Choosing a printer may sound easy, but once you start diving into all of the available features, making a choice can quickly get daunting. Do you need a basic printer, or do you want it to have scanning and copying abilities, as well? How do you choose between inkjet and laser technology? What’s the difference between a $200 model and a $500 model? Here are some pointers to help you find both the right category of printer and the right model within that type. (And if you're finding it hard to find the one you want in stock as global supply chains continue to struggle, check out our guide to landing tough-to-find tech.)
How Do You Intend to Use Your Printer?
Printers vary widely based on whether they’re for home or business use (or dual use in a home and home office), what you intend to print with them (text, graphics, photos, labels), and whether you need color printing or just monochrome.
Most printers are designed with either business or home use in mind. Generally, business models and are geared toward text and usually graphics, while home printers (generally inkjets) favor photos. Special-purpose options include dedicated and near-dedicated photo printers and label printers. (Even among specialty printers, 3D printers are a special case, and beyond the scope of this discussion.) Even if you primarily want to print photos, you may also want a printer that can do other things, so be clear on the whole scope of your printing needs before you buy.
The Most Common Types of Printer
Most printers are designed to print text, graphics, or photos. Generally, business models use laser technology and are geared toward text (and sometimes graphics), while home printers (generally inkjets) favor photos. Within these considerations, printers still vary widely in output quality for these categories. Some business printers can handle all three output types well enough that they can be used for in-house printing of brochures and other marketing materials.
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- HP DeskJet 4152e Wireless All-in-One Printer With 6-Month Free Ink — $99.00
- HP DeskJet 2742e Wireless All-in-One Printer With 6-Month Free Ink — $59.00
- Canon imageCLASS LBP6230dw Wireless Laser Printer — $139.00 (List Price $169)
- Canon PIXMA G4210 Wireless MegaTank All-in-One Printer — $299.99 (List Price $399.99)
- HP Neverstop 1202w All-In-One Mono Laser Printer — $319.89 (List Price $369.99)
The two most common technologies, laser and inkjet, increasingly overlap in capabilities, but there are still differences. Most lasers and LED printers (which are identical to lasers other than using LEDs for a light source) print higher-quality text than most inkjets, and almost any inkjet prints higher-quality photos than most lasers—but both technologies have developed considerably in the past several years, and you may be surprised to learn which is best for your needs. See our in-depth discussion of the inkjet vs. laser question for more.
Beyond the questions of inner technology and output type, there are several more finely grained categories of printer.
Home printers (approximate price range: $50 to $250) are almost exclusively inkjets, and are built for low-volume printing. They tend to be slow, and have high ink costs. They print photos better than text and graphics. Nearly all are multifunction (all-in-one) devices that are able to scan, copy, and often fax as well as print. If your budget is tight, this is where to start looking for an inexpensive printer.
Home-office printers ($100 to $400) are largely inkjets, and are built for low- to mid-volume printing. Most are multifunction printers. They are geared toward text and graphics printing over photos. Paper capacity starts at about 100 sheets, and higher-end models can hold up to 500 sheets. Most of these printers can also be used in so-called micro offices (with up to five people), and many are perfectly fine choices for households, especially if a student is printing a lot of documents for school.
Home-office printers are a subset of business printers ($100 to more than $2,500), which range from compact, single-function models for low-volume use to humongous floor-standing units that can anchor a department. The majority of business printers are lasers, though inkjets are making inroads into the market, and most are multifunction devices. Many are monochrome and favor text and graphics printing over photos.
For many businesses, speed and paper capacity are paramount. Cost is also a factor; generally, the more expensive the printer is to purchase, the lower its per-page printing costs will be. Bulk-ink models have the lowest per-page costs, and there are now ink subscription programs that subsidize the cost of ink and toner. Most business printers offer security features such as password-protected printing, and some even employ accessories such as an encrypted hard drive or an ID card reader.
Near-dedicated photo printers ($400 to $2,000) are designed for professional photographers and photo enthusiasts. Although photo printers can print text and graphics, they are primarily for printing high-quality photos. Some are wide-format printers with wide frames to accommodate large-format paper, and many can print from paper rolls as well. For precision color, they use up to a dozen ink cartridges. You'll often pay more per page due to the amount of ink they use and the high-quality paper that gives the prettiest results.
Small-format photo printers ($80 to $250) are dedicated devices built to print only photos. Print sizes can range from wallet-size to 5 by 7 inches; note that many models can only print a single size. Most are highly portable, and either come with a battery or accommodate one that you purchase separately.
