Tuesday, May 8, 2007

How to buy a printer

I am often asked for printer recommendations. Many people think there is a single metric to rate a printer, for example the resolution in dots per inch, but then when they visit a store, they are overwhelmed by the choice. Often a manufacturer has even more than one model at the same price. How do you buy a printer?

The hardware technology is very advanced for all manufacturers, so a single metric will be of no help in choosing a printer. For example, the resolution is meaningless, because there simply are no longer any printers on the market where resolution is a determining quality criterion.

Because all products are at a high quality level, price is not a criterion either—you get what you pay for. Today’s markets operate at the highest efficiency level and the competition is so fierce that printers are priced at what they cost to manufacture. There is no room for price padding or charging what the market can bear. You can be sure that all manufacturers work with an anorexic staff and use just in time manufacturing. Nobody can afford people or material on standby in case something unforeseen happens. Still, if manufacturer honesty if of paramount importance to you, today it has become very easy to find out how much margin there is in a printer, just look up the SAG (sales and general expenses) in the annual report to determine the cost of the executives, then add the dividend paid to the shareholders for their investment in the R&D and manufacturing plants.

The proof of the printer market’s honest pricing is that there are no counterfeits and no generic printers, even not in emerging economy countries. Trust me, you really get what you pay for.

How then do you decide what printer to buy? When designing printers, and many other products, manufacturers build a number of customer profiles. Then they design a product that best fits that customer profile. Therefore, they best way to buy a printer is to profile yourself, and then look at the printer specifications for you profile; the printer with the best fit is the one you want to buy. If you cannot afford it upfront, usually you can lease it.

What are typical criteria to consider for a user profile? The most important one is probably how much you print. If the printer is personal and you print only a few pages a day, an ink jet printer will be most economical for a given image quality. If you print a lot, a laser printer will be more economical, because the supplies cost less.

The second important criterion is print speed. If you are a gamer who rarely prints and then does not mind waiting a couple of minutes, a $50 printer may be all you need. However, if you are a litigation lawyer who charges $800 an hour, if you are not buying a printer capable of printing at least 40 pages per minute you may be cheating on your clients. You will have to read independent printer reviews to find out what the real printer speed is for your software application, rather that how fast the print engine can mark pages, because it typically takes much longer for the software driver to image a page than for the printer hardware to print it out.

About a decade ago my wife told me we were wasting too many trees by printing only on one side of the paper, so we replaced our printers with duplex models, which can print on both sides of a page. Duplex capability may be a feature that might be important also for you. Good quality paper has little strike-through and is very suitable for duplex printing.

If the printer is to be shared, it may be handy to get a printer with a network card, so you do not have to turn on the computer on which it is attached when you need to print from another computer. In our home, we have a local color inkjet printer and a networked laser printer.

In ink jet printers there is a strong interaction between the paper and the ink. In modern papers, 60% or more are so called fillers, and the paper chemist has many degrees of freedom when designing a paper. Ink chemists have a very good understanding of paper chemistry too, and often they make a recommendation for a certain paper formula and then optimize the ink for that paper. Because of this, in an ink jet printer spending a little more on paper can make a big difference in print quality, especially when you buy the paper from the same brand as the printer. For documents that are given to customers or sent out of the house, spend a little more and use a high quality paper, because the cost per page is in the ink, not the paper. When you print photographs, use only a photo quality paper, because the image quality is so much better.

Even on a laser printer, where there is less interaction between paper and toner, you get much better quality for your important documents and especially photographs (e.g. when you print brochures or term papers) when you use a glossy paper formulated for your printer. However, in general the paper quality is less important than on inkjet printer, except when you need a high speed printer, because the mechanical engineer will have optimized the paper path for his own brand of paper and you are less likely to get a paper jam when the paper is a little out of spec, like when the printer is in a high humidity environment.

If you end up regularly using two papers, one for in-house documents and one for documents that go out, you may want to add to your profile the requirement of two paper cassettes, so you do not have to keep changing the paper in the printer.

When you use multiple paper types, e.g. one for letters and one for photos, you have to set the paper type in the print dialog. If you are forgetful and end up wasting media because you printed with the incorrect settings, it might be wise to add a paper type sensor to your customer profile.

At this point you should be able to write down your user profile. Other criteria like borderless printing, wireless connectivity, input sheet capacity, etc. should be easy to pin down. Now you can check the various vendors’ Web sites and find the best printer that matches your profile. It is very likely that there will be just one or two printers ideally suited for your requirements. Your choice has become easier.

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