Printers Buyers Guide
The way in which printers operate is quite simple. In short, printers work by converting digital images and text into physical copies. They do this using a driver or specialised software that has been designed to convert the file into a language that the printer can understand. The image or text is then recreated on to the page using a series of minuscule dots. The only real difference that separates the various types of machines available is the method in which the dots are transferred onto the page.
In this guide we’ll look at the various printing technologies, main features and specialised functions, in order to provide you with information to ensure you make the right printer choice. Let’s get started.
There are two main types of printing technologies - by which we mean how the image gets onto the paper - inkjet and laser or LED. Let’s take a look at each one.
Inkjet printers each feature a print head containing thousands of tiny holes, and these tiny openings drop microscopic droplets of ink onto the paper. Inkjet machines use a liquid ink produced either by either a coloured dye or a liquid that contains solid pigments in suspension. As the print head moves horizontally in the machine, the paper passes through perpendicular to it. As the page passes through, the individual holes in the print head are activated (usually by heat or electrical current depending on the manufacturer) and a small drop of ink is pushed out onto the page. This process is performed at high speed with thousands of droplets forming together to recreate the digital text or image that is being transferred onto the paper. To the naked eye, the overall image looks to be solid because the dots are so tiny.
Laser or LED Printing
Laser and LED machines work in a similar way to inkjet in that the image is made up of lots of tiny dots, which, when viewed as a whole, appear to be a solid image. However, the method in which the tiny dots make their way onto the paper is vastly different. Where an inkjet uses liquid dots, a laser machine uses dots made up of toner – a fine powder of solid particles. When compared with an inkjet machine, lasers are much more complex. These machines rely on many more stages during the process than inkjet. In simple terms, the basic process uses a light source (laser / LED), drum (for mono) or multiple drums (for colour) and toner.
In order to create an image on the page, the drum is first charged and then the laser or LED is shone onto the drum in the outline of the intended image. The toner itself is attracted to areas of the drum that have the charge knocked off and a series of rollers transfer the powder from the toner cartridge and presents it at the drum. The areas that are charged repel the toner and the area that is not attracts the toner particles which are pulled onto the drum and stick to the parts that make up the image. At the same time, the paper is also transported to meet the drum, which, in turn, transfers the image across to the page itself. The paper is then passed through a fuser unit (a hot roller) which applies heat and pressure to melt the toner particles so that they stick to the page and create a finished image.
Inkjet or Laser / LED Printer?
So which technology should you choose?
If you’re looking for a home printer for occasional printing, we would advise you to buy an inkjet printer, especially if you’ll only be printing small volumes of documents and coloured images, inkjet printers will get the job done. Laser and LED printers are known to be more durable and can print large quantities of monochrome and coloured documents frequently.
Colour laser / LED printers are good for everyday colour printing but if you’re looking to print professional high resolution photos, go with a photo inkjet printer. High quality photo inkjet printers are specially engineered to produce vividly detailed photos with the tonal variety and deeper blacks that photographers and creatives need. Many professional photo inkjet printers use pigment-based ink which is more fade-resistant and works with a wide variety of art paper types as well as a range of paper sizes, but you can also find dye-based photo inkjet printers if you don’t require the longevity of pigment ink. The below summary table gives a brief comparison, but we’ll look at each of these facets in more detail later.
|Inkjet||Photo Inkjet||Laser / LED|
|Initial Cost||£ - ££||££ - £££||££ - £££|
|Replacement Cartridge Cost||££||££||£££|
|Cost per Page||High||High||Low|
It’s also worth noting that since there are less moving parts, LED printers are more reliable than laser printers over time. They are also smaller and lighter so they may appeal to those working in smaller offices.
After choosing which print technology suits you best, the next thing to think about is what size print outs you require. Most common offices will use A4 paper, perhaps legal paper sizes and envelopes too, however you may have a need for A3 printing or larger still. Usually an office may have one A3 printer for the less frequent larger format jobs, and several standard A4 models for workgroups. A4 is also the standard size found in a home environment.
High quality photo printing will often benefit from an A3 format giving greater flexibility of photo sizes, and using photo paper will improve the end result with options of matte or gloss finishes.
