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The first purchase most people make after a computer is a printer. Ideals of the paperless office are yet to be any more than dreams and the need for paper copies of important information is still high. Most prospective printer buyers are on limited budgets and nearly all those who want colour opt for an ink-jet printer.

Inkjet technology is at such an advanced stage now that you can reproduce digital photographs that are hard to distinguish from traditional silver halide photography. The convenience of being able to print just the images you want at the time you want them and in the comfort of your home or office weighs heavily against the traditional ‘take it to the chemist’ alternative.

Ink-jets come in two varieties, though base level, general-purpose machines are beginning to acquire the feature sets of their more expensive photo-specialist cousins. Both varieties rely on comprehensive software control to provide clean, crisp output of text, graphics and photo-like images. They are the ideal tools for anybody wanting to reproduce computer information on paper.

Although any ink-jet printer, from those starting at well under £100, will claim to be capable of photographic print, there is a specialist breed of photo quality inkjet printers which attracts a price premium. Most of these top-tier machines offer extra facilities, such as six or seven-colour print and the ability to work directly from digital cameras or their memory cards, without the need for an intervening PC.

There are other technologies for producing colour print, but none is as economic as inkjet. Colour lasers start at around £600, but the colour gamut they can reproduce is a long way from the near-photographic reproduction of even some of the cheapest ink-jet machines. Colour quality is improving, but the use of dry powder toner to mix the wide range of colours needed for photographs is still proving a problem.

Small format photo printers often use dye sublimation technology to transfer dyes directly from a film backing to print paper, but these are more expensive to run than inkjets and are usually restricted to 150mm by 100mm prints. One exception is the Olympus Camedia P400, which is fully A4, but costs around £2 per sheet to run.

There are plenty of rumours abounding that inkjet printers are sold below their manufacturing cost and it's certainly true that the price of some printers cannot leave much in the way of profit margin. The money is made not from the sale of the printer but from the sale of consumables, such as ink cartridges and paper, which are needed to run them.

Here, we’re testing four of the entry-level, general-purpose ink-jet printers and two of their more expensive, photo specialist relations. We are looking at their ease of use, the speed at which they reproduce text and graphics and the true costs of keeping them supplied with ink and paper. Cost of ownership is a real issue with inkjet printers, where the cost of two sets of cartridges can exceed that of the printer itself.

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