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Buying a printer

Worth spending more than the minimum?

Printers start below fifty pounds, and can go up to several hundred. So how do you choose between them? And what do you get by spending more up front?

Don't assume that a low-cost printer - or one that appears to be free because it's included with your PC - is invariably a good bargain.

If it's a well-known brand, if you need to print only occasionally, if you don't need to print lots of long documents, if you don't need top-quality printing, if you don't want photographic-quality reproduction - then it might well be your best buy.

But the cheapest printers might not be as fast as you need, they might not print with sufficiently high resolution to give the quality you want, especially for photographs, and they may not be robust enough to survive the workloads you'll throw at it.

Laser or inkjet?

For most needs you shouldn't bother looking beyond inkjets. Laser printers are significantly more expensive - a good black-and-white-only laser printer costs around �130, with colour starting at something around �300. They are bulkier, and some are quite noisy in operation.

Quote�For most needs you shouldn't bother looking beyond inkjets.�End Quote

But if you need to do a lot of printing, a laser printer is a smart buy. They're significantly faster at printing, generally cheaper overall to run. Toner cartridges aren't cheap, but they last a long time, so you get more pages of print per cartridge. Laser printing tends to give better results with text.

It's difficult to check how quickly a particular printer can produce pages, because there's no such thing as a 'standard page'. How much text should it have? How much colour? How many images? So manufacturers quote an average speed for whatever they think an average page looks like.

Don't take it literally. A printer that claims to do 20 pages a minute will almost certainly be quicker than one rated at 4 pages per minute. Just don't expect it to be five times as fast.


Manufacturers make considerably more profit from ink than they do from the printers themselves. And you can expect to get through a lot of it.

Inkjet printers use ink cartridges - usually between one and four, but sometimes more. Typically there's one cartridge for black - the colour that gets used most, plus separate cartridges for cyan (light blue), yellow and magenta (purple). Any other colour can be created by mixing these. Be careful with printers which have a single cartridge for the three 'other colours': when you run out of one colour, you have to replace the whole cartridge.

Quote�It's a cheap solution, but you might be disappointed with the results.�End Quote

For the more common makes and models, there are fully compatible work-alike cartridges available at a slight discount; you'll find these at the bigger retailers, including office supplies catalogues, PC superstores and even some supermarkets.

Some of these 'third-party' cartridges are just as good as the printer manufacturers' brands, but not all - you might not get as much ink in the cartridges and it might not be as opaque. For a handful of cartridge makes, you can get refill kits that involve a certain amount of messing around with syringes and ink bottles. It's a cheap solution, but you might be disappointed at the results.


Getting rid of unnecessary cables is never a bad thing. Some printers can receive infra-red signals, which could be useful if you work with smartphones or Pocket PCs. But the data transfer rate is relatively slow, and it needs an uninterrupted line of sight between the two devices. Look out for newer models with their own Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connections.

Quote�A neater solution would be to add a printer to your office network.�End Quote

All-in-one printers combine a printer, scanner, fax and photocopier in one box. But it's a case of 'jack of all trades, master of none'. The printer will be reasonable, but probably not good enough for printing photos.

A neater solution would be to add a decent printer and a scanner to your office computer network, if you have one, and share them with all network users. If your server is plugged into a telephone line, you can send and receive faxes without ever needing to print.

Printer technologies

All inkjet printers work in much the same way. Liquid ink, stored in a cartridge, is channelled through tiny jets in a moving print head and sprayed on to the paper. To achieve different colours, three or more basic ink colours are mixed together in the spray. It sounds complicated and messy. But the clever part is quite how simple, easy and tidy inkjet printing actually is in practice.

Quote�Sounds complicated? It is. But you shouldn't need to worry.�End Quote

Laser printers work in much the same way as a photocopier, with the paper being passed over a cartridge of ink dust that sticks to the page in the shape of letters. Sounds complicated? It is. But as with inkjets, you shouldn't need to worry what's happening under the cover of the printer.

All inkjet and laser printers can print on normal papers, including standard photocopier paper. Most people won't see any value in buying special-purpose papers which are made specifically to take inkjet or laser colour without bleeding or fading, with the exception of photographic paper. You will also be able to print on to card, though probably not very thick card - a lightweight greetings card or business card is about the thickest you can expect.

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What next?

These days even relatively cheap printers are good enough for producing promotional materials. Our free How to... guides will help you brush up your design skills to match.

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