Choosing a printer may seem easy, but once you start diving into all of the available features, making a choice can quickly get daunting. Do you need a basic printer, or do you want it to have scanning and copying abilities, as well? How do you choose between inkjet and laser technology? What’s the difference between a $200 and a $500 model? Here are some pointers to help you find both the right category of printer and the right model within that type. (And if you’re finding it hard to pinpoint printers in stock in these COVID-challenged times, check out our guide to landing tough-to-find tech.)
Printers vary widely based on whether they’re for home or business use (or dual use in a home and home office), what you intend to print with them (text, graphics, photos, labels), and whether you need color or if monochrome output will suffice.
Most printers, including many inkjets that manufacturers market as photo printers, are general-purpose models, meant for printing text, graphics, and photos. Special-purpose options include dedicated and near-dedicated photo printers and label printers. (Even among specialty printers, 3D printers are a special case, and beyond the scope of this discussion.) If you’re looking for a model to print, say, photos, consider whether you want to print only photos or want a model that can also produce other kinds of output. Here is an overview of the most common types of printers.
Home printers (approximate price range: $50 to $250) are almost exclusively inkjets, and are built for low-volume printing. They tend to be slow, and have high ink costs. They print photos better than text and graphics. Nearly all are multifunction devices that are able to scan and copy documents as well as print.
Home-office printers ($100 to $400) are largely inkjets, and are built for low- to mid-volume printing. Most are multifunction devices that have scan, copy, and fax capabilities. They are geared toward text (and often graphics) printing over photos. Paper capacity starts at about 100 sheets, while higher-end models can hold up to 500 sheets. Most of these printers can also be used in so-called micro offices (with up to five people), and many can serve double duty by supporting household printing as well.
business printers are lasers, and most are multifunction devices. Many are monochrome, and favor text and graphics printing over photos. For many businesses, speed and paper capacity are paramount. Generally, the more expensive the printer is to purchase, the lower its per-page printing costs will be. Most offer security features like password-protected printing, and some even employ accessories such as an encrypted hard drive.
Near-dedicated photo printers ($400 to $2,000) are designed for professional photographers and photo enthusiasts. Although they can print text and graphics, they are all about printing high-quality photos. They have wide frames to accommodate large-format paper, and many can print from paper rolls as well. For precision color, they use up to a dozen ink cartridges.
Small-format photo printers ($80 to $250) are dedicated devices, built to print only photos. Print sizes can range from wallet-size to 5 by 7 inches, though many models can only print a single size. Most are highly portable, and often either come with a battery or offer one as an option.
wide-format machines can do 11-by-17-inch prints (and in some cases, 13-by-19-inch) in small quantities.
Label printers are built to churn out paper or plastic labels. Some include label-design software and connect to your computer, while many are standalone devices, letting you design and print labels using a small, built-in keyboard. Manufacturers of standalone label printers offer a wide variety of label colors and types.
lasers (and laser-class models, such as solid ink and LED-based printers) print higher-quality text than nearly any inkjet, and almost any inkjet prints higher-quality photos than the overwhelming majority of lasers. Ask yourself whether text or photos are more important, and pick a technology accordingly.
The vast majority of general-purpose home printers, and many business printers as well, are multifunction models (aka MFPs, or all-in-ones). Those other functions include some combination of scanning, copying, and faxing from your PC, standalone faxing, and scanning to email. Office printers also typically add an automatic document feeder (ADF) to scan, copy, and/or fax multipage documents and legal-size pages. Many ADFs can handle two-sided documents–either by scanning one side, flipping the page over, and scanning the other side, or employing two sensors to scan both sides of the page on a single pass.
How Much Do You Plan to Print?
If you print only a few pages a day, you don’t have to worry about how much a printer is designed to print, as defined by its recommended (not maximum) monthly duty cycle. (Maximum duty cycle is how much a printer can print per month, whereas recommended is how much it can handle before it becomes overstressed.) If you print enough for the duty cycle to matter, however, don’t buy a printer that doesn’t include that information in its specifications. Figure out how much you print by how often you buy paper and in what amounts. Then pick a printer designed to print at least that much.
How Fast Do You Need to Print?
If you print only one or two pages at a time, you probably don’t need a speed demon. In fact, most home printers are not built for speed. If you output a lot of longer documents, however, speed is more important, and that means you probably want a laser printer.
As a rule, laser printers will be close to their claimed speeds for text documents, which don’t need much processing time. Inkjets often claim faster speeds than more expensive lasers, but usually don’t live up to these claims. Inkjet printers have been getting faster, however, and a few recent high-end models (sometimes dubbed “laser alternative” inkjets) can hold their own speed-wise against comparably priced lasers. (See how we test printers.)
