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Geek Guide: Printers 101

Volume Number: 25 (2009)
Issue Number: 01
Column Tag: Geek Guide

Geek Guide: Printers 101

There are so many considerations when buying a printer. Here are the issues to advise users on.

by Dennis Sellers & Neil Ticktin, MacTech Editorial Staff

Are you asked for advice all the time? MacTech Geek Guides are here to help you understand the right questions to ask, know the most important issues and terms, and give the right guidance to those that look to you for expertise.

Welcome

Have you been asked about buying a printer, or you are looking to buy a printer yourself? There are exactly 1,032 Mac compatible models from which to choose. Okay, we made that up. But sometimes it seems that way. There are a plethora of printers from which to pick, and MacTech is here to help you advise others on (or help you) select the right one. With so many different printing technologies suited for different printing needs and budgets, there are a lot of things to consider. We've spent the last several months looking at a wide variety of HP printers putting them through real life paces to see how things actually work.

Standalone or multi-function device?

First of all, you should decide if you want a standalone printer or a multi-function printer (or, "MFP," also known as an "All-in-One" printer). If you have basic printing needs and run a small office/home office (or are simply cramped for space) a MFP can save you both room and money as they also offer copier, fax and scanning functions. On the down side, if you run out of ink, or the machine breaks, you could lose all functionality, not just printing. Also, most MFPs often don't have top-of-the-line printer functions, so if you're printing large or detailed photos, a standalone device might better suit your purposes. You can find a mid-range multi-function inkjet printer for less than $200.

For workgroups, and small offices, there are some really amazing multi-function color lasers that easily replace the stereotypical copy machines of the past. We don't normally think of printer companies like HP as producing copiers, but the mid-high volume multi-function devices are every bit the digital copier that the typical "copier brands." And, their Mac integration is far better.

One thing to realize with a networked MFP is that you get network scanning and faxing as well. In particular, Mac support for the consumer lines is quite good and people can scan right from their desktops. This includes not only pictures, and documents, but you can also apply OCR technologies (which still has a ways to go on accuracy).

Inkjet vs. Laser Printers

Also, you must decide if you want an inkjet or laser printer. Inkjet printers are the least expensive of the two as they're primarily sold or given away by the printer companies to entice you to buy their ink and cartridges, as well as specialty paper (e.g., photo paper). Printer manufacturing companies expect a printer will last the consumer about 36 months, according to the folks at the Ink for Your Printer web site (www.inkforyourprinter.com). During that time the consumer will pay for the printer in the first 4-6 months of use of cartridges, they add.

Inkjets can be purchased with either a single ink cartridge, or up to seven or eight separate ink cartridges. Having separate cartridges are better for higher quality printing (colors are more precise, especially with photography) and ink consumption efficiencies are better.

We were once told that that ink is one of the most expensive substances (e.g., price per gallon) around. Cartridges are manufactured for cents and are sold for maximum profit. The $30 Dell or HP cartridge costs about 30 cents to manufacture, distribute and sell, according to Ink for Your Printer. So you'll get a great deal up front, but have to pay for it later in increments (sort of like with the iPhone 3G, come to think of it). What's more, you can often find inkjets bundled with new computers or as part of special deals.

Laser printers cost more up front, but have historically had lower follow-up expenses. It wasn't many years ago that laser printers, especially color models, were simply too costly for the average user. However, now you can get even a decent color laser model for under $400. You can also get MFP versions of laser printers.

One thing that people don't realize is laser prints are far more durable. In fact, toner is really small particles of plastic attracted to the paper, and then melted on the page. This gives the greatest amount of durability for that printout. Furthermore, you can print much higher volumes of laser prints more quickly than you can with most inkjets. So, lasers are seen very often in the work environments where permanence is important, as well as speed.

One of the things to take note of when buying a laser is what toner cartridges come with it. Some manufacturers give "starter" cartridges. While others give full cartridges to start. While this may seem insignificant at first, it could really be a couple hundred dollars difference in reality. Make sure you know what you are in for, including the replacement costs of the cartridges.

Take note, however. Some printers have cartridges that are just the ink, but then also have separate print heads that need to be replaced periodically. Others, have the ink and print head integrated into one cartridge. In those cases, it's almost like getting a "new" printer when you get new cartridges, and can make a noticeable difference to print quality.

A good rule of thumb for lasers is that one toner cartridge contains about the same amount of printing as three ink jet cartridges. This is true for most of the HP printers and the Canon inkjet printers that use the print head type ink cartridges (BC-01, BC-02, BC-20, etc.).

