What the best printers have

  • Ability to print text, graphics and photos on various paper sizes, including envelopes. The best inkjet models quickly produce pages of sharp text, even at small point sizes.
  • Fast operation. The top inkjet printers produce at least 15 pages per minute.
  • Useful features. These include automated duplexing (two-sided printing), indicators that signal when the ink or paper is about to run out, wireless connectivity and dual paper trays.
  • Ability to print photos and text. Keep in mind, however, that photo printers are designed to print pictures. They can print text documents, but most do so at a slower pace and lesser quality than general-use printers. Likewise, some general-purpose printers can produce images that are as good as those made using entry-level photo printers, but theyfall short compared to better models.

Know before you go

Do you need a general-purpose or a photo printer? General-purpose printers have faster text output, while dedicated photo printers have more accurate color output, especially for skin tones. If possible, compare sample printouts on various types of paper before buying.

Can you connect the printer to your computer? Most modern printers connect via USB. Some can also connect via Ethernet or wirelessly via Wi-Fi. If your PC or Mac is older, check the manufacturer's system requirements.

Will the printer fit your space? You may need a particular size and shape to fit a specific desk space. Printers with small footprints make the most sense for college dorms or occasional transportable use. Models that don't top-load are the easiest to fit into desk cubbyholes.

What type of paper stock will you use? Be sure that the printer you're considering takes the types and sizes of paper you use. Almost all photo printers can print 4-by-6-inch snapshots and some have dual trays, so you can keep one tray loaded with photo paper. If you plan to print labels, card stock, envelopes, CDs or other challenging media, look for a straight-through paper path. Professional photo printers can often print on roll-photo-paper stock or on large-format media.

Does printing speed matter? For typical home and family use, speed may not matter as much as it does for business use. But if you print a lot of photos, speed can be an important consideration. However, you can't compare printer speeds in a store; the output speed of demos is unrelated to what you'll experience when the printer is connected to your computer. Although manufacturers sometimes exaggerate speed in their specifications, they're a good place to start. Expert reviews often test printers' speed.

Do you need a printer cable? Manufacturers almost never include USB cables, so you'll need to buy one if you don't already have one. Some of the printers covered here can connect to a network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi too.

How long do you plan to keep your prints? The best-quality inks from Canon, Epson and HP are all rated to last 100 years or more. If long-lasting prints matter to you, you should confirm that the model you're considering uses long-lasting archival inks, and check how long they're rated to last.

Do you want to print from devices other than your computer? Some printers can print directly from digital cameras, memory cards, smartphones or tablets. Check the printer's specs to make sure it's compatible with what you have.

Do you want to print directly onto CDs and DVDs? Some printers support printing on inkjet-printable CDs and DVDs. Printing directly onto the media is better than printing labels and sticking them onto discs, because in rare instances labels may develop bubbles that can ruin the disc. However, you'll need special discs to use this feature.

Cost of ownership

Reviews praise printers that use separate cartridges for each color because you don't throw away unused ink as you would with a single multicolor cartridge. However, you do dispose of more plastic. Manufacturers want you to buy their proprietary ink cartridges, but if you don't need the best print quality, off-brand cartridges or cartridge refills cost less.

You can often find handsome rebates on inkjet printers, especially older high-end photo printers that are being phased out as newer models are introduced. If you want to save money, consider older models first, and search online or in stores for rebates. Of course, make sure you fully understand the terms of the rebate before purchasing, and be sure to redeem the rebate afterward if you want to realize the savings.

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