Printers : Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them (Part 1)

9/17/2012 9:01:31 AM

Printers: can't live with them, can't live without them. Despite this, we'll do our best to help you and those infernal machines reach some kind of truce.

Although offices and educational establishments are doing their best to move away from paper, the fact is that sometimes, you just can't beat having the work there on the desk in front of you. Whether it's an attempt at a more natural proofread, creating references for revision, or a printout to accompany a presentation, there are still plenty of reasons that you might need to get documents off your PC and into the real world.

Description: Printers: can't live with them, can't live without them.

Even so, few devices have caused as much misery to computer users over the years as the humble printer has managed to. A cocktail of driver conflicts, wonky paper problems and unexplained hardware faults frequently combine to make the simple act of printing a letter into something far more complicated and frustrating than it should be.

However, until the day when we can all agree that no-one should ever have to use a printer again, you need to have access to one. Maybe today you can e-mail someone a PDF instead, maybe tomorrow you can print something at the library, but one day, you'll need to make a hard copy of your work at short notice, and on that day you'll have to have a printer handy. That doesn't mean you're completely without a choice, of course - over the next few pages, we'll help you decide which of the many available printers can fill the real gap in your life.

Printer Basics

Modern printers are divided into a few basic categories, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. If you're just after something that can print out the occasional form or document, you can (and probably should) consider a cheap inkjet. They're low-priced, low-maintenance and as if to prove how cheap they are, you'll probably end up paying more for ink cartridges in the first year than you spent on the printer itself. They're an also no-frills device, though, which means if you're planning anything even vaguely fancy - double-sided printing, or multiple paper sizes for example - you can expect a lot of fiddling and failed attempts before chancing upon the correct procedure. If wasting paper upsets you, it's probably best to go with something more complicated.

In any case, don't expect an inkjet printer to last very long. If a sub- $80 inkjet lasts three years, before it needs replacing, you're doing well.

If you want something more capable, or plan to do a lot of printing, you can buy a multi-function printer (otherwise known as an all-in-one, and abbreviated to either AIO or MFP). These are essentially printers which have had a scanner and/ or fax machine grafted onto them, doubling or tripling their size, but greatly increasing their capabilities. Many have a variety of additional features, including wireless networking support, which makes them ideal for home office work or small businesses. However, their photocopying function will also prove useful if you expect to be doing a lot of research out of textbooks, and university students will probably appreciate that they're very space efficient, given the limited living space that's generally afforded to the modern day student.

Description: Printer Basics

However, all-in-ones are still mostly inkjet printers. If you're running off a lot of documents - for example, if you're sharing one printer between several heavy users, or if you plan to be producing long manuscripts (like projects, dissertations and essays), then you'll want a laser printer.

While often expensive laser printing offers the best quality and print speeds of all consumer printers, they are also large and hard to maintain. They might be ideal for small offices and such like, but they're not normally necessary for casual home use.

Laser printers come in two main types: monochrome and color. Unlike inkjets, which are simple and cheap enough that monochrome printers have been priced out of existence, there's still a substantial difference in price, performance and complexity between color and monochrome laser printers, and the separation still exists. Check which you're buying before you get the credit card out!

Technically, laser printers don't actually use ink, but toner drums. Monochrome laser printers use a single photosensitive drum that picks up an electrostatic charge when a laser beam is shone onto it. The charged areas of the drum then pick up toner and transfer it to the paper. Where, in inkjet printers, liquid ink is squirted onto a page and left to dry, in laser printers it's toner particles which take their place. These particles are melted by the laser, then transferred onto the page where they cool, fusing with the surface of the paper as they do so. The results are generally higher-quality than laser printers, and far quicker to produce.

Color laser printers use the same four-color combination of black, cyan, magenta and yellow as inkjets, only with one toner drum for each color. However, toner drums are expensive, and due to the process used each color takes one full pass of a page to print. For that reason, a full-color page will take almost four times as long to print in a laser printer as a monochrome one, but it'll still be faster than an inkjet!

Description: four-color combination

What To Buy

Choosing what type of printer to buy largely depends on what it is that's motivating you to buy one in the first place. To help you make a decision, we've created a few case studies so that you can determine which type of printer best matches your personal needs.

Cheapest Printer

You're looking for a printer that won't cost a lot of money. It'll be used infrequently - maybe once a fortnight or less - and you don't want to have to spend a lot on aftercare and ink either. However, it'll be subject to a wide variety of uses, from printing letters to photo-quality images and everything in between. The documents it prints are likely to be short - brief essays or one-off images, and they aren't likely to be needed in a hurry either.

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