Now, to make matters even more confusing, some of the inkjets now tout a lower cost per page than some of the lasers. For example, we've used the HP Officejet Pro L7680 and L7780 extensively, and found the cartridges last a considerable amount of time.

Duty Cycle

Duty cycle - the number of pages you expect to print each day or week or month - is another important consideration - and one in which lasers have the edge. Most printer manufacturers descriptions include this info. If they don't, track it down before you commit to a purchase. And always - ALWAYS - see a quality of the print output before buying any type of printer. With so many choices from each vendor, it's important to match what the printer does to what your needs are.

Laser printers require regular maintenance for the best service, and they can often be repaired if something breaks. Inkjets, on the other, are like low-end DVD players these days: disposable. That's not a good thing environmentally, but simply the way things work.

If you don't need photo quality, lasers may be the best way to go. Lasers have sharper text and are generally faster than inkjets. While toner cartridges are more expensive than ink, they print more pages, so the cost per page is often lower. In fact, the ideal set-up would be to have a laser for text output and an inkjet for photos - and with current prices, that may be a whole lot more realistic than it used to be.

Printers for Photographers

There are almost as many printers aimed at photographers as there are types of photographers themselves. Pro shooters should invest in a high-end photo printer that allows them to output prints up to 11 x 14 inches with fine detail. Such printers are several hundred bucks more than the average inkjet, but when your livelihood is involved, it's best not to skimp. For example, HP's Photosmart Pro line prints beautiful prints, on a variety of media and sizes, but it will cost you several hundred dollars.

If you're printing family shots, a less expensive, and more compact, photo printer will suffice. Printers like this - usually in the $125 to $175 range - offer good output, though some compact photo printers can't print out normal sized documents. Make sure yours can if that's a need.

Specs

Perhaps the most important spec you'll need to know about a printer is resolution, which is measured in dots per inch (dpi). This refers to the maximum number of dpi that can be printed, measured both horizontally and vertically. For example, a 600 x 600 dpi laser printer lays down a one-inch square composed of 600 dots across by 600 dots down. A printer with a higher resolution is capable of producing more-detailed text and images.

New printers vary from as low as 600 x 600 and go up to 4800 x 1200 dpi. According to the FreewareFiles.com web site http://www.freewarefiles.com/news/showarticle.php?articleID=15), there aren't really cases where text output requires that high dpi. In our experience, anything above 600x600 is a waste for text. Others would say that anything above 300x300 dpi is just a waste of ink, and sometimes even 300 x 300 is too high.

Some printers also come with resolution enhancement technology (RET) technology or software. This is a form of image processing technology used to manipulate dot characteristics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_processing). Most laser printers have printer engines that print at either 300 dpi or 600 dpi. Using algorithms that recognize curved lines, a printer with resolution enhancement can produce output whose resolution appears to be much higher than the print engine's rated resolution. This is why many printer manufacturers characterize their printers with two resolution ratings: the engine resolution and the effective resolution. A common resolution enhancement technique is to vary the size of the dots.

You'll also need to know the speed of your printer, which is measured in pages per minute (PPM). The higher the rating, the faster it can print. Naturally, printing text documents is going to be a lot faster than printing photos. But text speed can be adjusted (for example, choose draft mode for the fastest printing), as can photos (often you can choose from good, better and best type printing options). Usually, the rating of the printer is done when in draft format. This stuff is like mileage on your car ... your mileage may vary.

For the average consumer, print speed may not be that important. Unless you're really in a hurry, it's not going to make that much difference whether it takes a document five seconds or 10 to print. And if you're printing high-quality photos, well, just slow down 'cause those take a bit of time.

That said, be aware that there are two different speeds: average page per minute and first page out. For most uses, unless you are printing multiple copies, first page out is far more important to you, and makes a recognizable difference to many people. Nothing like immediate satisfaction!

But, if you are a business user, print longer documents, or buying a workgroup product, speed can make a huge difference. And, think about how much the time saving can mean for your staff. Again, a relatively modest $100 here may buy you a whole lot more speed in something like a black and white laser. In short, match the capabilities with your speed needs.

Dye-based vs. pigment-based

When it comes to inkjets, some printers are dye-based, while others are pigment-based. When it comes to choosing between the two, experts generally agree that pigment-based ink prints last longer and often cost more while dye-based inks produce a wider, more vivid range of colors that fade more quickly.