When larger than A3 is required there are specific large format printers (LFPs) deigned to do banner size printing at higher resolution. We’ll come back to both photo inkjet and large format printers later on in this guide.
Now we’ll look at all the facets that impact how an image will look on paper, how fast the printer can produce this and in what volume over time. These intertwined characteristics all have an impact on which type of printer will be best for your individual needs.
Mono or Colour Printing
A common perception is that inkjet printers are better with coloured images, and laser printers are best for black and white text. The technology behind the two printers also determine the limitations they have when it comes to the quality of their print results. This difference manifests itself more noticeably when printing high-resolution photographs. Advancements in printer technology have allowed colour laser printers to now produce impressive full colour photos as well. Although inkjet printers still win over laser when it comes to high resolution photos boasting rich tones and depth, colour laser printers are now an option to consider for those looking to print medium-quality colour images while enjoying the reliability, endurance, and economic benefits of a laser printer.
|Mono Laser||Colour Laser||Inkjet||Photo Inkjet|
|Text and Documents||5||5||3||3|
|Medium Quality Photos||1||5||3||5|
|High Quality Photos||1||3||3||5|
• Mono laser printers: Excellent for text and documents
• Inkjet printers: Great for all round use on documents and medium-quality colour images
• Photo inkjet printers: Excellent for printing high quality photos with wide colour range and tonal depth
As we’ve seen, printers print by applying ink or toner onto the paper. The resolution of a printer is measured in dots per inch (DPI) and when more dots are squeezed into a square inch, the resulting image is sharper. A 600DPI printer squeezes 600 dots horizontally and 600 dots vertically in every square inch of the sheet. Some inkjet printers have a higher resolution in one direction, so you might also see a resolution like 600 x 1200DPI. Up to a point, the higher the resolution, the crisper the image on the sheet.
Printers can place dots of different sizes, intensities, and shapes onto the page, changing the way the print out looks. Some printers are capable of an optimised DPI print process, meaning their printheads calculate the placement of ink drops to improve the print quality. Optimised DPI occurs when the paper moves through the printer in one direction more slowly than usual. As a result, the dots overlap somewhat. The final result is rich, however this technique uses more ink and time than the printer's standard settings.
Whether you need higher resolution capability depends on what you mainly be printing. For a letter or business document with graphics, 300DPI will look fine. For the average photographer, 1200DPI would be ideal and these specs are within reach of most printers on the market. There are exceptions - a professional photographer may want a higher resolution and should consider at least 2880 x 1440DPI or higher.
Print speed may be an important factor to one user and completely irrelevant for another - again it comes down to usage. A photographer may want a high quality print no matter how long it takes, whereas an office may have a requirement to regularly print documents running to hundreds of pages. The speed of a printer is measured in pages per minute (PPM). Laser printers are built to accommodate the demands of a workplace so they are engineered to print faster (between 15 to 100 PPM), while inkjet printers print slower at about 16 PPM. Since laser printers are faster, they are able to produce more documents compared to inkjet printers and therefore have a higher monthly print volume.
Print volume refers to how much your printer can print at a given time. A laser printer is considered to be the workhorse of the office because of its capability to quickly print large amounts of documents. Given that inkjet printers are meant for home use, their print volume is significantly smaller.
|Inkjet Printer||Laser Printer|
|Pages per Minute (PPM)||15 PPM||35 PPM|
|Monthly Print Volume||250 - 500 pages||750 - 3,000 pages|
|Duty Cycle||1,000 pages||8,000 pages|
A seemingly small difference in PPM can lead to a huge different in monthly print volume. The monthly print volume refers to the recommended number of pages a printer should produce to keep the device in optimum condition - not too much stress versus enough volume so that ink doesn’t dry out.
There is also another figure quoted called the ‘duty cycle’, this refers to the absolute maximum a printer should be able to cope with without issues occurring - paper jams, component failure and the like. All these figures should be used in conjunction to determine the best printer for your needs - you don’t want to overwork a printer but neither do you want it sat idle.
Page yield is the amount of pages you will get from the ink or toner in your printer. Toner cartridges will deliver a greater page yield than ink cartridges as toners last longer than ink cartridges. Most ink cartridges contain an ink volume that can usually print between 135 – 1000 pages. Toner cartridge page yields can range from 2,000 to upwards of 10,000.
