Set priorities when buying next printer

September 11, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

Buying an ink jet printer has never been easier --or harder. It's easier than ever because there are so many good printers on the market. And it's harder because there are so many good printers to choose from.

Browse the shelves of two or three retailers and you'll find dozens of different models from Hewlett Packard, Epson, Lexmark and Canon, many of which seem almost identical.

Part of this is marketing -- by making a variety of slightly different models, printer makers protect retailers from competing on price for identical machines. The consumer electronics industry has done this for years with stereos, TVs and VCRs.

But clear differentiations exist between classes of printers, which range in price from $70 to $100 on the low end to $500 or so at the top of the scale.

You can scale back the confusion by deciding in advance how much printer you need --and why you need it. If you're limited to occasional correspondence and the kids' school reports, a low-cost, general purpose ink jet will do just fine. For office use, you'll do better with a higher-speed, mid-priced printer for business-quality correspondence and graphics. Serious digital camera buffs should look for a machine optimized for photo-quality printing.

Most stores have displays that allow you to print test pages using a variety of printers, a good way to get a quick picture of a machine's capabilities. But realize that these display models --and the images they produce --are optimized to make them look good. And be sure you're comparing apples and apples by checking to see that they're all using the same paper. If in doubt, bring your own along. Once you've done that, check the specs carefully. Here are factors to consider:

Resolution: We discussed this in some depth last week, but the basics bear repeating here. Resolution refers to the number of dots that a printer lays down per horizontal or vertical inch of paper (for example, 1,440 dpi horizontally by 720 dpi vertically). Higher-resolution printers theoretically produce more detailed images with more lifelike colors than lower-resolution printers. But resolution doesn't tell the whole tale; some printers are just better at photos while others are better at text and graphics. That's why it pays to check samples.

Speed: After resolution, the most important factor for many buyers is speed. More money buys a faster printer, which is important if you frequently churn out long documents.

Printer speed is measured in pages per minute. While laser printers usually come close to their manufacturers' claims, ink jet ratings are squishy at best because the speed depends on the type of document. A double-spaced page of text will print much faster than a single-spaced page mixed with graphics, and a high-resolution photo will slow any printer to a crawl. For this reason, manufacturers usually display two speeds on their spec sheets, one for text and one for graphics.

Be careful here. Manufacturers often rate text speed in the printer's "normal" or "draft" mode, which uses less ink and is fine for proofing and correcting, but not always good enough for business correspondence. The Lexmark Z51 I use at home turned out the first page of this column (single-spaced) in 15 seconds in draft mode, compared with 85 seconds at the printer's highest resolution of 1,200 dots per inch.

Duty cycle: This is the number of pages per month a printer can produce without self-destructing. It ranges from a few hundred pages to thousands. Overwork your printer and it will eventually break down --always at the worst possible moment. For casual home and school use, duty cycle isn't important, but if you're in a busy office --or you're printing multiple drafts of the Great American Novel --spend a few dollars more for a heavier-duty machine.

Ink consumption: Gillette came up with the idea a century ago --sell the razors cheap and they'll buy your blades forever. Printer manufacturers have taken this to heart.

In fact, the reason you can buy a decent ink jet for $100 is that you'll be buying $30 ink cartridges for life, particularly if your kids turn out party invitations, greeting cards, buttons, calendars and other projects (thanks to the seductively cute arts-and-crafts software that manufacturers bundle with their printers).

To be fair, ink consumption has improved over the past few years. But the cartridges are still expensive, which means an ink jet typically costs at least a nickel a sheet to operate, about twice the cost with a laser printer. High-quality color work can raise the cost by a factor of 10.

If you print an occasional letter or Web page, this won't matter, but heavy users should consider both the capacity and type of cartridges a printer uses.

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