I recently received a question on “Ask Craig” about how to shop for a multifunction printer.  These are very popular and useful machines that are available today in a multitude of shapes and sizes.  Around the turn of the century, “all-in-one” printers were available only as small, desktop machines.  If you needed something for more heavy office usage, you needed to buy separate machines for copying, printing, and faxing.  As printer manufacturers began noticing that offices of all sizes could use multifunction printers, they started to offer them in larger, more robust varieties.  Additionally, copy machine manufacturers added network printing and scanning capabilities to many of their products, making multifunction available for even enterprise and commercial use.   Whether your office is large, small, or at home, the idea of a machine with multiple uses may be appealing, but with so many to choose from it can be hard to know where to start.  Here are a few areas to consider before you shop:

Know your costs. The price of the printer is the smallest part of your printing expense.  Your largest cost will the consumables:  those items that you will need to refill in your printer in order to keep it running.  This will be ink cartridges for inkjet printers and toner cartridges (and sometimes a drum) for laser printers.  In both cases, black and white printers will need one cartridge, while color requires four.  To understand your cost per page, identify the consumables that a particular printer will require, and look up their price and printing capacity.  For example, if the replacement cartridge cost $50 and states a print volume of 2,000 pages (usually based on 5% ink coverage on the paper for typical text document), your estimated cost per page is 2.5 cents.  Typically, the smaller, less expensive printers will have a higher cost per page, while the larger, more expensive printers will have a lower cost per page.   Print cost can range from around 1-5 cents per page for black and white, and 5-10 cents for color.  Even a difference of 2 cents per page, with a modest print volume of 1,500 pages per month, will mean $360 more per year you’ll spend on printing.  So, while a cheaper printer might seem like a good deal, it could actually cost you more than a higher priced printer over a short period of time.

Laser vs. Inket. If you will be printing mostly in black and white, than for goodness sakes get a laser printer.  They are faster, sharper, cost less per page, and you’ll have to change the laser printer’s toner cartridge much less often than an inkjet’s ink cartridge.  If you plan to print in color than you’ll want to look at either a color inkjet or color laser.  Color lasers are better for larger print volumes because they have more consistent speed and quality, and will print many more pages before it’s time to change a cartridge.   Inkjet cartridges also have a nasty habit of drying out if they are used too infrequently and can be difficult to revive.  The cost of a color laser printer is generally higher than the cost of the color inkjet, and so is its replacement cartridges, but the laser cartridges have a higher printing capacity, so in the end the cost per page for laser vs. inkjet these days is generally comparable.  If you will be printing a lot of color photos, you may prefer the color inkjet because it can provide that glossy look that is hard to achieve on a laser (even with photo paper).

Printer size. Most brands offer both small desktop models as well as larger, more rugged machines.  If all sizes offer the same capabilities to print, fax, and scan, then what’s the difference?  Well, the larger machines are better suited for heavier use.  They have bigger tray capacities (you have to refill paper less often), larger print cartridge capacities (you will print more pages before replacing it), and higher print speeds.  You can find all of this information in the printer specifications, in addition to a figure called “duty cycle“.  This number is the rated throughput (printed pages) per month and helps you to compare the durability of printers.  But keep in mind that this is the maximum amount of pages the machine can print per month before falling apart.  Your actual print volume should be no more than around 1/3 of this number.  For instance, a printer with a duty cycle of 10,000 is generally recommended for print volumes not exceeding 2,000-3,000 pages per month.  The recommended print volume will often be listed separately in the specifications to help you out.  If you plan to do a lot of copying, you will especially want to consider a larger, more durable machine because copying causes more wear and tear than any other function, and the ink cost will be less for a larger printer.   If you will need special features for your copying needs, such as larger glass size for big documents, collating and sorting, etc., you will probably need to shop for either a dedicated copy machine or one that has added printing and faxing capability if you wish.

Know how it will be used. While a multifunction printer may sound like a good idea, you want to first think about its intended use to understand if it will make sense for your office.  For example, if you will have five or more people using a single machine for faxing, copying, and printing, they may end up having to wait on each other too often, sacrificing productivity.  It may make sense to get dedicated machines for certain people or functions (fax machine, copy machine, color printer, etc.) based on your expected usage.  Even if you will be the only person using the machine, it’s still important to plan your printing needs.  If you will be printing in black & white 80% of the time and will need color only around 20% of the time, then get a fast and efficient b&w laser printer and either purchase an additional small color inkjet or outsource your occasional color jobs to Walgreens or Fedex Kinkos.

Additional features. Identify any special features you feel you will need and use them to help narrow your search when shopping for a printer.  For instance, you may want to be sure to have an automatic paper paper feeder for easier copying and scanning, or the ability to handle specific paper sizes.  Here are two popular features that you should consider:

Wireless. This is a handy option because it allows you to connect the printer to your home or office network without having to run an ethernet or USB cable to it.  All it needs is a power outlet (and a phone line if you’re faxing), and you can access it from anywhere on your network through your wireless router.  If you plan to locate the printer right next to a computer that you can easily plug it into, then wireless probably won’t be an important feature for you (other computers on your network can even still access the printer as long as that computer is turned on).  However, it’s generally less expensive to get a printer with wireless capability built-in rather than buying a separate wireless adapter, so if you think you may need this flexibility down the road you may want to consider a printer with this feature.

Duplex. If you are environmentally conscious, would like to reduce your paper costs, or just want to minimize the amount of paper you have to handle, you might like the duplex (or double-sided printing) feature.  You can print on both sides of the paper on most printers even without this feature, but it requires manually flipping the paper over and re-inserting … which everyone usually does backwards the first time, ultimately using twice as much paper.  So, if a lot of what you print can be done on both sides, duplex is a useful feature to have.

Go Shop. Now that you have thought about your printing needs, decided on the general category of printer(s) you are interested in, and know what specific features you would like, it’s time to shop.  You can usually get your most accurate and detailed information directly from the manufacturers’ websites, such as Brother, HP, and Canon.  However, your best deals are going to be found on shopping sites like Buy.com, Amazon.com, and NewEgg.com.  The product ratings and reviews can be helpful on these sites if there are at least 50-100 submissions for product, otherwise they may not be a representative sample and you need to take them with a grain of salt.  Even more useful are some online guides and comparison sites like PC Magazine and CNET which provide objective guidance and professional reviews.  If you are more comfortable talking with a real person, the people at places like Best Buy, CDW, and Office Depot can (sometimes) be helpful.  However, their prices will generally be higher, so bring a coupon if you plan to purchase there (sign up for their mailing lists or scan your local paper).  Online coupons can also be found in a myriad of coupon websites like couponcabin.com.  Just do a search for “<storename> coupon” and you’re likely to find an abundance of sources.  Happy Shopping!

Be Sociable, Share!