Choosing the right printer can be a daunting task. There are several different types of printing technology to choose from, each suited for different needs. Printers come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny travel companions to workgroup workhorses; some are geared toward photographers, others are for multitaskers. And the many specifications for resolution and speed can be misleading. As a rule of thumb, inkjet printers are a must for long-lasting photos, while laser printers are best to produce speedy text documents.
The home user demands a lot from a printer. The device must tackle everything from a book report to a newsletter to the occasional snapshot--all without breaking the budget. This is why for most home users, the best choice is a versatile and affordable printer, such as a small-office/home-office color inkjet. These printers cost anywhere from $50 to $150 and are designed to do a little of everything, albeit slowly.
The alternative: Get a personal laser printer for fast, quality text and graphics (starting at around $200) and a second printer--either a color inkjet optimized for photos or a snapshot printer--for digital photography. Or, if you work out of your home, consider a multifunction printer.
Planning on writing the Great American Novel? You'll need a printer that can crank out page after page of text in double time. A personal laser printer should fit the bill. It can deliver epic amounts of crisp, legible text faster than Grisham finishes a new thriller. Personal laser printers start at around $200 or so, but they cost less to operate than inkjets do, so you can save up money for the book tour. Inexpensive, personal lasers are also a good option for college students busy churning out term papers.
The alternative: A general-purpose inkjet can also get the job done, and it gives you the added flexibility to print in color when necessary. But spend a little extra--more than $100--for a decent model that will be a little faster and won't chew through expensive ink and paper quite as quickly.
Any inkjet can print photos in color, but if you want results that approach professional photofinishing, you'll need a printer that is designed to reproduce the dynamic range of photographs. If you're in the market for an enthusiast printer, you need to look at the gamut and characteristics of the ink set, the supported papers, and the color-management tools. If you plan to purchase only one printer or are a serious hobbyist, a letter-size inkjet is your best bet, since it can also handle routine printing tasks. Many use thermal dye-transfer technology (also known as dye sublimation) in which heat changes the physical state of solid inks until they infuse specially coated paper, solidifying as they cool. Snapshot printers can print directly from compatible digital cameras.
If you're into digital photography but you also run a busy home office, consider a multifunction printer. Manufacturers of these all-in-ones have been working on improving photo output and scanning technology. Plus, most now boast memory card slots, LCDs to preview prints, and other convenient imaging-related features.
If you work from a home office frequently or run a small business, a multifunction printer (MFP) is an excellent choice. Also known as all-in-ones (AIOs), these multitalented devices combine an inkjet or a laser printer with a copier, a scanner, and a fax machine. They save both space and money. Though inkjet models start as low as $100, we recommend spending slightly more for a model that includes standalone faxing and has an auto document feeder (ADF) for easily faxing and copying multipage documents
The alternative: If you already have a standalone fax or scanner, a personal laser printer should meet your needs; many color laser printers now cost less than $500.
If you need a workhorse that can keep up with your small business or team within a larger organization, a workgroup laser printer is an obvious choice. Designed to juggle multiple print jobs, these systems have faster processors, more memory, and print engines that are capable of churning out more than 20 pages per minute. But these $400-and-up printers are more than souped-up personal lasers; they offer workgroup features, such as network printing, high-capacity toner cartridges, and larger paper input and output trays.
The alternative: A business-class inkjet may be sufficient if your team has modest printing needs, and some models support network printing.
If you really need to take the whole office in your notebook bag, there's a printer out there for you. Portable printers shrink inkjet printing down into a convenient travel size. They weigh anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds and typically come with a battery (either standard or as an option) or a car charger for printing on the go. Some manufacturers are even adding support for printing wirelessly from a cell phone.
The alternative: For most business travelers, the best alternative is no printer at all. If you have a wired or wireless network connection, you can usually find a printer in most offices. And if you really get in a jam, you can always use a hotel business center or an airport kiosk.