Buying a printer today

This section was originally written in 2011 - however, much still applies, as the messiness and expense of inkjet printers remain, and unless using for a very specific (and acknowledged expensive purpose) - inkjet printers remain an exaggerated abuse of the razor and razor-blades model - that is, a cash cow for the manufacturers while being overly expensive to the consumer.  Buy a laser printer and send pictures to the cheapest competent online print service you can find - CVS, Shutterbug - whomever.

What did I buy (and am still using in 2020)

I decided we just didn’t ‘need’ color printing, but there was no way I was buying an inkjet due to the ink costs.  Instead, I bought a Canon imageClass MF4370DN Multi-Function laser printer (back in 2011).  We still use it today, and while they’re still backwards on mac drivers - it’s fine as a network printers, it does duplexing, prints fast, scans fine, etc…

When it eventually gives up the ghost, I’ll look at another Canon, HP or Brother but looking at color laser toner prices nowadays, likely stay with a monochrome black and white multi-function - you can still scan in color, but it’s cheaper to send photos off for printing unless you routinely need to print multi-color documents (and really - why are we still printing in general nowadays? ;) )

The original article remains intact below.

Shopping for a new printer?  Not so fast!

After many happy years together with my workgroup color laser printer, an HP 4550DN, it was finally showing it's age and the annoyances were building up. It had printed several hundred thousand pages in it's life, but couldn't be terribly inexpensive on electricity, when it would take 5 minutes to come out of sleep mode to calibrate and warm up, just to print the few pages i would print every few days to few weeks nowadays. It also was streaking more and more, and was becoming due for a drum replacement, and likely could have continued working for a few more years, but the size and weight, the power usage, the growing number of annoyances all had me at least taking a look elsewhere.

My printing needs had changed over time - after owning laser printers going back to an Epson ActionLaser 1500 some 15+ years ago, making the huge mistake of trying a few inkjets along the lines, it was no contest - inkjets are cheap, and somewhat useful if you're printing many pictures, but woefully expensive (razor/razor blade model gone crazy) and if you don't print frequently, the ink will start to dry throughout the machine, jets clog, and you may wind up using an entire overpriced ink cartridge just in trying to go through enough 'cleaning' cycles to get the output sane again. Even using remanufactured ink cartridges, inkjets simply aren't a good bang for the buck, and I've thrown out more than one, as it became cheaper to simply buy another that to buy the cartridge set, whether it's a low end Epson or a higher end HP. Laser printers by comparison, tend to suffer occasional printing needs as well as daily printing much more efficiently, both in terms of cost per page, as well as in the maintenance and consumables factor. For the most part, don't print on an inkjet printer for 3-6 months, then try to print, and you can expect problems, and $ to be spent. Do the same on most laser printers, and for the most part, they do their job - they still print. What a novel concept, no? You might also want to look at printer duty cycles to compare - this is a relative measurement of 'durability' in my mind, as it calls out the maximum number of pages that re recommended to be printed on a monthly basis. for most inkjets, it's pretty low, around 1,000 pages. For most lasers, they're just getting started at 5,000 or 10,000 pages per month, even at the consumer level - this of course doesn't mean you have to print that much, but it does tend to make one of the two types of printers seem much more 'toy-like' in comparison, and my own usage and experience has borne that out as well.

Of course, laser printers have been bitten by the 'razor blades model' as well. Most consumer grade printers now come with a 'starter cartridge.' What does that mean? Well, 15 years back, my Epson ActionLaser 1500 was used for everything - i would print out entire Linux documentation sets, books, you name it. I made it through around 1 or 2 cases of paper before needing a new toner cartridge, which at 500 sheets per ream, 10 reams per case, is between 5,000 and 10,000 pages. This isn't atypical for the business class of laser printers or better consumer grade, as each toner cartridge for example, for the HP 4550dn and others is good for 5,000 to 10,000 pages per their specifications, which is at least in the ballpark; you'll see more with lower coverage of ink versus whitespace, or less with more image printing/non-text because of the ratio of ink used per page. inkjet black cartridges generally claim around 150 up to 750 pages for 'high capacity cartridges' per $30-$40 cartridge, but in real life, I've usually seen less than advertised with inkjets once you factor in cleaning cycles, or simple printer breakdown. So, many consumer level laser printers come instead with what is referred to as a 'starter toner cartridge' - what does this mean? It's a less than full toner cartridge, which instead of the 5,000 or more pages you would expect to print, it may be good for only 1,000, or possibly 2,000, before you need to replace the toner cartridge with a new one. be careful when that time does come, as you may find yourself a 'deal' and then find out that you simply bought another less than full capacity cartridge.

