The Gig of Ham

One geek's contributions to the series of tubes

Jul 25, 2017 - 4 minute read - rant hardware advice

Carl's guide to buying a Printer

You’ve thought about it, and you have decided you need a printer. Let’s talk about how to pick one.

Buy a printer

Your printer needs to do one thing: print. Do you want to scan things? Buy a scanner (Epson makes lovely ones, my DS-510 is amazing). Do you need to FAX? Buy a online FAX service like nextiva, PamFax, or Phaxio if you need a good API. Don’t use eFax. DO NOT buy a MFD aka Multi Function Device (sometimes known as an all-in-one) which is a Printer, FAX, copier, and Scanner all in one. They suck at everything. Do not buy one.

Buy a laser printer

Unless you print photos all the time (like daily) buy a laser printer. Seriously. If you print infrequently, grab a sub $100 monochrome laser printer from your local office supply big box store or electronics warehouse store. Want color? You can get one that is COLOR for around $250. Do you print a fair amount? Laser is faster. Do you like saving paper? Many color laser printers can duplex out of the box. Really the only reason to not buy laser is if you print a lot of photos.

But the toner is expensive

Toner is cheaper than ink. Printer ink is the most expensive liquid on the planet by volume. Every time you turn on your printer or start a job, your ink-jet printer throws away ink to “clean”/prime the nozzle. If you print infrequently your ink can congeal or dry and become unusable. Toner has none of those problems. Most toner cartridges are good for over 2000 pages (and those counts only increment when the page contains those colors, B&W pages do not use color toner). I’ve neglected my laser printer for months and moved it to a new home, turned it on and it just worked. The last ink-jet printer I tried developed problems within two months of purchase.

I need to print photos to hang on Grandma’s wall so her friends can see them!

OK, laser printers do suck at printing photos. If you print them frequently (at least weekly) then get a quality photo ink-jet printer (the kind that takes 6 or more color cartridges), some good quality photo paper, and use it just for photos. If you print less than that, put that photo on a thumb drive and drive to your local chain pharmacy or warehouse department store and use the photo kiosk to print your JPEG. The quality will be better since those printers are usually dye sublimation, and it’s cheaper than having an ink-jet lying around.

Do not get a WiFi enabled printer

WiFi on Printers is a trap. Don’t do it. Inputting the WiFi password is pain and suffering and (news flash) WiFi is unreliable. On top of that, your printer is going to have WiFi-N and will slow down your entire network. If you want to be able to print from multiple machines, either share the printer from an almost always on desktop system; or get a Network printer and plug that Ethernet cable into your switch/router. It’s not that much more expensive (if any more expensive). Remember when I said your printer should be a printer? Many of the newer WiFi printers I’ve seen are smartphones with a printer attached (like running full copies of WebOS or Android just to give you full color LCD display with an on-screen keyboard for inputting your WiFi network information).

What brands would I recommend?

I recently got my lovely parents a Lexmark cs310dn which is a color, duplexing, network laser printer for about $250. It looks like that model has ben replaced by the cs317dn which is even cheaper. I have had great success with Lexmark printers, almost every one speaks native PostScript as well as PCL. They also support IPv6, IPP, and RAW (JetDirect) socket. They talk to Windows, Macs, and Linux boxen without any frustration in my experience. My Lexmark C543dn I bought in 2005ish has moved across the country multiple times, been struck by lightning, and still works with some minor user serviceable repairs over time. Total investment sans toner and paper: less than $600 over 10+ years. If you don’t care about Linux, Samsung and Brother make great laser printers as well (Linux support has been touch and go there, but Mac and Windows are fine).

Hope that helps. Choose wisely, choose a standalone non-MFD laser printer.