Consumer wide-format, or tabloid-size, printers ($150 to $300) come in handy when letter- or legal-size pages just aren’t big enough. You won't be able to print poster-size 24-by-36-inch output on these models (at least, not on one sheet without tiling), but these wide-format machines can do 11-by-17-inch prints (and in some cases, 13-by-19-inch) in small quantities.
Label printers are built to churn out paper or plastic labels. Some include label-design software and connect to your computer, while many are standalone devices, letting you design and print labels using a small, built-in keyboard. Manufacturers of standalone label printers offer a wide variety of label colors and types.
Do You Need a Single-Function Printer or an All-in-One?
The vast majority of general-purpose home printers, and many business printers as well, are multifunction models (aka MFPs, or all-in-ones). Those other functions include some combination of scanning, copying, and faxing from your PC, standalone faxing, and scanning to email. Office printers typically include an automatic document feeder (ADF) to scan, copy, and/or fax multipage documents and legal-size pages. Many ADFs can handle two-sided documents—either by scanning one side, flipping the page over, and scanning the other side, or employing two sensors to scan both sides of the page on a single pass.
Some MFPs offer additional printing options. Photo-centric inkjets can print on DVDs or other optical media. Web-enabled printers, both home and office models, can connect directly to the internet via your Wi-Fi network to access and print selected content without needing to work through a computer. Many Wi-Fi models let you print documents and images from handheld devices. Some models let you email documents to the printer from anywhere in the world, and you can then print them out. Our roundup of the best all-in-one printers will help you sift through the many options out there.
How Much Do You Plan to Print?
If you print only a few pages a day, you don't have to worry about how much a printer is designed to print, as defined by its recommended (not maximum) monthly duty cycle. (Maximum duty cycle is the absolute most that a printer can print per month, whereas the recommended duty cycle is how much it can handle without undue wear and tear.) If you print enough for the duty cycle to matter, however, don't buy a printer that doesn't include that information in its specifications. Figure out how much you print by how often you buy paper and in what amounts. Then pick a printer designed to print at least that much.
Also consider minimum and maximum paper size and whether you need a duplexer to print on both sides of the page. For input capacity, a useful rule of thumb is to get enough capacity so you should need to add paper no more than once a week. If you often print on envelopes, checks, or letterhead, look for a printer with multiple drawers so your printing isn't slowed down by needing to unload regular paper and load your specialty media.
How Fast Do You Need to Print?
If you print only one or two pages at a time, you probably don't need a speed demon. In fact, most home printers are not built for speed. If you output a lot of longer documents, however, speed is more important, and that means you probably want a laser printer.
As a rule, laser printers will be close to their claimed speeds for text documents, which don't need much processing time. Inkjets often claim faster speeds than more expensive lasers, but usually don't live up to these claims. Inkjet printers have been getting faster, however, and a few recent high-end models (sometimes dubbed "laser alternative" inkjets) can hold their own speed-wise against comparably priced lasers. (See how we test printers.)
What Will Be a Printer's Running Costs?
Be sure to check out the total cost of ownership. Most manufacturers will tell you the cost per page, and many give a cost per photo. To get the total cost of ownership, calculate the cost per year for each kind of output (monochrome, color document, photo) by multiplying the cost per page for that kind of output by the number of those pages you print per year. Add the three amounts together to get the total cost per year. Then multiply that by the number of years you expect to own the printer, and add the initial cost of the printer. Compare the total cost of ownership figures between printers to find out which model will be cheapest in the long run.
The high cost of printer ink has traditionally been a sore spot among both home and business customers, but the major manufacturers have introduced ways that users can lower their per-page ink costs while preserving their own revenues. HP does this through its Instant Ink subscription program, in which owners of select DeskJet, OfficeJet, Envy, and Tango printers can choose among three levels, paying a monthly fee for printing up to a certain number of pages. (The levels are 50, 100, and 300 pages per month.) The same fee applies for either black or color printing. HP automatically sends you more ink when you run low. These programs can save you a considerable amount of money, particularly if you print mostly in color.
Other manufacturers offer printers that accept high-capacity cartridges. Brother’s INKvestment models ship with large ink cartridges—in some cases, several sets of them—so you may pay extra up front for the printer, but the ink supply will last a long time, and additional cartridges can be bought for a low price. Brother’s INKvestment Tank printers are similar, except that their high-capacity cartridges offload ink into reservoirs within the printer.
Epson’s EcoTank and SuperTank printers use bottled ink that you (carefully) pour into internal tanks; Canon's MegaTank printers also come with bottled ink. There are now even bulk-toner laser printers such as HP's Neverstop line. These models are primarily geared toward offices, but there’s no reason a thrifty consumer who prints a lot couldn’t buy one as well. (See more about how to save on printer ink.)
