Even as late as two or three years ago, a printer was pretty much an afterthought in the purchase of a home computer system. Unless buyers ran home businesses that required fancy documents or printed presentations, most opted for a cheap, noisy dot-matrix model that could--with a new ribbon--slowly turn out text of just-passable quality.
But today, many stores can't give away dot-matrix machines. That's because prices of laser printers have plummeted to an affordable $400 or less. And less costly inkjet printers have vastly improved. Their black-and-white text now looks as good as that from a laser, and virtually all new inkjet printers can print in vibrant, dazzling colors. National Software Testing Laboratories Inc., a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies, put several current models through their paces and found that you needn't spend a fortune: Lexmark International Inc.'s Color Jetprinter 1020 yielded great color output for less than $300--thousands less than a high-end color laser.
HOMEWORK. Before you hit the computer stores, however, do a little homework. With few exceptions, printers designed for IBM-compatible machines won't work with Apple computers, and vice versa. But Canon Inc., which sells IBM-compatible printers only, also makes Apple Computer Inc.'s StyleWriter line, and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s DeskJet printers for PCs are nearly identical to its DeskWriter line for Apple. Epson's Stylus Color printers are the only ones with connections for both Apples and IBM-compatibles.
The choice between a laser printer and an inkjet these days comes down to how much you print and whether you need color. Lasers, which print a full page at a time with an electrostatic process like that of office copiers, are rugged machines designed to handle thousands of black-and-white pages a month. In contrast, inkjet printers spray ink onto the page one line at a time, comfortably handling hundreds of pages monthly. Among the inkjets in this usually $400-$500 range, today there aren't radical differences in print quality or cost of supplies. The best inkjets turn out the same crisp, dark text as a laser. But lasers are faster and a cent or two cheaper per page, and a freshly printed page won't smear, as one from an inkjet might.
Finally, if space is at a crunch--in a dorm room, say--or you need a printer on the run, consider a portable. Canon's sleek new BJC-70, which looks more like a compact-disk player than a printer, is a good bet at $349. Another is HP's DeskJet 340 at $299, though if you want color, a color cartridge is $30 more. Both are light enough to take along on a business trip. But skip the optional batteries and rechargers, as it's unlikely you'll ever haul out the printer in your car or on an airplane. Another space saver is the "office-in-a-box," which combines an inkjet printer with a scanner, convenience copier, and fax machine. Unfortunately, only one model, from Lexmark, can print in color.
THE KID TEST. Once you've determined your needs, it's time to go shopping. These days, it's better to approach a color printer purchase as if you were buying a color TV: Look at the pictures, and buy the one that looks best to you. You no longer simply choose the printer that puts the most dots per inch on the page. Now, with new inks and software to smooth the images and sharpen the edges, a photo or drawing from a 300-by-300 DPI printer can look as good as one from a 720-by-720 DPI machine. So it's more a task of comparing how dark the blacks are and how vivid the colors appear.
Why all this emphasis on color printing for the home? In a word: kids. "Children think in color, they see color on the computer screen," says Kara Kerker, a marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard. "It doesn't make sense to them if the printer doesn't print in color."
If you doubt it, just look at what comes with color printers. Each model in Canon's new consumer line sports a CD-ROM disk called Canon Creative that includes the Crayola Art drawing program, a greeting-card maker from Hallmark Cards Inc., software to create kids' stationery, stickers, and labels--and a program to print needlework patterns on cotton fabric. Other makers bundle software that lets you tackle jobs often handled by commercial printers. HP's $400 DeskJet 660Cse comes with Broderbund Software's Print Shop Deluxe and a pack of assorted fancy papers and card stocks. Epson includes a mail-in coupon good for either EasyPhoto, a program for inserting photos in letters or flyers, or Sierra On-Line Inc.'s Print Artist.
But the advent of color printing has ushered in some unusual economics that you should recognize before you buy. In effect, the printer business is now a razor-and-blade affair. Printer companies today make their money on ink cartridges and special coated or glossy papers. And the costs can quickly add up--especially for buyers of inexpensive color machines. Generally, the more you pay for the printer, the less the supplies--and each printed page--will cost. For example, Epson's $799 Stylus Pro turns out a typical color page for less than 8 cents. The same page printed by its $299 Stylus Color IIs model will cost you 20 cents. Neither includes the 12.5 cents-per-page cost of the coated paper that Epson recommends for the best results.
One explanation for these cockeyed numbers is that the cheaper printers print black as a combination of the three primary colors--cyan, magenta, and yellow--so they consume quantities of expensive color inks. Unfortunately, that kind of black is apt to look a bit muddy compared with the dark, crisp text of a laser. Other printers that use three colors to create so-called "process" or "composite" black include HP's $299 DeskJet 600, Canon's $269 BJC-210, and Lexmark's $269 Jetprinter 1020. When you're only printing black-and-white text, though, each lets you swap in a cheaper black-ink cartridge that lowers the cost to between 4 cents and 5 cents a page.
The next step up are such printers as Canon's $379 BJC-4100, HP's $399 DeskJet 660Cse, Epson's $449 Stylus Color II, and Lexmark's $349 WinWriter 150c. These are slightly cheaper to operate--actually, HP's is much cheaper, around 13 cents per page--and use two cartridges, the three-color one along with pure black. The top-of-the-line HP DeskJet 855C or Canon BJC-610, each about $549, will turn out color at about a dime a page, or plain black text at about 3 cents. They're also faster: In tests at NSTL, the HP DeskJet 855C could print nearly four pages of text in a minute, or a page of color graphics in about 90 seconds. That's more than twice as fast as the company's midline 660Cse.
A CAVEAT. If you don't absolutely need color, you should consider a low-end laser printer. Designed for home office use, they generally print four to six pages a minute and cost 2 cents to 3 cents a page to operate. Recently, manufacturers have started straightening out the tortuous path that paper takes through a laser printer. So some can now handle card stock, such as announcement or business cards--and these printers are less likely to iron wrinkles into envelopes. Two good choices are HP's LaserJet 5L at $479, or Brother Industries Ltd.'s HL-630, a six page-per-minute, $399 printer that Consumer Reports recently ranked a Best Buy.
A word of warning: Many retailers now routinely throw in a printer when they sell a computer system, but it's often an inexpensive or discontinued model. So make sure the printer is capable of handling all your printing needs, or pay $100 extra to upgrade to a better one.
Or two. If you have more than one PC, you may want to outfit one with a laser for business and everyday use and one with a color inkjet for the kids. At today's prices, you can get both without topping $1,000, or maybe hundreds less. That's a small price to pay to keep peace in the family.