The most important reasons for using pigment inks are archival print life, color stability, and many of the fine art papers require it. The dye inks used in most early inkjet printers quickly exhibit signs of fading or color shifts. And, when prints are exposed to sunlight-like those framed 8x10 wall prints of your kids that the sun comes through your window on-fade noticeably in a couple of years.

As a result, the graphic art and fine art markets turned to pigment inks. Pigment inks are more stable and can last more than 200 years on some paper types under ideal conditions. At least that's the theory. Time will tell.

Both types use water and both are sprayed on the paper. The main difference is dye based ink consists of a dye mixed in with the water (and other chemicals) until the dye becomes part of the liquid ink. Pigment-based inks consist of tiny particles suspended in liquid that hit the paper and stick to it. Dye-based inks feature liquid particles that actually get absorbed into the paper.

For most situations, either ink will provide excellent results; however, professionals tend to use pigment based ink systems that cost more, but are more resistant to humidity, and offer better color accuracy and image sharpness, according to Geist Images (http://www.geistimages.com/Inks.htm), a site by pro photographer, Al Geist.

As more families switch to digital cameras, it makes sense that ink jet prints will end up replacing those snapshots, he says. Since these prints are primarily for personal enjoyment, and they can be easily reprinted is someone splashes water on them, or they drop on the floor and get stepped on, longevity isn't a real concern, Geist notes.

Printers that use pigment-based inks are more common than they were a few years ago, but they still aren't the most common. This is because dye-based inks cost less and produce a bigger range of colors than pigmented inks - which is fine for most users.

Connectivity

Most all consumer printers now sport USB 2.0 connectivity (and if you find one that doesn't, you probably don't want to buy it). You can still buy printers that interface with 25-pin parallel cables - for those that like to kick it ol' school.

Workgroup printers support printing over a network using a standard Ethernet cable with an RJ-45 connector. And an increasing number of printers support wireless printing, using infrared, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi access points with built-in print servers.

Depending on your needs and use, one major thing is to figure out how users will find (aka discover) the printers you set up. This is important whether your connection is wireless or wired. In the Mac space, we have the Bonjour technology to make auto-discoverability very easy. HP's product line, as an example, has 100% compatibility all the way through their network printer line (from consumer through the high end). Others may as well. For almost all installations, Bonjour will work beautifully and allow users to find, and configure, their printers themselves.

But, Bonjour only works for printers on the same subnet, so HP's (and others) approach is to allow for you to discover a printer by giving an IP address. This allows you to connect to a printer via an IP address to go across your LAN, WAN or even the Internet.

The important part here is to figure out what type of connectivity you need and what users you'll have. Do you need to share the printer? How will that be done (Ethernet, wireless, or printer sharing)? If it's Mac OS X's Printer Sharing feature, is the machine your printer is hooked up to always available?

Paper and Media Handling

You'll want to make sure your printer can handle the paper sizes you need (or want) to work with. All desktop inkjets and laser printers worth their salt print on standard paper (letter and legal sizes) and envelopes. Unless you're buying a portable printer, don't go for a model that holds less than 100 sheets of paper. If you need advanced paper-handling features - such as tabloid-size printing, duplexing (printing on both sides), and auto document feeders for faxing and copying - you're looking for a mid-range to high-end printer.

Another important item to look at when selecting a printer is what types of paper it can handle. Do you need to print banners? Make sure the printer can handle large output. Business cards? Make sure it can handle small media. Also, don't necessarily go for the cheapest paper. Some cheaper papers will absorb the ink at different rates and this can mar the print quality of the colors of text or graphics.

In prior years, configuring your printer to print properly on each different type of paper was cumbersome at best, and really quite confusing for many people. Most people used trial and error to figure it out which wastes a lot of expensive ink as well as paper. Many of the printers have a sensor to determine whether the paper is plain or photo paper. This helps with auto-configuring the printer to put down the proper amount of ink to get the best print quality for each type of paper. Furthermore, some of the papers, like the advanced photo papers from HP, have a bar code on the back that allows the printer to know exactly the type of paper. The advanced papers have the ability to print much faster than normal photo papers.

Do you need to print on DVDs or CDs? It's amazing how few of the photo printers have the ability to do this, and don't even try to attack it on a laser. That said, if you don't need to print right on the disc, you can always go to on of the sticker solutions to apply a label to your discs. But, some (even inexpensive) photo printers do have the ability to print one disc at a time with beautiful results. It's all a matter of what your needs are.

