Printer Buyer’s Guide

Coming across terminology you don’t recognise? Check out the jargon buster at the bottom of the page.

Printer Types
There are two main types of printer: single

function and all-in-one. A single function printer, as the name

suggests, prints, but can’t scan or copy. It might be able to do other

things, though, like print directly on CDs and DVDs, print direct from

memory cards and connect to the Internet.

Meanwhile all-in-ones

have a flatbed scanner built into the same case as the print engine, so

pages can be scanned from documents and books and copied from the

scanner to the printer without needing to be connected to a computer (on

most models). In other words, it acts like a photocopier, scanner and


Complete Guide To Buying A Printer 3

Printer Technologies – Inkjet or Laser?

There are two main technologies used in printers, which might be

described as wet and dry. Wet printing – i.e. inkjet – sprays tiny

droplets of coloured ink onto the paper. The print head passes side to

side across the page as the paper is fed slowly through, producing the

completed print as a series of bands – hopefully without visible joins.

A new technology that has yet to come to market in volume actually uses

one massive print head that’s the width of an A4 sheet of paper. Called Memjet,

it can print continuously – rather than scanning back and forth – and

at phenomenal speeds. Its arrival seems to have stalled recently,

though, so it is readily available yet. Check out the video in this

story to see just how fast: Memjet print speed.


printing uses powered ink that is melted into the paper when it passes

between heated rollers, which is why laser prints always come out

slightly warm. To form the image a laser beam or array of LEDs projects

the image onto a large drum that has previously been electrostatically

charged. This drum then attracts the ink, known as toner, onto its

surface forming a complete image of each page. Where the laser has

projected, the drum doesn’t pick up any ink, resulting in the white bits

of the page. This ink is then pressed onto the paper and passed out

through the heated rollers to form the completed page.

There are

advantages to both technologies. Inkjet printers are particularly good

at printing photos, where the ability to mix the inks as they hit the

page results in a much greater range of different colours compared to

the solid toners. Inkjet print mechanisms are also cheaper so, for

example, the cheapest colour laser printer is around four times the cost

of the cheapest colour inkjet.

Complete Guide To Buying A Printer


laser printers produce a page in a single pass and are usually quicker

than equivalent inkjets. Their dry toner is also much less prone to

spread on the paper, giving a sharper image, particularly noticeable

when printing black text.

Although popular opinion has it that

laser printers are cheaper to run than inkjets, this isn’t the case if

you’re paying less than £500 for your printer. Typical ink-jet costs

range from 2p to 5p for black and 6p to 12p for colour, while laser

pages range from 2p to 4p for black, but 12p to 20p for colour. One

reason lasers can appear cheaper to run is that their toner cartridges

often last for many more pages than ink cartridges, so you’re not buying

replacements as frequently. But, full-size replacements are very

expensive so it balances out somewhat.

Inkjets – Careful of the cartridges

inkjet consumables, there’s also the question of how the inks are

packaged. Most inkjet printers now use separate cartridges for their

cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks, so when one colour runs out, you

replace just that colour.

Complete Guide To Buying A Printer 2

Budget inkjet printers and all-in-ones from Canon and HP, and all Kodak

printers, use a tri-colour cartridge, containing all three colour inks –

though they use separate black cartridges. This means fewer cartridge

changes, but also that the tri-colour cartridge has to be changed when

only one colour has run out. There’s nearly always some wastage, which

can put the running cost up considerably if you need to use a lot of one

colour. If you can afford it, we’d always recommend going for a

separate colour option.

Another variation for those serious about their photo printing are

printers that use six colours, adding light cyan, light magenta and

light yellow into the mix. These allow for even more subtle colour

mixing for even smoother more life-like looking images. They don’t come

cheap though, so it’s worth considering if you’re really that serious.

Scanning technologies

are two technologies for scanning, too: Charge Coupled Device (CCD) and

Contact Image Sensor (CIS). CCD is the more mature technology and is

the one still used in most high specification, standalone flatbed

scanners. CCD mechanisms are comparatively bulky, so all-in-ones using

them are likely to be bigger than CIS-based ones.

CIS scanners

are cheaper and more compact to make and have improved considerably in

quality in the last few years. The scanners in most all-in-one printers

use CIS mechanisms, though some top-of-the-range devices, such as

Canon’s PIXMA MG8250, still have CCD scanning heads.