If you have a high monthly print volume you may find that the lower yield of ink cartridges becomes very expensive, so a laser printer may be the better option. Furthermore, it is highly recommended that when choosing a printer you not only look at the cost of the device but the cost of replacement ink or toner cartridges too, in order to understand what printing will really cost you in the long run. A good way to compare these is ‘cost per page’.
cost per page = cartridge price / cartridge page yield
Using the examples of the inkjet printer versus laser printer we used above, the below table gives you a typical estimate of how the costs per page compare.
|Inkjet Printer||Laser Printer|
|Page Yield||400 pages||7000 pages|
|Cost per Page||6.25p per page||2.8p per page|
Dual Sided Printing
Dual sided or duplex printing is basically printing on both sides of the sheet of paper. This is advantageous as it saves paper costs and reduces the amount of paper in any given document. Double-sided printing consumes less energy compared to normal printing too. The speed at which a printer can produce a double-sided document is down to whether it has a single or a dual print engine.
With a single-engine duplexer, each page of your print job prints on one side first and then flips over and prints on the other side. This method is common in lower cost inkjet and laser models. A double-engine duplexer means that both sides of the media are printed simultaneously. With this method, usually found in high-end laser printers, a conductor belt generates a picture of both sides of the print job using the data retrieved from your PC. Then, it sends both sides of the page image to one of two transfuser belts that merge and apply toner as pieces of paper slide through the printing device.
As we’ve seen higher end printers offer better print volumes and speed, so naturally they need larger volume paper trays to cope with the throughput. They may be simply able to hold more blank pages or have multiple trays for different types of paper - A4, photo A4, or A3. They will also feature bigger output bins too, so printed documents don’t require collecting quite as often if there are many print jobs in progress.
A multifunction printer (MFP) or all-in-one (AIO) printer can not only print but also has the ability to scan documents and copy them too. Some MFPs also have the ability to act as a fax. This is desirable as it reduces the need for multiple device es such as standalone document scanners and photocopiers - thus saving space and costs. Much like printers they are available in both inkjet and laser versions, aimed at different scenarios - low cost versions to add flexibility in the home and larger units increase productivity in an office environment.
When scanning documents, lower cost models may just create a file in a utility program on your PC, whereas larger office models may provide scan to email functionality for ease of use. Additionally high-end models will often feature an automatic document scanner (ADF) allowing many pages to be scanned one after the other without having to manually place each sheet to be scanned on the flat bed.
It is fair to say that there is little cost difference now between standard printers and multifunction printers, so they are ever more the popular choice when looking for a new device due to the flexibility they provide.
To use a printer (or its scanning functionality) you need to be connected to it in one way or another. There are three common ways to do this - USB, LAN port or wirelessly. Let’s take a look at each.
USB connectivity requires a USB cable between your PC or laptop and the printer. This is common in many home office scenarios where a single computer is using the printer so a direct connection is both convenient and cheap. It is possible to use the USB port on a printer to connect it to a wireless router to allow multiple users to share it without needing to connect directly.
Network or LAN port
Many mid-range and above models will feature a LAN port - short for local area network. Using this port gives the printer network connectivity, so that any user on the network can send items to print. Typically a printer will be shared amongst a small office, or an entire floor in a larger building. Usually when sharing a printer like this, it will be a high volume laser printer designed to output many thousands of pages a months from a large number of users.
Similar to the LAN port, wireless connectivity allows the printer to be shared with many users but without the need for cabling to link it to the rest of the network. Wireless technology has become standard in both entry-level models designed for the home and even some high-end models too - reduced cabling is desirable for less clutter in many scenarios both at home and at work. Wireless is recommended if you want to print out directly from multiple smartphones and tablets.
It is worth mentioning that the type of wireless standard used will affect the speed of connection, so it’s worth checking compatibility with your wireless router.
NFC or Near Field Communication is another type of wireless technology but aimed at occasional print use from mobile devices. The advantage is that you can simply stand next to the printer and connect to it, without being connected to a wider wireless network. The mobile device - either smartphone or tablet must have NFC ability and it be enabled to connect in this way.