Starter cartridges aren't the end of the world, but they should be at least noted when shopping for a new printer today, as well as finding out the cost and capacity of 'normal' cartridges. There is a fair amount of business out there in remanufactured or refilled cartridges, and you can save some significant money there, but you'll want to compare the OEM pricing as well as capacity and reliability, plus experiences from others out there - some refills may be garbage, but the majority of them at least for laser printers offer similar quality at significant savings.

So, I do tend to print less now than I used to, also having access to various business printers from HP and Canon at the work office, but i still maintain a network of mixed systems at home - Linux, OSX, and the wife's XP netbook, plus various virtual machines. That pretty much means I'm looking for a network capable printer, that supports multiple Operating Systems, unless i want to leave a system up 24x7 to serve as a print server - this is always an option, but at the moment I have more systems that are occasionally shut down, and it's just another device in the potential failure chain, meaning if that system is brought down for maintenance, replacement, or has any issues, it's also brought down the printer with it, so I'd prefer to have the printer itself be network capable. Wired or wireless is a good consideration - printing really isn't bandwidth limited on most home networks, while I'm told by my wife that cables aren't as pretty as I believe them to be..a wireless printer would allow lots of options for placement, where wired limits it to within cable reach of a router or switch, unless your house or apartment happens to be wired throughout with CAT-5/6. Unfortunately, while there are more inexpensive inkjet printers that are network capable and wireless, there aren't nearly as many at the low end of laser printers. I'd expect this to change with time, but the few I saw were either overpriced or didn't have the rest of the options that I wanted, so I went with a wired network connection. If you're spending more money, you may have more options with respect to wireless. If at all possible, I would opt for both wireless and wired, in the event the wireless chip burnt out, you would still have a backup networking option.

I'd also prefer for it not to weigh over 100 pounds, like the 4550 did, and take up less space, but that's not much of an issue with consumer level, non workgroup class printers. Your own preferences may differ - if you have a larger office or computing area or room to spare, in general, the heavier printers do tend to be somewhat heavier duty and longer lasting, as they tend towards the side of workgroup printers with tens of thousands of pages monthly duty cycles or higher.

Other final considerations come down to the OS support, reliability, amount of memory installed (if any), whether a printer is PostScript or PCL (ideally PCL 5 or PCL 6) capable, and whether it has any multi-function capabilities.

OS support is easy - what computers do you plan to print from? Linux, OSX, Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, AmigaOS, Haiku..? The majority of printers today have no problems printing from most versions of windows, but with the current 64 bit variants as well as the relatively recent introduction of Windows 7, you want to be sure to confirm a proper driver is available. Some new printers might support Windows 7 yet not have drivers for your older netbook that may be running XP or Linux. Take a look at the systems you expect to print from today, as well as any expected changes (maybe you're finally going to buy a Macbook or build a Hackintosh clone?) in the near future. For some people, it's an easy decision, one computer, one OS, for others, not so much.

If you do run non Windows operating systems (good for you! :) ), things like Postscript or PCL may become more important to you, especially if the manufacturer doesn't provide a driver directly. PostScript came from Adobe long ago, and while it seems like many like to say it's been 'aging' for some time now, PS drivers are easy enough for people to produce, can be used by the CUPS printing system (Linux, OSX), and you may be able to find a freely available driver from places like or Project Guttenberg. PCL, or Printer Command Language, is another standard introduced by HP some years ago, and printers besides HP printers may be compatible. Either option increases the chance of being able to use your printer with other operating systems, even if the manufacture doesn't provide a driver directly - several operating systems as well as applications have the ability to output or convert to PostScript, may have a generic PS driver, or you may locate one elsewhere, that will meet most of your printing needs.

Reliability should be an obvious one - no one wants to spend their hard earned money, regardless of the amount, and then have to replace the printer months or even maybe years later due to it breaking down. While I highly recommend researching any device before purchasing, whether via NewEgg, Amazon comments, or simply by searching for '<device name/model> review', one thing to consider is that a lot of reviews are done by people immediately after purchase, which may cover the initial experience of getting it to work, some features, but is hardly a guarantee that a device is still working 6-12 months later. Look for followup/update reviews whenever possible and search for reliability comments. The other thing to consider in our 'everyone is a reviewer' world today is that some people may claim 'expert skills,' but really not be qualified or even have experience with any other similar product to base their reviews on. That happens in all product domains, with expected results - most people after spending money either tend to 'love' their purchase, or hate it, irrespective of their (lack of?) experience elsewhere, or the fact that they may have only opened the box 30 minutes ago. Always consider the source of reviews or comments when reading them. The other thing you'll inevitably see is a number of extremely low ratings - sadly, manufacturing isn't flawless today, and no matter the company, whether Apple, HP, whomever - some DOA(Dead On Arrival) devices are still a possibility, as well as people possibly breaking the item(s) themselves within 30 minutes of, or during, opening. That is far from a blanket excuse - if you can only find 10 reviews of a product, and half of them are saying it was broken out of the box, or that it simply doesn't work as advertised, I would be very leery of purchasing such a product, but some comments or reviews should be taken in context of the larger picture, which is why I suggest specifically looking for longer term reviews before making a purchase decision.

