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The Right Printer for the Job

You've got lots to print--photos, documents, color flyers--does that mean you need lots of printers? Not necessarily.

I earned my printing stripes back in the days when my Apple IIc computer was as much a marvel as its companion dot matrix printer. That printer loved to jam every time I was rushing to turn in a term paper. Printers (and my ability to meet deadlines) have improved radically since then--and, unfortunately, shopping for a printer has become as confusing as an advanced statistics class. There seems to be a different color printer for every task: ink jets for daily printing chores; photo printers for making snapshots; lasers for producing crisp, attractive business handouts; and multifunction devices that scan, copy, and fax. Ugh. It's like an equation you wish someone else would solve.

You need to print all sorts of things, from photos to newsletters. But you don't want to overspend, buy three printers, or cut too many corners on quality. When buying a printer, it's important to know exactly what you want it to do. And you should think creatively about ways to get the job done without being lured into the latest, greatest products. Let's look at our options and see how well they're suited to the way you work and play.

All-in-One Devices

Color multifunction printers turn many people's heads because they claim to do so much--print, scan, fax, and/or copy. What's more, vendors have recently cut prices and improved printing and scanning quality. But according to tests by PC World, none of them does everything splendidly.

Most multifunction printers do an admirable job on a couple of tasks, but a mediocre job on others. For instance, a device may be ideal for home-office work, but not necessarily for printing photos. If you're willing to accept this reality to save some space and maybe a few bucks, one of these devices could be just what you need, particularly in a brand-new office.

The Canon MultiPass 730 ($400) is a good multifunction printer. It made quick work of PC World printing tests, which means that it won't make you wait too long for your documents. Its scanner also works quickly, creating high-quality color reproductions (although black-and-white scans don't turn out as great).

Another good model, the Hewlett Packard PSC2210 ($300), excels at printing, but sometimes turns out disappointing color scans.

The bottom line: Know which features matter most to you and scrutinize reviews accordingly. But keep in mind that multifunction printers aren't the only way to print, scan, fax, and copy from your PC. Read on.

Trusty Ink Jets

Multifunction devices that do all kinds of tricks may sound sexy. But for many people, the old standby--a color ink jet printer--remains the best all-around choice for the money. Ink jets are ideal for home users who need to print text pages, color graphics (like greeting cards or flyers), and color photos.

An ink jet printer is an especially good choice if you already own a flatbed color scanner, which often comes with new PCs. With a scanner, you suddenly have the equivalent of a multifunction printer--for a whole lot less. You can scan and print documents to make copies; and simple fax software or an online eFax account can handle occasional faxing jobs.

When shopping for an ink jet printer, focus on models that combine speedy black-and-white and high-quality photo printing. For example, the Canon i550 ($130), Lexmark Z55se Color Jetprinter ($85), and Epson Stylus C62 ($80) all worked well in recent PC World tests. Make sure to read unbiased printer reviews to get the best idea of how fast they work. The "page-per-minute" ratings you see on printer boxes mean precious little: Every manufacturer writes its own rules to derive these ratings, so it's useless to compare one company's speed claims to another's.

Keep in mind that vendors have a little secret (maybe it's not so little): They don't make money from printers anymore. It's all about the ink. You will repeatedly shell out roughly $30 each for those black and color ink jet cartridges that your printer needs; and if you print a lot, the costs mount quickly. Some printers use less expensive cartridges than others. For instance, Canon's i550 printer is relatively economical; it uses a $14 black cartridge and three $12 color cartridges.

And if you think you can save a mint by taking advantage of great deals online, tread carefully. Sales of fake ink cartridges are on the rise, showing up on EBay, at Web stores, and even at your local computer shop. These bogus cartridges can malfunction, clog up printers, or simply turn out poor results.

Speedy Lasers

With color ink jets so affordable, why would anyone want an expensive color laser printer? Although the prices on these printers once limited them to big companies, color lasers lately have become more suited to home-office budgets. Examples are the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1500L ($799) and the Minolta-QMS Magicolor 2300W ($699): They're still expensive, but manageable on a smaller budget.

If you need the highest-quality color pages--say you print out presentations and brochures or you're a realtor who needs top-notch flyers--spending the extra cash for a color laser printer makes sense. These printers give you the cleanest and sharpest results. Also, laser printers like the new HP print out long documents quickly, at roughly twice the text speed of typical ink jets.

On the downside, color lasers don't always print out high-quality 4-by-6 inch glossy snapshots. So if you want a laser that doubles as a photo printer, you may be out of luck.

Photo Specialists

For photography nuts, there's one best option: the dedicated photo printer. These $100-to-$500 specialty ink jets boast the sleekest designs and produce the best snapshots. They almost always have slots for digital camera memory cards, so you can transfer pictures directly from camera to printer--no PC required. (Unless you're like me, and many of your photos require some work with image editing software first.)

Photo printers usually have lots of extra features. Case in point: HP's Photosmart 7550 ($300) lets you beam pictures from an HP camera like the Photosmart 320 right to a USB port on the printer. And its pop-up LCD panel lets you do tasks like rotate images without using your PC.

But photo printers are not always great performers on plain paper, particularly with black-and-white images. And something else you should know: Color snapshot print speeds vary widely. Canon's i9100 ($500) prints photos at 1.5 pages per minute, making it quite speedy among its competition; the Lexmark P707 ($100) takes a whopping 10 minutes per photo.

Snapshot Savings

The fact is that nobody wants substandard photos after being used to high-quality processing from a local photo shop. At the same time, no one wants to buy more printers than they need. You need to figure out how much control you want over printing your photos. If you always want your pictures right now, and you want them to look like they came out of the processing machine at the photo shop, you'll need that extra specialized printer.

But ask yourself: What does it cost to print snapshots? Between ink and paper, the bill adds up fast. Costs vary, depending on the cartridges, the paper, and the particular picture you're printing. But figure about 50 cents for each 4-by-6-inch print, regardless of type of printer you're using. And that's not all: When printing at home, people tend to print a photo more than once because they don't like the results the first time. That means you can easily double your cost.

At a retail store such as Wal-Mart or Ritz Camera you'll pay an average of 41 cents per 4-by-6-inch print. And these days many stores will make prints from a CD or memory card, so you can still edit pictures on your PC.

But there's an even better solution: Upload your image files to an online photo service. Snapfish or Shutterfly, for example, will mail you 4-by-6-inch prints on archive-quality paper in a matter of days. Shutterfly charges 49 cents each for this size of print (with frequent 10-to-20-percent discount offers). But to get real savings, you can buy a prepaid photo plan. If you pay Shutterfly $99 in advance, you get 340 prints--that's 29 cents each. Snapfish offers 400 prepaid prints for $99.95, or 25 cents per print. Granted, you have to pay for shipping, but the fees are reasonable; it costs $1.99 to receive 20 to 29 prints from Shutterfly.

You can still use whichever color printer you ultimately choose to print the odd photo. But by freeing yourself from the task of always doing it at home, you have a lot more flexibility to find the best color printer for your other needs. And knowing that, consider your printer dilemma solved.

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