Complete Guide To Buying A Printer 4

If you need to scan multi-page documents regularly, an Automatic

Document Feeder (ADF) only needs to be loaded once with pages and then

feeds them one after the other to scan or copy them automatically. On

more expensive all-in-ones, particular those designed for office work,

duplex ADFs are sometimes provided, which can scan double-sided


Fax may seem an old-fashioned technology in an age of

emails, texts and social networks, but it’s still an important form of

document transfer in many small businesses. It’s useful to have fax

quick-dials on an all-in-one, for destinations you fax regularly and to

be able to fax directly from your PC, as well as from the scanner.

Bells and Whistles

print is becoming a more common printer feature. While it doesn’t save

ink, it does save paper, which may be a worthwhile saving if you print a

lot – it helps the planet, as well. Beware though, that some inkjet

printers print a duplex page much more slowly than a pair of

single-sided pages.

This is because the ink on the first side of each duplex page has to

be allowed to dry before running the sheet through the printer again

for the second side. Check the duplex speed results in every

TrustedReviews printer review, to see how much slower duplex print is.

Complete Guide To Buying A Printer

With more and more phones and tablets around, it’s increasingly

important for a printer or all-in-one to be able to print from them. All

printer makers offer models with wireless connection and most have apps

for iOS and Android to at least produce basic prints of photos and

documents from these devices. They’re usually free and available through

app stores, rather than from the driver CDs supplied with the printers.

All these apps work via your wireless network, but some work locally

(which is quick) while others, like HP’s ePrint, go out to the Internet

and back in again (slow, but can work remotely).

Spec sheet scams

figures published in printer makers’ spec sheets rely on tests

established by the International Standards Organisation (ISO), which

aren’t always ideal. Two places where they regularly fall down are print

speeds and ink consumption.

The ISO standard for print speed

(24734) offers three different figures that manufacturers can quote. Two

of them measure the time from the start to the end of a print job,

while the third, the ESAT time most commonly quoted, measures a

continuous run, after some pages have already been printed. This gives

the highest print speed, but doesn’t include any time taken by the

driver to prepare the page, nor for the printer to handle any pre-print

housekeeping, like charging its printheads with ink.

Our tests

favour a start to finish time, from clicking Print in Word to the last

page arriving in the output tray. This is why our results are nearly

always lower – and we reckon more ‘real world’ – than manufacturers’.

Take the spec sheet figures with a pinch of salt.
Complete Guide To Buying A Printer 5

Ink consumption figures depend on how much ink is used on your test

pages. There’s an ISO standard for these tests, too –24711 – and the

test pages used are described in 24712. The test pages are a good set,

with reasonable coverage for a mixed workload, but you should bear in

mind that if you print full page reports or photos all day, you’ll get

far fewer pages from your cartridges than the page yield figures

suggest. Some manufacturers (most notably Canon) are straight-up enough

to quote separate photo yields.

As always, before buying a piece

of computer equipment, first focus on what you want to use it for. Will

it be mainly text pages? Do you need colour? Do you need it to print

wirelessly? Do you need to print from mobile devices? Answer these

questions first and you’ll be much closer to defining your ideal


Jargon Buster
ADF – Automatic

Document Feeder: a device built into the lid of a flatbed scanner which

enables multi-page documents to be scanned automatically as a single

CCD, CIS – Charge Coupled Device, Contact Image Scanner:

two technologies used in flatbed scanners to produce an electronic image

of a printed page. CCD is the more expensive and bulky, but often gives

better results.
dBA – decibel (A weighting): unit of sound

intensity or, colloquially, noise level. Most printers register between

55dBA and 65dBA when feeding paper, the noisiest part of the print

cycle. An often used example for 60dBA sound is conversational speech,

at 1m.
Duplex – the ability of a printer or all-in-one to

print or scan both sides of the paper in one operation, without any

manual intervention.
Ethernet – or network printing,

the facility to connect a printer as a separate network device, which

can be freely used by any computer connected to that network.
OCR Optical Character Recognition:

software conversion of a digitally scanned or photographed image of

text, into editable text which can be manipulated in a text editing

Parallel – an outdated printer connection,

sometimes still found on business printers for use in legacy

environments, ie connecting into old systems.
USB Universal Serial Bus:

the most common physical connection for a printer or all-in-one to a

computer via a cable. Almost all printers and all-in-ones have a USB

Wireless – or WiFi: a wireless connection,

requiring no cable to connect a printer or all-in-one to a computer.

Available as standard on many home and small office machines.

Latest from Trusted Reviews