Duplexing may be something important to you as well - if your mostly use your printer to print out coupons or single pages such as recipes, it may not be worth the additional cost duplexing usually commands, but for printing out booklets, college work, some presentations or larger documents it can be invaluable. Be careful about the differences between printers that allow for 'assisted' or 'manual' duplexing, which really means you have to feed the same paper through the printer again to get the 'second side,' and those offering true automatic duplexing. The latter is preferred by a long margin, but if the need is only occasional, the former may suffice.

Multifunction devices ('MF' or 'All-in-ones') sound like a great idea - one or more of printer, FAX, copier, scanner, all combined into one. They are a great idea, one that has been around for ages in larger business grade devices - there isn't a tremendous difference between devices that copy in some fashion (FAX, copier, scanner) and those that print (printer, copier, FAX), outside of being black and white or color, and the inclusion of a phone line. Add a network connection and network scanning, or 'PC FAX' becomes another option. Sadly, any multi-function printer is not the same as any other. Some will allow scanning over the network to a computer, some won't. Some will allow you to send a FAX directly from computer, some won't, or will only work from some operating systems. Some will allow the reduction or scaling of images scanned to various degrees, or allow double sides scanning/copying, while others only offer a 1:1 sizing and may not allow double sided scans or copies. Of course, buying a MF printer(/copier/scanner/etc) usually comes at a price premium, although not always much of one, but also limits your potential choices, so it's up to you to decide what you need, and then make the decision; there are plenty of inexpensive but decent quality laser printers out there that are not multi function devices, and if you don't need those extras, why not save some money? If you've decided you do require a MF printer, decide which specific features are expected to be actually used - it might sound nice to be able to make double sized, reduced image 4 pages to 1 copies, but what would you actually used that for? 

Print speeds and Power Consumption round up the final considerations.

Why isn't print speed a higher priority? For a printer serving a small office or larger, it would be, because after all, time is money. However, for the normal home environment, unless you are routinely printing out hundreds of pages daily, and must have them 'at once,' unable to read them on a computer screen and saving a few trees along the way, how much does it really matter? Most printers today have a reasonable PPM/Pages Per Minute output, which I consider to be anything over 16PPM or so. The actual PPM from different manufacturers may or may not be directly comparable depending on their testing criteria, and even from a single manufacturer, there is no guarantee that your printing experience will match their testing. Given identical pricing and features, sure, I'd take the 30PPM over 15PPM, but consider your own printing behaviors and needs before worrying overly much about PPM ratings, especially before paying extra money for a higher speed unless truly justified by either the volume of printing you do, or the number of users a printer will need to support. Another consideration is the time to first page output, from either power on or from waking from sleep or energy saving mode. If a printer takes 5 minutes to warm up before first print, you are only printing 3 pages at a time on average, does it really matter how high the PPM may be? :)

Power consumption is something that should at least be considered by most of us - here, there is little competition between inkjets and laser printers - inkjets are considerably lower, in the 20-50Watt range, while some laser printers can go above 1,000 Watts during printing on some models. Let's face it though, most of us don't print nonstop during the day outside of some very busy offices (at which point one would hope the business income would cover the cost of electricity! :) ), and thankfully, most printers even years old generally offer some power saving measures. If you print 50-100 or more pages each day, will a laser printer cost you more in electricity in a month over an inkjet? Certainly, but how long will the printer be operating consuming > 500Watts with a PPM of 25 or so? A few minutes? When not actively printing, expect power consumption to be 50-100Watts, like a single (incandescent) lightbulb, not too bad, but still it can get better by looking at the energy saver or 'sleep modes', which can usually be configured as to how long before a printer goes to 'sleep,' much like laptops and desktops can. It is worth taking a look at these numbers, as I've seen a range anywhere between 1 and 100 Watts in sleep or energy conservation modes, but there are some laser printers that can compete directly with inkjets on low power consumption when in those modes.

Closing Thoughts

There is certainly no dearth of selection available when it comes to choosing a printer, hundreds if not thousands of different models from HP, Canon, Brother, Epson, Lexmark and others abound, and most of them promise decent PPMs, some with lots of 'extra' functionality, and it's easy enough as with most purchases to get lost in the jungle of narrowing them down when reading through advertising and specifications.

Take a moment to think about what you actually use your printer for, whether or not you need some or all of the features of a multi-function device, how often you print and what types of printing jobs, look for solid long term reviews as well as price of consumables (ink or toner), and hopefully you'll wind up with a sold performer that will last you for years to come.