Originally created 04/29/01

How to choose a printer

Personal computing was supposed to spawn a paperless society, but millions of printers are sold every year. If you're in the market for a printer, here are some things to consider.

First, choose an inkjet. They're small, light, clean and quiet. The output is difficult for anyone but an expert to distinguish from expensive laser printers.

Inkjets can cost less than dinner for two in a good restaurant. The ink cartridges can set you back more than the cost of the printer in a short time if you print everything you see, but you're smarter than that, right?

Inkjet-printed pages do smear and bleed when wet, but if you limit your correspondence to those with the sense to come in out of the rain, it won't be a problem.

Next, consider the resolution, or dots per inch (dpi). That means the number of dots the printer can produce in a square inch. More is better.

Dpi figures are usually shown as multiplication problems, such as "1440 x 720." To compare resolutions, multiply the numbers in each dpi figure. For example, 1440 x 720 equals 1,036,800, four times the resolution of a 720 x 360 (259,200) printer.

Remember that the kind of paper you use influences the print quality. Paper with a smooth finish performs better than paper with a porous finish.

Look for a printer with a separate cartridge for black ink. For most of us, black text is our biggest print need. Printers without a separate black cartridge generate a sort-of black hue by mooshing color droplets together - but that just eats up color cartridges.

Don't spend a lot of time fretting over printing speed. The pages-per-minute figures depend on the content of the page being printed. If you can reduce the time it takes to print a page from 15 seconds to 10 by spending more money, first explain how you plan to use time in five-second increments.

A scanning cartridge option, which allows you to use the printer as a scanner, is a useful feature. Some printers will interface directly with a digital camera, allowing you to make prints directly from the camera. For most of us, it's easier and ultimately cheaper to preview and select photos on the computer screen.

Pay attention to the printer's communications port, especially if your computer is old. Some printers come only with the universal serial bus (USB) port, which doesn't appear on older machines. They need a parallel port.

You'll need Windows 98 SE or Windows ME or better to deal with the hardware in the PC world. Those editions of Windows or better recognize USB ports.

Which manufacturer should you choose? You won't go astray with products from (in alphabetical order) Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard or Lexmark. Before you buy, check their Web sites. Sales from retailers often beat the price you see on the Web site, but they all offer acceptable printers for less than $80.

Here's another point to consider: Repairing a cranky, old printer is usually more trouble and expense than it's worth. The same goes for keyboards, modems and mice.

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