The most interesting thing about testing these six printers is the print quality and speed you can achieve with even the cheapest category of device. Printers with recommended retail prices of well under a hundred pounds â€“ and street prices considerably less than that â€“ are capable of printing near photo-quality images in under a minute and a half.
You don't have to rely on a four-colour image, either. Six-colour photo printers, using lighter tints of cyan and magenta inks, offer better reproduction of pale colours, like those in sky and facial areas, as well as more detail in shadows.
More and more printers are also offering borderless prints, not by including a facility to print, say, a 100mm by 150mm print within an A4 page, but by printing right up to the edge of a 100mm by 150mm or A4 sheet. This makes inkjet printed images from digital photographs look even more like the traditional photographic prints you might get from your local chemist.
Each of the four entry-level printers has points in its favour. The Epson Stylus Photo 830U comes as standard as a six-colour, photo printer. This is unusual in a machine at this price point and it also sports a front panel USB port and a good software bundle to control its functions. While the print quality of particularly the text and graphics print didn't impress our assessors, it was still the second cheapest at printing black text.
Lexmark's P707 is unique in a couple of ways. First, itâ€™s only available through Dixons, Currys and PC World in the UK and second, it's the only entry-level printer to include memory card readers. This very useful extra means you can take images from virtually any digital still camera and upload them to your PC for printing or editing. Unlike Canon's solution, it doesn't tie you into one make of camera.
This particular Lexmark model is supplied with a three colour and a photo cartridge as standard, which may appeal at first sight. However, unless you're only intending to print photos with the printer, you'll need to invest in a black cartridge to swap out with the photo one when printing text.
Canon's i450 was consistently the quickest printer to produce all three test prints. Printing five text pages in just 55 seconds is quite a feat and was, in fact, the fastest run from any of the printers in the group. Even the photo print didn't daunt it and it was still 36% faster than any of the other entry-level printers.
The i450 is also the cheapest budget printer to run, around 30% cheaper than any of the others when printing black and still 5% cheaper in colour. The other main advantage of this unit is that with an appropriate Canon camera, you can plug it directly into the i450 and print selected images without even having your PC switched on.
This covers most of the key attributes you'd want an inkjet printer to demonstrate, but doesn't include print quality. Here, although our panel of assessors rated the Canon machine well, none of them thought it as good as HP's DeskJet 3650. This printer, the cheapest in the group by a substantial margin, produced prints which really impressed.
In terms of detail, none of the other printers touch it and, although the ink in places looks slightly embossed on HP's glossy photo paper, it doesn't detract from the overall clarity and fidelity of the image. Although not supplied as standard, the facility to use a photo cartridge with such an inexpensive machine gives you the option of even higher quality, six-colour prints when you need them.
The DeskJet 3650 is also ideal if you have limited space on your desk. It's novel folding paper trays mean that when not in use it takes up very little room, though it could be a bit fiddly to set up each time you print.
Bearing all this in mind the HP DeskJet 3650 walks away with the Editorâ€™s Choice award in the entry-level section.
The two mid-range printers included in this group need to offer something more than their budget relations, to justify their higher purchase price. At first sight, Canon's i850 doesn't seem to offer that much. It's a four-colour machine and can print to the edges of an A4 sheet to produce borderless prints, but then so can it's cheaper i450 model.
What you gain is individual ink tanks, higher print speed and duty cycle and dual connections, both USB and parallel. The benefit of individual ink tanks is that each can be replaced when it runs out, without disturbing the others. If you print a lot of disparate documents with a high percentage of colour but a relatively small range of hues, this can result in a noticeable cost saving. A typical example would be a small business printing a letterhead with a single colour logo.
This printer is intended for general-purpose small office use, as well as a relatively high level of use in a home environment. Being able to complete a five-page, text document in under a minute and a full-colour photo print in less than that makes it an ideal machine for somebody like a local estate agent. House particulars can be printed on an as-needed basis in a short time.
Epson's Photo Stylus 900 printer, also only available from Dixons, Currys and PC World, has most of the bells and whistles an enthusiastic home user could want. As well as being able to print A4 full-bleed, it can also handle roll paper, ideal for printing off a set of digital photographic images with a minimum of fuss or paper wastage.
It can also print on specially coated CD blanks, producing a much more professional finish than using paper labels stuck to the discs. Although not the fastest printer in the group at either text or photographic images, it did well at printing the text and graphics test piece and its flexibility is a key feature.
What we have here is a good group of versatile colour printers, with our favourite being Canon's i450 and the DeskJet 3650 from HP, neither of which is going to break the bank and both of which can produce quality colour prints.
HP Deskjet 3650
So it seems that you don't always get what you pay for in life with two of the entry level printers out stripping their more expensive rivals. So, taking all our test factors and price into account the HP Deskjet 3650 walks away with the coveted Editor's Choice award and the Canon i450 grabs a well deserved Recommended.