In office settings where single or few larger printers or MFPs are shared it is wise for the organisation to understand how the printer is being used. This may relate to what is being printed if paper costs are high, whether certain types of user have access to colour printing or ensuring sensitive documents are not seen by the wrong eyes.
On high-end models, administrative controls provide more control over these settings. User identities and passwords can be created so that any print usage is logged back to an individual - additionally this type of feature can be used so that print jobs are not automatically printed when they are sent. The password releases them only when the user is present so sensitive content remains private rather than sitting in the output tray to be picked up by anyone. If a printer has the ability to print in colour or to scan documents this can be restricted to say the marketing department or senior managers to prevent spiralling ink or toner costs or scanned documents being emailed to the unauthorised individuals.
It is often the case with shared office printers they are sit on a network like any other PC or server device, but rarely are seen as a cyber security issue. Due to better firewall and anti-malware systems in place on computers, network printers can often be the weak link and targeted by hackers to gain access to an otherwise secure corporate environment. The majority of manufacturers address these concerns so look out for cybersecurity features if you plan to share your printer this way.
The printers we’ve covered so far deal with the vast majority of print scenarios - text, documents, photos that will be good enough for most users - however, there are a number of specialist models that we briefly touched on. Let’s look a little deeper.
Photo Inkjet Printers
Photo inkjet printers stand apart from regular inkjet printers in that they usually contain many more ink tanks - up to 10 or 12 in some models versus 5 or 6 in a regular printer. The reason for this is in order to produce much more realistic images with tonal depth, hues and richness. Not only are there more of these inks, but they are usually pigment based, rather than dye based. Dye inks consist of a soluble colourant, or dye, dissolved in liquid, while pigment inks consist of microscopic specks of solid colours which are suspended in liquid.
Dye inks are cheaper to produce than pigment ink so you’ll find that they are the most common inks used in entry-level and mid-range photo printers. You’ll get great colour vibrancy as dye inks tend to offer brighter and more vivid colours than pigment inks and so especially effective for colourful portraiture or landscape images. Dye also works with a range of photo papers with the best results coming on high gloss media – ideal for album photography. Pigment ink, however is found in professional-grade photo printers, capable of high-quality output onto a variety of media. It also has durable output as pigment inks don’t smudge and are lightfast - ideal for photos that will be on display. Pigment ink also gives consistent results with all finishes of media including gloss, matte, lustre or even fine art canvas. Also, having multiple black inks offer the best results for black and white photography.
Photo printers will usually be able to print A3 or even A2 sizes too, to offer greater flexibility in size and shape of images. Typically their print resolution quality is much higher too, with 5760 x 1440 or 4800 x 2400 DPI not being uncommon.
Ink Tank Printers
Ink tank printers are regular inkjet printers but with much large refillable tanks rather than replaceable cartridges - the idea being that refilling a larger ink receptacle from a bottle creates higher page yield and lower cost per page.
This type of printer is ideal if you want the lower costs associated with laser printers but better flexibility with photo printing.
Large Format Printers
Large format printers (LFPs) provide a way to print very large images - these are ideal if you’re a professional photographer requiring large superb quality prints, a commercial printer producing marketing displays, or an architect drafting building designs.
LFPs include models designed specifically for CAD line drawings, formerly known as plotters. These have the ability to print high quality line drawings, graphics and images of 3D renders.
A barcode printer is a printer designed to produce barcode labels which can be attached to other objects. Barcode printers use either direct thermal or thermal transfer techniques to apply ink to labels. Thermal transfer printers use ink ribbons to apply the barcode directly into the label, while thermal transfer printers use heat to blacken the barcode onto the label.
While both are effective, barcodes produced from direct thermal printers are more likely to become unreadable if exposed to elements such as heat, sunlight, and chemicals, and therefore don’t have the longevity of barcodes made with thermal transfer. Because of the longevity of the barcodes produced by thermal transfer printers, as well as their overall printing quality and higher expense of production materials, they tend to be more costly than direct thermal printers. Barcode printers can be used for small business to industrial use, and are most commonly used for shipping products.
3D printers differ greatly from regular paper printing - they use computer-aided design (CAD) to create three-dimensional objects through a layering method. Sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing involves layering materials, like plastics, composites or bio-materials to create objects that range in shape, size, rigidity and colour.