How Are You Going to Connect Your Printer?
USB ports remain ubiquitous on printers. Most office printers, and an increasing number of home printers, include Ethernet ports and/or Wi-Fi, which allow you to share the printer with your home network. (If you're having trouble with this feature on your current printer, here's how to troubleshoot your printer's Wi-Fi connection.) Printers that support Wi-Fi Direct (or an equivalent peer-to-peer protocol) can connect directly to most Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
A few printers can connect to and print from a mobile device via NFC (near-field communication), merely by tapping the phone or tablet to a particular spot on the printer, but the NFC fad seems to be fading. Most major printer companies now provide mobile apps so you can snap a photo with your phone and print it out directly, without needing to transfer it to a computer first. Small-format photo printers often support Bluetooth for connecting mobile devices and more.
Do You Need Printer Security Features?
Printer security is often overlooked, but at your business’s peril. Hackers can gain access to a network through the printer, and sensitive documents in the paper tray can be seen by prying eyes. Many better business-centric models incorporate password protection, so that once a user launches a print job, they must enter a PIN into the printer to release it. This ensures that confidential documents don’t fall into the wrong hands.
In the case of business printers, firmware should be kept updated, as it often repairs vulnerabilities, and any printer hard drives should be encrypted. Many manufacturers offer administrative tools to help IT departments ensure printer security.
How Do You Gauge Size and Weight?
To a large extent, a printer's size and weight are dependent on its intended use, but even so, there are considerable variations. Make sure the printer will fit in its allotted space (in all three dimensions, including paper in feeders and output trays that may need to extend), and isn't too heavy to move around if you decide to renovate. Very compact printers are available for people who live and work in dorm rooms or other tight spaces.
As a general rule, printers get bigger the more features you add on: additional paper trays, automatic document feeders, high-capacity ink tanks, and so on. If space is a concern, choose wisely when it comes to these add-ons.
Printers: Frequently Asked Questions
Should you buy third-party ink or refill kits?
Third-party ink often costs significantly less than name-brand products. But be aware that it can come with a whole tank full of issues. First of all, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get the same quality ink from a third party that you would when buying a name-brand product.
Also, using ink that isn’t approved by the manufacturer can violate your warranty. And don’t think you can get away with secretly using that renegade ink: If your printer has an internet connection, it’s possible it could report your violation to the manufacturer. Sometimes, with firmware updates, we've seen the use of third-party ink "deauthorize" the use of the aftermarket cartridge.
Many printer manufacturers now offer ink subscriptions, so new ink shows up at your door when you need it. If that's available for your model, it's the best way to go.
Should you buy cheap paper? What about recycled paper?
For everyday printing, store-brand 20-pound weight paper will usually server nicely. However, you'll get better results if you step up to a higher-quality paper. For lasers, as well as for inkjet text and graphic printing, that means a heavier weight, and possibly a brighter white level. For photos on inkjets, it means getting photo paper. Getting the brand of photo paper that matches your printer's brand will usually be the best choice; printer manufacturers design ink and paper to work together and often offer a variety of photo papers.
Recycled paper has likewise improved in quality, and you can find 100% post-consumer-content recycled paper for many uses, including cover stock and bright white paper suitable for business use. There are other kinds of eco-friendly paper on the market as well, such as all-purpose paper made from sugar cane and photo paper made from cotton. Do your small part to save a tree and research eco-friendly media options. Any modern printer will handle them well.
What is the best printer for home use?
What kind of printer you get for your home depends on what you plan on printing. As a general rule, if you churn out lots of text-based pages, a laser printer will do the trick. If color documents or photos are on your agenda, you’ll want to go with an inkjet. If you plan on doing any scanning or copying, you should look to an all-in-one or multifunction printer. Decent AIOs aren’t that much more costly than their printer-only counterparts, and they offer a ton of additional features.
Should you buy a refurbished printer?
Printing technology doesn’t update often, so buying a printer that’s a few years old isn’t going to mean sacrificing any groundbreaking technology. If you do buy a refurbished or used printer, get it from a trustworthy source, make sure it has been recertified by the manufacturer, and look for a reasonable warranty and return period. Here's what to know before buying refurbished electronics.
So, Which Printer Should I Get?
Based on our advice above, and our key picks for various usage cases below, you should be ready to shop. Keep in mind what you want to print, how much of it you want to print, and how much you're willing to pay up front and per page, and you'll be sure to find the right printer for you. If you're replacing an old printer, recycle or donate it so it can become someone else's refurbished bargain.
If money's tight, start with our picks for the best cheap printers, and check out how to save money on ink. If you're shopping for a business, we've got the best business printers rounded up for you as well.