prints in the first 12 months alone. The £175 Epson WorkForce Pro WF-C5290DW delivers similar yearly mono costs of £296, but cuts colour costs even lower to £1,275.

As an extreme example, what if you printed 500 pages every day for a year? With Brother’s printer, you’d pay a gobsmacking £17,027 for colour, while the Epson slashes your outlay to a slightly more reasonable £6,376.

It’s not easy being green

Printing will never be great for the planet, but there are ways to reduce your impact on the environment. One is to use an inkjet where possible: the Epson inkjet consumed no more than 27W when printing, while the laser and LED models peaked as high as 1.17kW during their warm-up phase.

You can also save paper by encouraging staff to use the duplex setting in their printer driver, which can halve paper usage and reduce running costs. Many printer drivers these days make this the default, although it’s always easy for users to override it: we would really like to see one that gives you the option of enforcing double-sided printing.

Further savings can be made by using cheap recycled paper for draft documents. Rather than continually swapping paper over, look for a printer that can be expanded with multiple paper trays, so users can select a paper grade from the comfort of their desks.

You may also want to limit access to colour printing; this will help reduce wastage, and discourage users from printing personal documents and pictures. If that appeals, choose a printer that can block individual users from using colour or limit the number of colour pages each user can produce.

Safety PIN

A printer can be a security risk: it’s all too easy for users to print out confidential documents and leave them sitting in the output bin for all to see. If that’s a concern, look for a “walk up and print” feature that holds documents at the printer, releasing them only when you arrive at the local control panel and enter a PIN. 

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Certain printers also have the ability to reserve a portion of their internal memory as a RAM disk, or use an SD card or internal hard disk to store frequently used forms and documents. Be warned that any personally identifiable information stored on the printer comes under the remit of the GDPR – so make sure the storage device can be encrypted, and when the time comes to recycle the printer, remove the drive and have it professionally destroyed.

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Remember too that if your printer is accessible over the internet, it’s a potential target for hackers and needs to be locked down. Simple security measures include changing the default password for the management interface, keeping the firmware up to date and disabling any unneeded features such as SNMP management, FTP access or internal email services.

The four printers we have chosen for this buyer’s guide are all worthy representatives of the available technologies. Whether you choose laser, LED or inkjet, they all offer an impressive range of features at low prices; so read on to see which one suits your printing needs best.

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