Shop Smart: Savvy Peripheral Shopping

Seeking to save dough on computer peripherals? The following tips will help you shop for printers (and their consumables), media, cables, and adapters.

The Real Price of Printers

After the keyboard, mouse, and monitor, the first device likely to be tethered to your Mac is a printer. Finding a cost-effective printer requires more than comparing price tags. To get the best value, you must consider not only the price of the printer but also the cost of keeping that printer fed.

Ink-Jet versus Laser Stroll through your local computer-mart, and you'll discover that an ink-jet printer can sell for the price of a Friday-night surf-and-turf dinner special. Conversely, monochrome laser printers cost between $400 and $1,500. But depending on the kind of printing you do, a laser printer may be the more economical choice.

The determining factor is consumables -- the paper and ink or toner your printer requires. Although laser printers cost more initially, they can be better bargains over the long haul because their per-page cost is lower than that of ink-jet printers. We compared two Hewlett-Packard printers (www.hp.com) to demonstrate just how this works.

The $20, standard black-ink cartridge used in HP's $99 DeskJet 5550 ink-jet printer can produce 450 pages at five percent coverage, for a little over $0.044 cents per page. The $72 cartridge used in HP's $400 LaserJet 1300 laser printer can print 2,500 pages at five percent coverage, for about $0.028 per page. Were you to produce those same 2,500 pages with the ink-jet, you'd pay $110 for the ink alone. Tack on the additional expense of higher-priced ink-jet paper and average ink coverage greater than five percent, and you're looking at a cost of between $0.05 and $0.10 per page for black-only documents produced on the ink-jet printer.

If an ink-jet printer uses a single cartridge that contains black and color inks (such cartridges are more expensive than one-color cartridges), per-page costs are even steeper, as the cartridge has less capacity for black ink -- you have to replace cartridges more frequently. So if you're shopping for an ink-jet printer, find one that offers separate black and color cartridges.

If your color printing is limited to business graphics -- charts and graphs rather than photos -- a color laser printer may make more sense than an ink-jet. Color laser printers start at around $700 and offer a per-page cost of around $0.095. Although color ink-jet printers are far less expensive than laser printers -- some cost less than $100 -- documents produced on a color ink-jet printer cost upwards of $0.20 per page.

Multifunction Printers If you're seeking to save money when putting together a home office, you may be tempted by a multifunction printer. These devices print, scan, and copy (some fax, too). Multifunction printers can be either ink-jet or laser. Ink-jet models cost between $150 and $200, and laser models such as Brother's MFC-8420 ( www.brother .com ) start at $550.

Although multifunction printers are convenient, they have disadvantages. The first is that if the device massively malfunctions, you lose not only your printer but also your copier and scanner. Second, these devices often don't do as good a job as discrete components do. For example, in a recent review ( This Month in Printers, November 2003), we found that the copies produced by both Lexmark's $150 X5150 All-in-One (www .lexmark.com) and HP's $700 LaserJet 3330mfp were too dark. And the scanning quality of HP's PSC 2175 and of the Lexmark device was poor compared with the results of a dedicated scanner. -- christopher breen

Printing for Pennies

Resellers offer a wide range of discounted and specialty inks, and the terminology can be confusing. Here's a brief guide.

Ink-Refill Kits A popular alternative, refill kits include a bottle of ink and a syringe with which to fill the cartridge. On average, you can refill cartridges five times. Though it's a bargain -- reducing costs by as much as 80 percent -- the refilling process can be messy, and there's no guarantee that the cartridge will work perfectly. For Epson owners, Media Street ( www.mediastreet.com ) offers the $25 Universal Chip Resetter, a battery-powered device that can reprogram the chips on cartridges. The chips monitor the amount of ink in the cartridge and talk to the printer driver. If you don't reprogram them, the refilled cartridge won't work or will show the wrong amount.

Recycled and Remanufactured Cartridges Many ink companies can recycle cartridges for you. Recycling fits the bill for people who appreciate the savings of refilling but want to avoid the fuss. You mail the cartridge to the supplier in a prepaid envelope, and the company returns a filled cartridge. However, this service isn't available for all printers. Remanufactured cartridges cost more than recycled cartridges, since the vendors disassemble them and replace any worn parts.