Energy efficiency

With more and more of us looking to try to live a little "greener" for Mother Earth, you might also consider the energy efficiency of your printer. The US Department of Energy (http://www1.eere.energy.gov/femp/pdfs/printer.pdf) offers some tips on buying an energy-efficient computer printer.

If you're buying a medium- or high-speed laser printer that produces at least 6,000-8,000 pages per month, you may want to choose a model with duplexing (two-sided printing) capability. Duplexing is often a standard feature on printers with speeds above 40 ppm. Duplexing printers save on paper costs, as well as providing other benefits such as lower postage costs, reduced file space, etc. The added cost of a printer duplex attachment is often repaid in two years or less.

Also, make sure the power management and duplexing features of your printer have been "enabled" at the printer and that duplexing is the default setting within each user's software. Set the "wait time" prior to sleep mode as short as possible, consistent with user needs. Even for printers with a low-power sleep mode, you can save more energy if you manually shut them off completely at night and on weekends. A few printer models do not have a manual on/off switch; these can be shut off using an external "power strip" (surge protector).

Networked systems that allow several nearby users to share a single (faster) printer generally save time, cost, and energy compared with each computer having a dedicated printer. In some cases, an older printer that does not have an ENERGY STAR sleep mode can still be power-managed using an external control device. External controls switch the printer off (rather than into sleep mode) after a preset time, and switch it on again when a "print" signal is received. EPA's web site and hotline provide a list of external printer controls.

Cutting costs

Generic inks that are manufactured by companies other than the printer manufacturer can save you some bucks, but it can also cause you heartache. First, be sure to find out if a generic ink cartridge is compatible with your printer. Some manufacturers prevent other companies from making ink cartridges for its printers. If this is important to you, check it out in advance.

Interestingly, we've found that some generic solutions in both laser printers and inkjets produce vastly lower quality results. Others, however, do a great job. That said, some of the manufacturers are figuring things out, and are producing solutions that yield a higher number of printed pages than some generics.

While it's often possible to save money using non-manufacturer printing solutions, there's work involved in finding who to buy from, and whether you are actually able to save in the end.

What about extended warranties? The Washington Post (http://reviews.washingtonpost.com/content/Printer-Buying-Guide.htm) says you should "think very hard before you purchase any kind of extended warranty." Why? "Printers already come with a manufacturer's warranty, and if you purchase with a credit card you may get additional coverage from them. Most printers are so inexpensive nowadays that in the event the manufacturer's warranty has expired, it's cheaper to just go out and get a replacement. You may want to think about an extended warranty if you are buying a more expensive printer or if you are going to use it a lot or travel with it."

Miscellaneous Considerations

Something that may be of importance to you is a printer that supports camera card slot technology built right into the printer. It allows images to be printed directly from digital cameras to a printer, without having to connect the camera to a computer by having slots for the memory cards. What is cool about this is that many times, you can mount the memory card on your Mac and use the printer as a mass storage device (e.g., a card reader) similar to plugging in a flash drive directly into your computer.

Some printers also use a technology called PictBridge: an industry standard for connecting your camera right up to the printer, and controlling the printing from the camera. If you're printing from a camera phone, Bluetooth wireless compatibility can come in handy. Bluetooth capability is becoming more common in camera phones.

Most phones with Bluetooth technology will also be able to send your pictures directly to a printer. If this interests you, make sure that you get a Bluetooth enabled printer - or at least one that's Bluetooth capable. Bluetooth capability for printers is commonly offered via an optional adapter by printer manufacturers, and is sometimes built directly into the printer.

If you're a road warrior, you may need a portable printer. These weigh anywhere from 2-5 pounds and are big enough to let you print on a standard 8.5-inch-wide sheet of paper. The print speeds and the image quality aren't top of the line. Portable printers typically cost around $300-as with laptops compared with desktops, you're paying for the portability.

Concluding Advice

As you can see, there are lots of options to consider when buying a printer. But with a little planning and comparison shopping, you can find one that fits your needs and budget. Your first step is to go through the different areas of this article and decide what do you need and what would be nice, and then use that to figure out which printers make the most sense for you.

One thing to realize. If your printer is more than a couple of years old, it probably makes sense to get a new one instead of getting more toner or ink. The printers themselves cost almost nothing by comparison, and you may as well benefit from all that the new printers have to offer ... whether that's quality, speed, or features.

 
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