Choosing a Printer
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    Choosing a Printer

    Reviewed and updated 2/10/07. All prices in this document are USD. Media formats are those used in the US and Canada. Most printers intended for other countries support the A4 format (about 8.25 x 11.75 inches). Large format printers handle A3 (11.25 x 16.5).

    CHOOSING A PRINTER

    Monochrome Laser

    If you print large numbers of black only pages (50 a week or more), consider a monochrome laser. Prices start at about $100. You can buy an excellent color printer for that but the laser cost per page is so much less than for ink jet printers, you'll save money in the long run.

    Lasers are much faster than ink jets, may be longer lasting, and offer high quality text on inexpensive paper. HP has one model that prints 11 x 17. Otherwise, monochrome lasers are limited to letter (8.5 x 11) or legal (8.5 x 14) size prints. So far as I am aware, none print borderless. More expensive models ($400 and up) may offer duplex (front and back) printing, built-in networking, support for several page description languages, and expandable memory. The cheapest printers are usually USB only. More expensive printers often support both USB and parallel ports.

    The least expensive printers may offer only 600 dpi resolution which is marginal for photo reproduction. 1200 dpi is preferable but ask to see sample prints. 600 may be acceptable for your purposes. Warm up time is 1 or 2 seconds for HP lasers and up to 30 seconds for other makes. Once warmed up, print time is short, 15 to 20 pages per minute, even for the cheapest lasers.

    Toner cartridges may cost $80 or more but last for thousands of pages. Beware of new printers with partially filled cartridges. HP usually includes full cartridges. Most other manufacturers supply one-third or two-thirds empty cartridges with their new printers. Some printers may also require periodic replacement of drums and belts. Visit the manufacturer's web site and check what "supplies" are offered. This can be a clue to the true cost of operation. The cost for all consumables, except paper, should be less than five cents per page. This is for the "standard" text page with 5% coverage (double spaced text with one inch margins on all four sides).


    Color Laser

    Color lasers are expensive, $300 and up, but much less expensive per page than ink jet printers. They print up to letter or legal size. Most support both USB and parallel ports and many have built-in networking. Duplex printing is built-in or optional on a few printers. Most support one or more page description languages. None print borderless.

    Printing speed (several pages per minute or better) and cost per page are the justifications for color lasers. They are probably no more reliable than ink jets. In fact, you should consider an extended warranty for a color laser (a warranty that includes shipping or on-site service unless you live next door to a service center... these things are heavy and shipping is expensive).

    Color lasers produce excellent text and graphics. However, photo quality is not as good as the best ink jets. HP now offers glossy laser paper that produces better, but still inferior, photo quality at higher cost. Be sure to check a print sample from an Oki color laser. They add a polymer to their toner that produces a semi-gloss finish on cheap copier paper. It looks much like expensive coated magazine paper. Its the only obvious difference in print quality among the vendors.

    Color lasers use four cartridges, cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Price per cartridge is $100 or more. Some vendors include partially filled cartridges which, in effect, adds $100 or more to the printer price. Replacement drums, belts, and fusers add to the cost of operation of some printers.


    Conventional Ink Jet

    I'm using "conventional" to mean the four ink printers that have been available for years, as opposed to the more recent six (or more) ink photo printers described below.

    Four ink printers use cyan, magenta, yellow (sometimes in a single cartridge), and black inks. Usually the black is a pigmented ink used only for black text. Pigmented inks tend to stay on the surface of the paper giving very sharp results. The colors are dye inks that tend to soak into the paper and spread out a bit. Pigments and dyes create different appearances on the surface of the paper so they are not used together. Since there is only one shade of each color, and the black ink is not used, for photos the printer must leave varying amounts of white space around each dot of ink to create the correct density (how light or dark an area appears).

    Conventional ink jet printers are usually faster, higher resolution, and cheaper than photo printers. Unless you need the highest quality photo reproduction, a conventional ink jet may still be your best choice. Prices start around $50 and very good printers are available for $100.

    HP continues to use a single three ink color cartridge and a black cartridge in most of their printers. With a few exceptions, Canon and Epson printers use separate cartridges for each ink. With HP, you will throw away some ink. However, with most printers, replacing any cartridge causes all the print heads to be recharged so both designs waste some ink.

    Most HP printers allow you to replace the pigmented black cartridge with a "photo" cartridge (light magenta, light cyan, and black, all dyes) that turns it into a very good photo printer. You can switch back and forth between text and photo printing by replacing the cartridges. Ink cartridge costs vary from about $12 for the single ink type to $20 or $30 for a three ink combo. However, the ink quantity varies as much as the price so it is difficult to compare costs per page (and there is no "standard" color page as there is for black text). So far as I am aware, all current ink jet printers, both conventional and photo, are supplied with full cartridges.

    Conventional ink jet printers usually offer borderless printing in one or more standard sizes. Most are limited to letter or legal size prints (some will also make up to 44 inch long banner prints), although wide carriage printers are available from HP (13 x 19) and Epson (17 x 22). A few HP printers offer duplex printing either built-in or as an option. Most are USB only. So far as I know only one, an Epson, also supports parallel. HP has a few models with built-in networking. All other models will need a print server to network.