Be sure to check out the total cost of ownership. Most manufacturers will tell you the cost per page, and many give a cost per photo. To get the total cost of ownership, calculate the cost per year for each kind of output (monochrome, color document, photo) by multiplying the cost per page for that kind of output by the number of those pages you print per year. Add the three amounts together to get the total cost per year. Then multiply that by the number of years you expect to own the printer, and add the initial cost of the printer. Compare the total cost of ownership figures between printers to find out which model will be cheapest in the long run.
Instant Ink subscription program, in which owners of select DeskJet, OfficeJet, Envy, and Tango printers can choose among three levels, paying a monthly fee for printing up to a certain number of pages. (The levels are 50, 100, and 300 pages per month.) The same fee applies for either black or color printing. HP automatically sends you more ink when you run low. These programs can save you a considerable amount of money, particularly if you print mostly in color.
Other manufacturers offer printers that accept high-capacity cartridges. Brother’s INKvestment models ship with large ink cartridges–in some cases, several sets of them–so you may pay extra up front for the printer, but the ink supply will last a long time, and additional cartridges can be bought for a low price. Brother’s INKvestment Tank printers are similar, except that their high-capacity cartridges offload ink into reservoirs within the printer.
how to save on printer ink.)
In addition to a USB port, most office printers, and an increasing number of home printers, include Ethernet ports, which allow you to share the printer with your home network. Many also include Wi-Fi capability. If you have a Wi-Fi access point on your network, you can print wirelessly to any printer on that network, whether or not the unit itself offers a wireless connection. Printers that support Wi-Fi Direct (or an equivalent peer-to-peer protocol) can connect directly to most Wi-Fi-enabled devices, even if your computer or handheld isn’t designed to support Wi-Fi Direct. We’re also seeing options that can connect to and print from a mobile device via NFC (near-field communication) merely by tapping the phone or tablet to a particular spot on the printer. Bluetooth connectivity is on the rise, mostly in small-format photo printers.
Printer security is often overlooked, but at your business’s peril. Hackers can gain access to a network through the printer, and sensitive documents in the paper tray can be seen by prying eyes. Many better business-centric models incorporate password protection, so that once a user launches a print job, they must enter a PIN into the printer to release it. This ensures that confidential documents don’t fall into the wrong hands.
In the case of business printers, firmware should be kept updated, as it often repairs vulnerabilities, and any printer hard drives should be encrypted. Many manufacturers offer administrative tools to help IT departments ensure printer security.
To a large extent, printer size and weight is dependent on its intended use, but even so, there are considerable variations. Make sure the printer will fit in its allotted space (in all three dimensions, including paper in feeders and output trays that may need to extend), and is not so heavy that it can’t be easily moved if need be. Very compact printers are available for people who live in a dorm room or other tight space.
As a general rule, though, printers get bigger the more features you add on: additional paper trays, automatic document feeders, and high-capacity ink tanks can all add size and weight to your printer. If space is a concern, choose wisely when it comes to these add-ons.
Third-party ink often costs significantly less than name-brand products. But be aware that it can come with a whole tank full of issues. First of all, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get the same quality ink from a third party that you would when buying a name-brand product.
Also, using ink that isn’t approved by the manufacturer can violate your warranty. And don’t think you can get away with secretly using that renegade ink: If your printer has an internet connection, it’s possible it could report your violation to the manufacturer. Sometimes, with firmware updates, we’ve seen the use of third-party ink “deauthorize” the use of the aftermarket cartridge.
What kind of printer you get for your home depends on what you plan on printing. As a general rule, if you churn out lots of text-based pages, a laser printer will do the trick. If color documents or photos are on your agenda, you’ll want to go with an inkjet. If you plan on doing any scanning or copying, you should look to an all-in-one or multifunction printer. Decent AIOs aren’t that much more costly than their printer-only counterparts, and they offer a ton of additional features.
This can be tricky. On the one hand, printing technology doesn’t update often, so buying a printer that’s a few years old isn’t going to mean sacrificing any groundbreaking technology. On the other hand, buying a refurbished printer means that ink or toner has already run its course through the printer, meaning that you have no idea what’s going on inside or, for instance, how clean your printhead is.
If you do buy a refurbished or used printer, make sure it has been recertified by the manufacturer, and look for a reasonable warranty and return period. Printers are one of the few kinds of tech that we are leery of buying remanufactured models of except from a trustworthy source.
Based on our advice above, and our key picks for various usage cases below, you should be ready to shop. Remember always, though, to factor in the primary kind of printing you’ll do (text versus photos, for example), the amount you’ll print day in and day out, and the cost per page of what you’ll print on a given model. Keep all those factors in mind, and you can’t go far wrong in today’s mature printer market.
