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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 printer.
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.
Dry 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.
Conversely, 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
With 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.
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.
There 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.
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 originals.
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
Duplex 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.
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
The 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.
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 printer.
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 job.
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 application.
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 connection.
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.
Printer Buyer's Guide - Complete Guide To Buying A Printer
Coming across terminology you don't recognise? Check out the jargon buster at the bottom of the page.