    Photo Ink Jet

    My definition of a "photo" printer is one that uses at least six inks. Some use even more. The "typical" photo printer uses magenta, light magenta, cyan, light cyan, yellow and black dye inks. The printer can use combinations of the inks to create both the correct hue and the correct density for every area of the photo. There is no need to leave white space around the ink dots so you get much "smoother" tones. Six ink printers produce superior photo quality that anyone can see and appreciate. On the down side, photo printers are slow; several minutes to print an 8.5 x 11 is not unusual. Since they are covering the entire paper surface with ink, the cost per page may be higher than for a conventional printer. (Most offer a selection of quality levels so less important prints can be faster and less expensive).

    Photo printers start at about $100. Most will print up to letter and legal sizes (and banner prints in a few cases). Most will print borderless in several standard sizes. HP, Epson and Canon offer wide carriage (13 x 19) photo printers. None offer built-in duplex printing. All are USB, none support parallel, a few have built-in networking.

    Photo printers are more varied in design and features than other types of printers. For example, Epson and HP offer printers that will print directly on CDs and DVDs. A few Canon printers have a black pigment cartridge for text and a black dye cartridge for photos. HP's top of the line photo printer includes a cartridge with black and gray inks that produces very high quality black and white prints. Epson's best photo printers use pigmented inks for the sharpest possible reproductions. These are the printers favored by photo shops and professional photographers.


    Dot Matrix

    Dot matrix printers are used when you must produce multiple original copies (carbons) of a document. There is no other reason to spend $500 on a slow, noisy, dirty, text only printer that produces, at best, average quality documents. 9 pin and 24 pin models are available. 24 pins prioduce better print quality. Oki and Epson both make very reliable dot matrix printers.


    Dye Sublimation

    Dye sub printers produce long lasting, very high quality prints and are much faster than ink jet printers. However the prints cost more than ink jet prints and you have little or no choice of papers. You must use the one or two papers offered by the printer manufacturer. I prefer the versatility of ink jets.


    Multifunction Printers

    Laser and ink jet printers are available that include a scanner and, in some cases, a FAX modem. They can print, scan, copy, and FAX. They do not have to be connected to a computer for the copy and FAX functions (or to print if they include slots for digital camera memory cards).

    Multifunctions save desk space and are more convenient for copying and FAXing. They may be a bit less expensive than separate printers and scanners.


    Printer Issues

    HP ink jet printers use slow-dry inks. The prints may be damp after printing, and the inks will smear if they get wet. Canon and Epson use fast-dry inks. The prints emerge dry and resist smearing. On the other hand, you can leave an HP unused for weeks and it will usually perform perfectly when you next fire it up. With Canon and, especially, Epson, you will have to do some head cleanings (which use about a dollar's worth of ink) and possibly replace cartridges.

    Because of the different types of ink, use HP or Kodak paper with HP, and Epson or Canon papers with Epson and Canon. If you want to try other papers, buy the smallest quantity possible and test it. Some papers "band" or streak when used with the wrong kind of ink.

    When you finish using an Epson printer, turn it off at the power switch on the printer. Before shutting down, it will cap the ink cartridges to prevent evaporation. More importantly, when you turn it back on, it does a mini head cleaning. Avoid removing Epson cartridges. Each time you insert it in the printer a small amount of ink is wasted.

    Never use an ink jet with empty cartridges. The ink cools the print heads. Without ink, the heads may be damaged. Some ink jets are supplied with cartridges that contain special "priming" inks. These cartridges MUST be the first used (the printer may even refuse to function if a different cartridge is installed).

    If you have a special purpose in mind, test it on any printer you are considering. For example, if you need to print near the edge of the paper, some printers require larger borders than others. If you need to use very thick or stiff paper, make sure it will feed properly and isn't creased by the printer (a few printers offer a door in the back for a straight through paper path).

    A wide variety of papers and other materials are available for ink jet printers. For example, you can print on transfer films and then iron the image on fabric. Makes great tee shirt gifts for kids. Other printer types can use only one or two materials.

    Quality photos depend on paper type as much as printer model. With ink jets, you'll want to have some cheap copier paper for text only, testing, etc. But for important photos, use photo paper. Glossy paper produces the widest contrast range and is preferred for the very best quality. Semi-gloss may be a third less expensive yet nearly as good quality. Speciality papers may be best for certain purposes. Matte paper, for example, is often used for portraits because it tends to hide wrinkles and other skin imperfections.

    Some manufacturers offer several grades of glossy photo paper. In most cases, they are different weights (thickness). Image quality is the same.

    Make sure the printer will work with your computer. Older systems may only work with parallel printers. Most printers require at least 64 MB of memory. If you use Linux or Mac, visit the printer manufacturer's web site and verify compatibility.

    Many printers allow you to plug a digital camera directly into the printer, or to insert a camera memory card into a printer slot. In either case, you can print without a computer. This can be a convenience but you should be aware that printing is much slower, and the prints are lower resolution than when printing from the computer. Digital printing requires huge numbers of computations. Even inexpensive computers have much faster processors than any printer. The printers use a lower resolution to speed things up a bit.

    Nobody repairs printers any more. Under warranty, the vendors give you a new one. After the warranty expires, most places charge $100 or more just to tell you what's wrong with a printer. Fixing it is extra (if parts are even available). With very expensive printers, buying an extended warranty may make sense.

    Most of the "faulty" printers returned to the manufacturer (up to 80%) have nothing wrong. They stockpile returns until near the end of the model run, then test them, repackage them with fresh ink and sell them as "refurbished" with a new warranty. They are a good deal when you can find one.

  2. #2
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    Updated 2/10/07

    Updated 2/10/07

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