What the best photo printer has

  • High resolution. According to The Printer Guide, if you want your photos to look professional, the most important thing to consider is the printer's resolution.
  • Up-to-date connectivity. A digital photo printer isn't worth much if it's not compatible with your PC, laptop, camera or smartphone.
  • Decent print speed. It should take a photo printer no more than a minute to produce a 4-by-6-inch print.
  • Help and support. PrinterInfo.com says the best photo printer manufacturers have customer support, tutorials, and ways to get answers to easy and complex questions.
  • Easy-to-find consumables. You should be able to buy appropriate paper and replacement ink cartridges at major retailers; ConsumerReports.org cautions buyers to be wary of off-brands.

Know before you go

Is the printer compatible with your camera/memory card? Photos can be transferred from cameras in several ways, but not every printer or camera can use all of the options. Many printers accept memory cards, hook up to a PictBridge-compatible camera, or connect to your computer via USB. If you want to print photos without connecting to your computer, be sure to choose a photo printer that's compatible with your camera's memory cards, especially if your camera isn't PictBridge-capable. Some printers can also print from USB drives and/or connect to camera phones wirelessly using Bluetooth technology. Few printers have built-in Bluetooth, but most manufacturers offer optional adapters.

How much will paper and ink cost? Sometimes manufacturers sell paper and ink as a kit that prints a specific number of photos, so you can easily determine the cost per print. Buying in bulk will bring the per-photo cost down. Consider whether you can buy colored ink separately or if you must purchase a multicolor ink cartridge, which means you'd need to replace the entire cartridge even if you're out of only one color of ink. If you prefer matte to glossy prints, make sure matte paper is available for the printer you select.

How important is portability? If your printer will sit on a desk at home, its size and weight aren't a big concern. But if you plan to take it with you to picnics and ball games, you'll probably want a relatively small and light model that can be battery-powered. You'll also want to find out how many photos it can print on a single charge.

What types of photos do you want to print? Most snapshot printers print on only 4-by-6 photo paper, but some models can handle other sizes. If you want larger images, a full-sized printer may be a better choice. See our separate report on inkjet printers.

Compare ink types. Most printers use either inkjet or thermal-dye technology, and both can produce excellent photos. If you plan to go long periods without printing, a thermal-dye or dye-sublimation printer would be better because it uses ink that doesn't dry up. However, because the paper must pass through a thermal-dye printer four times, these machines tend to be a bit slower than inkjet models. See our related report on printer ink.

Think about durability and longevity. Most thermal-dye printers apply a clear overcoat, which protects photos from smudges and UV fading. The best inkjet printers produce prints that are water-resistant and smudgeproof. Manufacturer claims vary regarding the longevity of inks, so it pays to read the fine print. In theory, some photos can last as long as 200 years under perfect archival conditions. Make sure any printer you buy has at least a one-year, limited warranty.

What operating systems do you use? Most photo printers are compatible with most recent Microsoft and Mac operating systems, but if you use an older or obscure operating system, you may not be able to use a specific printer model with it. Make sure any printer you choose has all of the editing features you want.

Online printing services can be economical. Keep in mind that using an online digital photo printing service is often less expensive than printing your own images. However, you may need to wait a few days for prints and you won't have full creative control. You'll also need to use a drugstore kiosk or be able to send photos online over a server to the printing service you choose. See our report on digital photo printing for more information.

Value expectations: the dollars and cents of it

Think carefully about what you want out of a printer, and how often and in what situations you'll use it. Does it make sense to buy a dedicated photo printer? Can you get better value and quality by using a drugstore or online service, or do you need the convenience of your own device?

In particular, do serious research before buying an off-brand model. Make sure the company has a decent reputation and stability before you purchase. Consider whether you'll be required to buy paper and ink that isn't widely available at office-supply stores or well-known discount outlets, and if you'll need to order it online or through a specialty company. If that's the case, compare the prices to consumables for similar name-brand printers.

You'll also want to know if you must spend more on paper and ink, because that may eliminate any savings on the initial cost of an off-brand printer. Other questions include: What kind of support is available if something goes wrong? Is there a website you can visit to address simple troubleshooting questions or download a technical manual? If not, that may be a red flag, and you may be wise to consider another option.

When shopping for a photo printer, don't forget to consider the price of inks and paper, which can add up quickly depending on how often you print. Manufacturer product specs don't really explain how much ink a printer uses because there isn't a set measure or ISO standard, and companies can get away with being somewhat vague. It's an important factor in the decision-making process, though, so this is where user reviews are extremely helpful.

Buying tactics and strategies

Research before you buy. Look into warranties, customer service and return policies. Online retailers or resellers may offer greater discounts, but make sure they'll back you up if something goes wrong. Choose a model that offers the resources for questions, tutorials and any troubleshooting you might need.

Look for discounts. Watch for sales and rebates around the holidays or for closeout deals. If you buy in-store, be prepared with price quotes from other dealers, and ask if they'll match the price. For higher-priced items, see if they're eligible for interest-free financing.

What's to come

With the explosion of mobile photography and smartphone apps like Instagram, look for mobile photo printer technology to advance to meet the demand of this growing segment of users. Future designs will likely be equipped with Wi-Fi and support for smartphones and tablet computers, in addition to cloud storage support. Canon has announced plans for some new printer models that feature this type of social media integration.

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