Printers, scanners and multi-function printers have never been more affordable or so sophisticated.
Before buying, think about what your needs are. Will you be printing mainly photos or scanning and printing work documents? Many of the latest models have other useful features, like memory card slots and wireless connectivity - to meet all your potential needs.
|What type of user am I?|
|Student: you need to print out essays, assignments, letters and dissertations quickly and reliably, but you don't necessarily need to use colour or fancy photo paper.||Laser printers print more quickly and clearly than inkjet printers and although they're more expensive, you'll save money by not buying expensive colour ink cartridges.|
|Traveller: if you often travel in your job, a printer that can fit in your case and print on the go could be just the thing.||Portable printers are small enough to fit and print from inside a briefcase, but still process standard A4-size documents.|
|Occasional user: if you only need to print occasionally, to complete an application for instance, a small wireless printer might be the most convenient answer.||A wireless printer will connect to your laptop or desktop PC over a Wi-Fi network, so you won't need to attach a USB cable each time. All you need for a home network like this is a wireless router to access the Internet.|
|Photographer: you want to print out your best digital photographs for your portfolio.||Most inkjet printers can print very well onto glossy photo paper, but you can also get dedicated photo printers that are smaller and can print without the need for a computer. A printer with the PictBridge logo on it will also be able to print directly from a digital camera.|
|Archivist: you need to scan in photos or documents to save digitally on your PC and print out again when needed.||Many printer-scanner machines can do both jobs well and save on the cost and space of buying two machines. Go for a laser printer if it's just text and graphic documents that you'll be scanning.|
|Home office manager: the printer is the hub of your office and you need to print letters and photos and also scan receipts and fax documents regularly.||A printer-scanner-fax won't take up much more room than a normal printer, but will do everything you need from your PC if you keep it loaded with paper and ink.|
|How do I choose?|
To make things simpler, printers, scanners and multifunction machines can be divided into 10 categories.
Inkjet printers: the most cost-effective way of making colour prints at home, work by spraying fine droplets of ink from replaceable cartridges. There are models of all shapes and sizes out there with additional features like memory card readers and miniature LCD displays. The printers are competitively priced because the ink cartridges make up the true cost of inkjet printing.
Laser printers (monochrome): for making lots of black and white prints in quick succession. They work more like photocopiers in applying the black ink toner and producing crisp copies of text documents and black and white images.
Colour laser printers: colour laser printers are more expensive than inkjet printers and not so good at handling photos, but they are much better with text and coloured graphics and print a lot faster.
Mobile printers: if size and not print quality is your priority, a mobile printer that can fit inside a briefcase could be just the thing. They tend to be quite basic black and white printers, but can still handle A4-size paper.
Snapshot printers: a relatively new category of compact printers specialising in prints from digital cameras. You can connect your camera, or pop in its memory card to print out your digital stills without having to use a computer.
Flatbed scanners: the most common kind and they come in A4 and larger A3 sizes. Simply place your document to be copied face down on the glass platter, close the lid and the scan will be transferred to your computer.
Photo scanners: a regular flatbed scanner will scan photos as well, but to maintain the resolution of a slide or to digitize negatives, it’s worth paying more for a dedicated photo scanner.
Wireless printers: offering convenience without the need for cables, so multiple users can print from any room in the house. You’ll need a wireless router/modem and a wireless enabled computer.
Sheet-feed scanners: instead of placing the document on a piece of glass, you feed your document into this type of scanner. Often more compact and affordable, they're not so good at scanning photos.
Multifunction printers (MFPs): also called all-in-one printers, these machines can print, scan and often send faxes as well. They can use either inkjet or laser printing, or both. Combining the functionality will save you space and is usually more cost-effective.
|What do I need to consider?|
Print speed: if you need to reel-off lots of copies, or share a printer, then you should look at the manufacturer’s print rate. Laser printers are quickest. Look for the print speed figure expressed as ppm (pages per minute) in the manufacturer’s specifications.
Print quality: the number of ink tanks that the printer uses is the first indication of how good the colour reproduction is, five tanks being a good number. Also look at the print resolution, measured in dpi (dots per square inch), and gradation (the number of colours that make up the dots).
Scan quality: for photos, look for a high-resolution scanner with a high dpi (dots per square inch). It will be given as two numbers - like 6400 x 9600 - an accurate flatbed photo scanner.
Paper capacity: if you print a lot and don’t want to keep refilling the paper tray, check the capacity, which will be the number of sheets of plain paper that will fit in the feed tray.
Paper type: do you need to print onto photo paper or heavy card, or maybe directly onto printable CDs? A list of paper types will be in the specifications.
Similarly, a scanner will be able to take up to a certain size of paper. A4 is the most common size as this is the standard format of a letter or document, with A3 doubling its dimensions.
Bundled software: printers and scanners usually come with their own software on a CD-ROM, which you won’t always need to use. If you want a programme that will help you print CD labels or scan negatives for example, then check included software before you shop.
Environmental impact: multifunction machines reduce the energy needed, as do models with a proper off switch - rather than standby mode. Most ink cartridge vendors will accept spent cartridges for recycling. Look for information on the packaging.
Computer compatibility: incompatibility issues are rare and necessary updates are usually available as free downloads from the internet. The ‘minimum operating system requirements’ will be stated on the packaging, while the bundled software will say if they will run on a Mac or PC or both.
|What features are there?|
In addition to printing, scanning and faxing, many of the machines on the market offer other convenient features as well. Printing greetings cards or CD labels for instance, or perhaps a media card slot for printing photos directly from your digital camera’s memory card.
Memory card slot: a quick way to print photos directly from a digital camera, or scan images and save them on to a memory card. There are lots of different sized cards, like Memory Stick and SD Cards, so choose one that’s compatible with your other devices.
PictBridge: allows you to connect and print images directly from a digital camera, or any other imaging device, without a computer.
LCD screen: a small display that shows you the print options and sometimes a preview of the item you are about to print. This means you don’t have to keep looking back at your computer screen. Some are monochrome, but others are full colour.
USB interface: most printers and scanners connect to a PC or Mac via a USB cable and many have additional USB ports that you can plug other devices into. This is useful if you want to print a document you have stored on a portable USB storage device, or if you want to scan and save a document onto it.
Wireless connectivity: some printers can connect to a computer using Wi-Fi, which is a wireless standard for transferring data between devices without a cable. Useful if you don’t have room for trailing cables, or you use a laptop. Look for the Wi-Fi logo.
|What else do I need?|
Everything you need to get your new printer and scanner up and running will be included in the box, but you might need a longer cable to reach your PC, or a wireless adapter. Spare ink cartridges might be a good idea, so that you don’t get caught short and some paper stock to print on.
Bluetooth printer adapter: this lets your printer connect wirelessly to a Bluetooth compatible computer.
Paper stock: different grades of plain paper and photo paper, vary in weight, quality, finish and price.
Ink cartridges: make sure you buy refill cartridges that are compatible with your brand of printer.
Printable CD/DVDs: some printers can print directly onto blank CDs and DVDs, for professional-looking labels.
Software: basic image manipulation software might be included, but the market-leading programs like Adobe Photoshop, will be sold separately.
USB cable: one of these should be included in the box.
Ethernet cable: connects printers, scanners and computers.