Why the cheapest printer isn’t the best

Darien Graham-Smith explains what to look for when deciding which printer to buy

Printers must be among the most unloved computer accessories. We've all had experience of printers jamming at crucial moments, ruining prints with streaks and smears, and ripping us off with sky-high cartridge prices.

The truth is, you get what you pay for. A great many printers these days are sold for less than 50, so it's hardly surprising if they're not perfectly reliable. And because the manufacturers make little or no profit on selling their hardware so cheap, we can't be too shocked when they hike up the price of ink. Whether you're a heavy print user or just want to make a hard copy of the occasional email, we'd recommend you steer clear of such bargain-basement printers. They're just not worth the frustration.

Which functions?

It used to be that a printer's only job was printing, but single-function printers are now - in cheaper price ranges, at least - a rarity. If you don't intend to do much scanning then you can consider the function a nice bonus, but it's always worth investigating the speed and quality of the scanner. And that doesn't mean simply comparing the advertised specs, as a unit with a very high claimed resolution could turn out speckly, drab scans.

If you want to digitise multi-page prints then an automatic document feeder is well worth having, as it saves you the hassle of having to manually load each page in turn. Obviously this won't work so well for double-sided originals, unless your chosen printer has a duplex ADF, like the Canon Maxify MB5350.

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Any printer with a scanner will also offer a photocopy function, so you can easily make copies at the press of a button. Most of our contenders this month also offer a fax function: nowadays this probably isn't something you'll need for personal use, but if you work from home it could be very useful.

Inkjet vs laser

It used to be that inkjet printers were for individuals, lasers for businesses. Nowadays a colour laser can be cheaper than an inkjet - and some inkjets are faster and cheaper to run than their laser rivals. In short, the stereotypes of these two different printer technologies are now out of date; it's best to focus on practical factors such as speed and print quality.

The only caveat to note is that laser printers generally can't be loaded with glossy paper, so if you're interested in occasional photo printing, an inkjet will give you more versatility.

Making the connection

Most modern printers will connect to your router over Wi-Fi, so they can be positioned anywhere in your home and accessed from any device. Failing that, you can normally use wired Ethernet. It's also possible, of course, to connect via USB and share the printer within Windows, although this means the host PC has to be switched on for you to be able to print.

When it comes to cloud services, Apple's AirPrint lets you print directly from an iPad or iPhone, while Google Cloud Print enables the same capability from Android devices and Google apps. If that sounds useful to you, check for compatibility, as these services are supported by most printers but not all.

The human interface

Even low-cost printers now offer an LCD screen to help you navigate the functions on offer. In many cases this is a touchscreen, which makes it a breeze to configure scan settings and the like. Not all interfaces are created equal, however: for example, we found it a pleasure to get around the clear touchscreen interface of the Brother MFC-J5620DW, but were vexed by the numerous buttons and web interface of the Ricoh Aficio SP C250SF. If you're buying a printer in person, make a point of trying out the interface before you buy.

Paper handling

Some printers are designed to handle large quantities of paper; others are intended for lighter use. The Epson WorkForce WF-2630 has a fold-out tray that holds a maximum of 100 sheets of paper, while at the other end of the scale, the Canon Maxify MB5350 offers two 250-sheet cassettes. This means not only will you be reloading pages much less often, you can switch on a job-by-job basis between (for example) headed and unheaded notepaper.

A manual tray lets you load up a single sheet of special stock - labels or envelopes, for example. And don't forget to check the size of the output tray: the HP Envy 5540 will overflow after just 25 sheets, which might be annoying when you're printing out 26-page reports. The Lexmark will take up to 150 pages.

Running costs

To understand the total cost of ownership, you need to look at the ongoing price of keeping it supplied with ink. This isn't always easy to compare across different models: high-capacity cartridges may appear expensive, but could be much better value than cheaper, smaller supplies.

Armed with all this information - and our speed and quality results for each printer - you should be able to choose the right printer for you, and avoid making a mistake which could, over the course of several years' ownership, prove very expensive.

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This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 262

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