You've finally hacked your way through the thicket of jargon and specs to figure out which computer to buy. Huge sigh of relief. But now you face another decision: picking a printer. Fortunately, top-rated printers are fewer in number and more clearly defined by feature. Once you've figured out how you intend to use your printer, choosing from among a few leading options should be fairly easy.
The big news in printers is color, specifically low-cost color inkjet models. Only a few years ago, buyers of home and home-office PCs had to use either a noisy dotmatrix printer or a poky black-and-white inkjet. The alternative was to swallow hard and plunk down nearly $700 for a low-end laser printer, such as Hewlett-Packard's LaserJet 4L. Now, the market is flooded with $200 color inkjets that print text at reasonable speeds of three to five pages per minute and produce color images that hold their own against output from machines costing 10 times as much.
Why the emphasis on color? Color displays are now ubiquitous in personal computers--even laptops. Programs that let you create snazzy graphics and presentations are becoming indispensable business tools. And a growing number of people use PCs for digital imaging--capturing photos with scanners or shooting with digi-tal cameras, manipulating the images on a computer, and incorporating them into documents.
But the biggest reason for color output is children. Home PCs now let kids draw pictures, design iron-on T-shirt images, and create greeting cards. Youngsters love to work with painting and graphics software--but not being able to print out their creations in color can be a big disappointment.
So for the family PC buyer, the choice is simple: To keep peace in the family, you buy color for the kids. But is it worthwhile to buy a color inkjet if you're using a home PC for after-hours work or a home-based business? It depends on how much printing you do each month. Once, using a color inkjet printer for routine text meant tediously slow performance. Now, many inkjets nearly keep pace with low-end lasers.
But lasers have also gotten less expensive, and they still can't be beat if you need fast, high-volume printing without color. The bottom line: If you print hundreds of pages of text per month, a laser printer will pay for itself because they cost about 1 cents to 2 cents per page less than monochrome inkjet printing. But if you print only a few dozen pages per month, the increased flexibility and fun of a color inkjet is probably worth the time and money.
MUDDY VIEW. For business use, one category to avoid is that of entry-level color inkjet printers, which usually cost less than $200. Examples: the $179 Canon BJC-240, $189 Epson Stylus Color 200, $199 Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 400, and $200 Lexmark Color Jetprinter 1020. Unlike more expensive models, which have two print heads (one for black ink and another for the three process colors), these devices have only one. This means that you have to swap ink cartridges to go from color graphics to text, or settle for a muddy "composite" black made by combining the other three inks.
The next step up is the midrange part of the market, where you'll find a choice of two-headed models that retail for $250 to $500. At the low end of the price range, the $279 Canon BJC-4200, $399 Lexmark Color Jetprinter 2070, and $289 Epson Stylus Color 500 offer comparable features and performance. All print one or two color pages per minute (ppm). The Canon and Lexmark, which work only with PCs running Microsoft Windows, print in black ink at 5 ppm and 7 ppm, respectively. The Epson prints 4 ppm, boasts higher resolution (720 by 720 dots per inch vs. 720 by 360 dpi for the Canon and 600 by 600 dpi for the Lexmark) and also works with Apple Macintoshes. Hewlett-Packard's $330 Windows-only DeskJet 682C costs more and has lower resolution, but is faster: 1.5 ppm color and 5 ppm black. Okidata's $269 OkiJet 2010 is the slowest in this class, with a rated speed of 3 ppm in black and 0.25 to 0.5 ppm for color, according to an evaluation of midrange inkjets performed for BUSINESS WEEK by NSTL.
If you're willing to spend a little more, you can buy printers that are faster, sharper, or both. HP's $399 DeskJet 820Cse and $500 DeskJet 870C both print 4 ppm in color and, respectively, 6.5 ppm and 8 ppm in black. Other machines, such as the $379 Apple Color StyleWriter 2500 or the $799 Epson Stylus Pro offer rich color images. The Epson Stylus Pro is pricey but offers near photographic images, according to NSTL.
If you are planning to do a great deal of printing and don't require color, entrylevel laser printers remain an attractive option. The $499 NEC 860 offers a crisp 8-ppm output. Other strong players in this category include the $479 HP LaserJet 5L Xtra, $379 Panasonic KX-P6100, $399 Brother HL-730, and $299 Okidata OkiPage 4w.
UPGRADING? Another class of products to consider are so-called multifunction devices that combine printing with other functions such as scanning, faxing, and digital photocopying. Some critics fault these multifunction devices for limiting flexibility--if you want to upgrade your printer, you have to toss out your fax machine and scanner as well--but for many people setting up a small office, they're a cost-effective solution. Two popular multifunction devices, the $599 HP OfficeJet 350 and $549 Xerox Document WorkCenter 250, are built around monochrome inkjet technology, while the $599 Canon MultiPass C2500 features color.
One caveat: These jacks of all trades are truly masters of none. They can't perform as well as the best stand-alone printers, fax machines, or scanners. But if you use some of these capabilities only occasionally, you may be willing to sacrifice quality in favor of savings and convenience.
When you come down to it, buying a printer isn't all that complicated. If you're starting from scratch, consider a color multifunction device or both a low-end color inkjet and a monochrome multifunction. If you want only a single printer that meets all your needs, get a four-color inkjet with a speed rating that matches your volume needs. And if you expect to print a lot of text, get a black-and-white laser printer--and maybe some sort of color inkjet--to save time and money, and keep your kids happy.