We reveal our selection of the best printers you can buy right now and offer a little advice to help you choose the best printer for you.
Print is dead, right? That's what many people would have us believe, but we all know there are still countless uses for printers of all shapes and sizes in both the home and office.
So, to help you navigate the complex world of lasers, LED printers, all-in-ones and inkjets, over the next few pages we reveal our selection of the best printers you can buy right now. Plus, below you’ll find a concise guide on what to look out for when you go hunting for your next printer.
Laser vs inkjet – As has been the case for the many years, the single biggest consideration when buying a printer for a home or small office is whether it's a laser or inkjet device.
With laser, the powdered ink (toner) is essentially melted into the paper, which makes it far more resilient and resistant to running. Laser printers are also far quicker once they've warmed up, so are better suited to high-volume work.
The downside is that they're more expensive than inkjets if you're after a model that can print in colour. While you can pick up a colour inkjet for less than £30, you’ll struggle to find a colour laser printer for less than £100.
Also, the quality of colour prints isn’t a patch on inkjet. As such, colour lasers aren't really any good for photos, but rather are useful for printing documents with colour charts and the like.
A new tweak on the laser printer is the LED printer, which works in essentially the same way but replaces the laser with an LED.
As for inkjets, their big advantage is that colour models are available for pretty reasonable prices, and even the cheap ones are capable of printing decent photos. So if you’re looking to purchase only one printer for all your household needs then an inkjet remains the best bet.
Modern inkjets are also significantly faster than ever before. The past few years has seen a rise in the market of office-orientated inkjets, which can print reasonably quickly without foregoing print quality.
Finally, there are also the very latest models that use a paper-width print head, rather than a small print head that scans back and forth. Only available in high-end machines, they're ideal for those demanding really high print speeds and top-notch quality.
Ink types – Inkjets also come in a number of different types, with different jet technologies (piezo or thermal) and ink types (aqueous dye and pigment, solvent, UV-curable and dye sublimation). However, what will matter for most home and small-business buyers is the distinction between dye and pigment-based inks.
Dye-based inks tend to be cheaper and produce good-quality prints, but they’re prone to fading with exposure to UV light. As with all aqueous (water-based) inks, they’ll also run if wet.
While pigment-based inks will also run if wet, they don’t fade as quickly. As such, they’re sometimes marketed as “archival quality”, and they’re often more expensive too.
The complication here is that it isn't always clear what type of printer uses what type of ink. For the most part, most black inks are pigmented, while most colours are dye-based. However, high-end photo printers will use only pigment-based inks to ensure long-lasting prints.
Print heads – Another thing to look out for with inkjets is whether the replacement cartridge includes the print head or whether it’s only the ink.
With the former, there's the advantage of ensuring that you get a new print head with every cartridge change. However, such cartridges tend to be more expensive.
Cartridges that are just the ink are cheaper, but with this comes the risk that the fixed print head in the printer will eventually clog up and image quality will drop as a result. In fact, you also need to consider that the head might eventually fail completely.
Canon, HP and Lexmark mostly uses cartridges with new print heads, while Epson models tend to use fixed print heads.
Dedicated photo printers – While normal inkjets can print pretty decent-quality photos, they have their limitations. As such, there are also more specialised printers available on the market. These use more than the usual four inks (black, cyan, magenta and yellow), with the extra shades allowing for finer colour gradations and punchier colours.
Inevitably, such printers are more expensive up front, but they can be cheaper in the long-run since they tend to have larger-capacity print cartridges. So, if photo-printing is high on your priority list then they’re definitely worth considering.
All-in-one? – Once you’ve chosen the type of printer you want, the next question to ask is whether you want it to be anything more than just a printer. While there are a number of miscellaneous extra features that certain models may feature, the three big ones are duplex, scanning and fax.
Duplex is where the printer can print on both sides of the paper, so you don’t have to manually print only the odd pages then return the paper to the paper tray to print only the even pages. Some printers have duplex built in, while many offer it as an add-on. Either way, it tends to be a feature that's available only on the higher-end models.
As for scanning and faxing, they tend to appear together in what are dubbed all-in-one printers. The scanner can either be a flatbed type that allows you to scan anything, from books to bottoms, or sheet-fed models where you can feed in only fairly thin materials such as single sheets of paper. Along with a basic scan facility, such printers may also have a “photocopy” mode.
Due to their scanning abilities, many all-in-ones also include a fax facility, allowing you to scan and send off documents directly, without the need for a computer at all.
Extra features – The single most useful extra on a printer is network connectivity, whether that be via a cable (Ethernet) or Wi-Fi. That said, many routers these days include a printer server facility that allows you to plug any USB printer into the router and have it share the printer throughout your home network. Whichever way you make it work, it's really convenient to be able to print from any computer in the home.
Another feature to look out for is a card reader. These allow you to print directly from the memory card from your camera. Many of us always prefer to tweak photos before printing them, but if that doesn't interest you then an built-in reader is an easy way to speed things up. Also, some printers can even talk directly to certain cameras via the PictBridge standard.
Paper size – The vast majority of printers for home and small business deal only in A4 paper or smaller, so those wishing to print on larger paper will have to seek out such functionality. Even then, most larger format printers still only go up to A3 size, with even larger sizes requiring you to invest in serious high-end machines.
Not surprisingly, the larger paper format means that A3-capable printers are more expensive, although it's still possible to pick one up for as little as £50.
Paper type – A final bit of general advice for printers is to ensure that you buy paper that’s appropriate for what you’re printing. The basic stuff will do fine for churning out numerous black-and-white pages, but if you’re planning to send out CVs, for example, then it’s worth using decent, thicker paper.
Meanwhile, photo-printing will only work well on proper, glossy photo paper. What’s more, it's worth buying the right paper for your type of printer ink, too (manufacturers often recommend paper), since the paper is actually formulated to match the combination of ink types used in that printer.