The Best For Micro Offices, Small Workgroups
The Best For High-Volume, Wide-Format Office Work
Epson EcoTank Pro ET-16650
The Best For Homes and Home Offices with Heavy Print Needs
Canon Pixma G7020 MegaTank All-in-One
The Best For Home Offices and Households
Canon Pixma TR8520 Wireless Home Office All-In-One Printer
The Best For Low-Cost Long-Term Printing
Epson EcoTank ET-4760 All-In-One Printer
The Best For Consumers Printing Wide-Format Photos
Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000 Wide-Format Inkjet Printer
The Best For Tight-Budget, Low-Volume General Family Printing
HP Envy Pro 6452 All-in-One
The Best For High-Volume Office Text Printing
HP Neverstop Laser 1001nw
The Best For Portable Photo Printing
HP Sprocket 2nd Edition
The Best For Smart Homes
HP Tango X
Pros: Excellent print quality overall.
Fast print speeds.
Competitively low running costs.
Highly expandable paper capacity.
High-yield toner cartridges.
Latest security features.
Cons: Slightly below average photo quality.
Bottom Line: The very well rounded HL-L8360CDW is a fast color laser printer with good output quality, low running costs, and flexible expandability for its class.
Pros: Two years of unlimited ink
Excellent print quality
Very low running costs
Thousands of pages worth of ink in the box
Two-year warranty with registration
Excellent mobile connectivity options
Cons: High initial purchase price
Bottom Line: The Epson EcoTank Pro ET-16650 wide-format AIO prints well and inexpensively, and it comes with two years of unlimited free ink, making it an exceptional value for small businesses and workgroups.
Pros: Solid feature set, software bundle, and paper capacity for a bulk-ink model
Superb print quality, especially photos
Auto-duplexing print engine and ADF
Super-low running costs
Faster than previous MegaTank models
Up to 18,000 pages worth of black ink in the box
Cons: Last decade’s control panel
Bottom Line: The Pixma G7020 inkjet all-in-one delivers some of the lowest running costs available in a consumer printer, making it a great value for families and home offices.
Pros: Excellent print quality.
Light and compact.
SD card slot.
Two black inks.
Two paper input trays.
XXL ink cartridges available.
Cons: A little pricey.
Somewhat high running costs.
Bottom Line: It may be a little pricey, but the Canon Pixma TR8520 all-in-one printer produces terrific text, graphics and photos, and it has a strong feature set.
Pros: Excellent print quality.
Very low running costs.
Light and compact.
Single-pass auto-duplexing ADF.
Excellent mobile connectivity options.
Cons: Relatively low duty cycle and recommended volume ratings.
Lacks support for flash memory devices.
Bottom Line: The Epson EcoTank ET-4760 is an excellent multifunction color printer for small offices that don’t want to sacrifice features to get low long-term running costs.
Pros: Excellent photo quality.
Prints borderless images from 4 by 6 inches to 13 by 19 inches.
Uses new Claria Photo HD inks.
Small and light for an oversize printer.
Cons: Running costs a bit high.
Prints speeds are slower than the competition.
Bottom Line: The consumer-grade Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000 Wide-Format Inkjet Printer produces output quality that’s comparable with much more expensive professional models.
Pros: Low running costs with Instant Ink, with two months free
Reasonable purchase price
Good overall print quality
Strong feature set, including ADF
High-tech and modern-looking
Cons: Wasteful two-cartridge ink set holds all four inks
Cost per page exceptionally high without Instant Ink
No flash drive port or SD card slot
Bottom Line: The HP Envy Pro 6452 All-in-One prints well and—if you sign up for HP’s Instant Ink subscription program—inexpensively, making it a good value for families and home offices.
Pros: Tiny footprint.
Low purchase price.
Robust smartphone integration.
Good overall print quality.
Cons: High running costs.
No Ethernet port.
Bottom Line: The HP LaserJet Pro M15w is an excellent, inexpensive, and tiny monochrome laser printer that’s as easy to use on the road as it is to tuck away in a small office.
Pros: Very low running costs (and aggressive printer price)
Small and light
Good text print quality
Easy, no-mess toner refill kit
Cons: No support for automatic two-sided (duplex) printing
No Ethernet connectivity
Below-average graphics output
Bottom Line: The first entry-level, cartridge-free mono laser, the HP Neverstop 1001nw prints for a fraction of the cost of its closest competitors, making it a terrific choice for producing up to a couple of thousand pages each month.
Pros: Impressive print quality.
Lower price and running costs than original Sprocket.
Sprocket App has lots of new functionality.
Nascent augmented-reality aspects.
Cons: A few features (notably, multi-user connections and print queue) are under-developed.
Bottom Line: HP’s Sprocket 2nd Edition portable photo printer stands out with its unique design and quirky AR angle.
But most impressive is the improved print quality.
M. David Stone is an award-winning freelance writer and computer industry consultant. Although a confirmed generalist, with writing credits on subjects as varied as ape language experiments, politics, quantum physics, and an overview of a top company in the gaming industry. David is also an expert in imaging technologies (including printers, monitors, large-screen displays, projectors, scanners, and digital cameras), storage (both magnetic and optical), and word processing. He is a recognized expert on printers, well known within the industry, and has been a judge for the Hewlett-Packard HP Invent Awards.
His more than 30 years of experience in writing about science and technology includes a more than 25-year concentration on … See Full Bio