Although a relatively new technology, it has been adopted by manufacturing industries to create low cost prototypes, the medical profession for rapid production and even F1 racing teams to produce car components quickly at race events. Due to it being an entirely different printing process you can learn more in our dedicated 3D Printers Buyers Guide.
As we’ve previously mentioned the true cost of owning and running a printer very much on the consumables it requires and how often they need to be replaced.
The cheapest printers may use a single ink tank containing various colours, however when one colour runs out the whole unit must be replaced, so costs can add up - often similar to the cost of the printer itself. Most common is the separate ink tank - four or five in mid-range models and up to twelve in high-end photo printers. As they are individual you only need to replace the colour cartridge that has run out, so this proves much more cost effective. The tanks in a printer may not always be the same size - standard black usually being larger than any of the colours of photo black ink.
It will also be more cost effective if you have the print volume requirement to choose an ink tank printer, as the ink bottles are larger and again more cost effective. It is also worth mentioning that although many companies offer third-party ink cartridges and refills, the printer manufacturers themselves only recommend using their own branded supplies.
Depending on whether you need a mono or colour laser printer, then you will need either just a black toner replacement cartridge or several colour ones too.
Again, third party toner cartridges are available, but the printer manufacturers only recommend using their own branded supplies.
Paper is the most obvious supply required for your printer and will vary hugely depending on what you want to print. However, with so many different sheet types and sizes available on the market, it can be difficult to determine which ones can be used with your printer and which ones are right for a particular job. Some common types of paper are as follows:
Matte Paper - this is the most commonly used printer paper. Matte paper is characterised by its dull, lustreless coating and smooth surface finish. Thanks to the texture and absorbency of matte paper, ink dries quickly on its surface – reducing the risk of smears and blemishes.
Glossy Paper - coated in a high-shine polymer, glossy printer papers produce rich, vibrant colour and impeccable detail – making them an excellent choice for printing sharp, full colour photographs. The downside to glossy paper is that ink tends to dry slowly on its surface, increasing the likelihood of smudges and smears.
Bright White Paper - standard copy paper is white, but it isn’t as white as bright white paper. This specially developed paper features a non-textured surface and a brilliant white coating – making it perfect for professional, corporate use when you require more image and text definition.
Photo Paper - in essence, photo paper is just another type of glossy paper – albeit, with a few subtle differences. Photo paper is usually glossy on one side only, and has a much higher weight than other glossy papers. It’s often brighter too, enabling sharper image definition.
We touched on paper size at the start of this guide and it’s worth a reminder on the common ones you may see. Larger format printers will be able to print in a wide variety of sizes whereas smaller models will be limited to A4 and below.
|Paper Size||Width x Height (mm)||Width x Height (in)|
|A0||841 x 1189||33.1 x 46.8|
|A1||594 x 841||23.4 x 33.1|
|A2||420 x 594||16.5 x 23.4|
|A3||297 x 420||11.7 x 16.5|
|A4||210 x 297||8.3 x 11.7|
|A5||148 x 210||5.8 x 8.3|
You may also see C- sizes referred to - these are exclusive to envelopes. The sizes vary from C0 to C5 and so on, and mainly correspond to their similar sizes in the A range of paper, although by design they are slightly bigger. This marginal difference in size allows the similar A size sheet to fit inside the envelope.
Paper weight can make a huge difference to the end result of a printed page. Paper weight is generally measured in GSM. This stands for ‘Grams per Square Metre and is a measurement of paper thickness or density, which directly relates to the quality of the media. The higher the GSM value of the paper, the thicker it is. Some common weights you may see are as follows:
|300GSM+||Good quality business card, or heavy card media|
|180GSM – 250GSM||Middle market magazine cover|
|130GSM – 170GSM||Promotional posters|
|80GSM||Standard issue day-to-day office matte white paper|
|35GSM – 55GSM||Most everyday newspapers|
The Best Printers
Hopefully, you’ve found this printer guide useful in advising the considerations that should come into purchasing a printer. Click on the links below to explore our ranges of printers and accessories.
If you need further assistance with your printer choice, please don’t hesitate to contact one of our friendly advisors.