Off-Brand Cartridges Your printer vendor's ink is dubbed "original equipment manufacturer" (OEM), and it's the most compatible but most expensive choice. Many stores, catalogs, and online shops offer discount brands, which may not support all the features of your original cartridges (for example, microprocessors that monitor ink levels).

Continuous-Ink Systems Several ink vendors, including Media Street and Inkjetart.com, sell user-installed continuous-ink kits, which cost between $125 and $250. You run thin plastic hoses from your printer's ink head to easily refillable external bottles of ink. The kits work with most current Epson printers and will soon work with several Canon printers. You'll save money, and you'll never run out of a color during a print job (as long as you watch the levels in the bottle). -- david morgenstern

Photo Printing

There's no denying the satisfaction that comes from whipping out your digital camera, taking a snapshot, downloading the picture to your Mac, and producing a quality print in a matter of minutes. But photo printing can be a costly proposition. You pay more for a photo-quality printer -- such printers cost between $150 and $700 -- and quality photo paper is expensive, at about $0.45 (and higher) per 8.5-by-11-inch sheet. There's also the very real possibility that you'll print a picture more than once as you fine-tune color values.

If you're willing to wait for delivery, using a printing service may save you several pennies per print. In our October 2003 "Hot Shots" article, we reviewed 14 online photo printers, judging them on price, quality, and features. Of the top four services (Ofoto, PhotoAccess, PhotoWorks, and Shutterfly), PhotoWorks ( http://photoworks.com ) was the least expensive, with 3-by-5 and 4-by-6 prints priced at $0.29, 5-by-7 prints at $0.99, and 8-by-10 prints at $2.99. You can also investigate brick-and-mortar labs such as Ritz Camera ( www.ritzcamera.com ). Prices aren't always competitive, but special discounts may make these labs worth using. -- cb

Media Matters

You've got a new Mac with a SuperDrive. You understand that it's wise to back up your data and that your SuperDrive gives you a ready-made way to do so. But which is more cost-effective -- CD-R or DVD-R?

As we go to print, CD-R remains the less-expensive option. Name-brand, 700MB CD-R discs (which format to 660.7MB) cost around $0.33 each when purchased in bulk (on spindles and without cases). Do the math, and you'll discover that with CD-R, you can back up approximately 20MB for a penny.

Name-brand DVD-R discs cost around $3 each, and a 4.7GB disc holds approximately 4.28GB. Punch these numbers into your calculator, and you find that each penny buys you a little more than 14MB of storage.

Although you can purchase CD-R and DVD-R discs for much less than the aforementioned prices at such outfits as Meritline.com and AllMediaOutlet.com, these inexpensive media don't work well with all drives. Fortunately, both of these companies offer sample collections of the off-brand media they carry, thus allowing you to try a variety of discs before you heavily invest in a brand that may not work with your Mac.

Bear in mind, however, that even though backing up to CD-R may save you money, it's not the most convenient way to back up some data. For example, even modest iMovie project files exceed the capacity of a CD-R and must be split with a backup utility such as Dantz's Retrospect or Apple's Backup. Also, backing up several gigabytes of data to CD-R requires that you feed your burner disc after disc. In such cases, you may want to spend more money for the convenience of a single-disc backup. -- cb

eBay Bonanza

eBay is a great place to find miscellaneous equipment, both old and new. To demonstrate, we went shopping for cables at nationwide retailers and through eBay's Buy It Now feature.

Number Crunching We compared prices for three common cables (a 10-foot 6-to-6-pin FireWire cable, a 50-foot Cat 5e Ethernet networking cable, and a 10-foot A-to-B USB 2.0 cable). The auction site offered better deals than the retailer. Even with shipping costs, eBay's price for the FireWire cable was $5 less than a CompUSA store's. At a Staples store, the Cat 5e cable was $28.75; on eBay, it was $12.98 (including shipping). The eBay seller charged only $5 (free shipping) for the USB 2.0 cable; at Target, it cost $10 more.

But Is It Right for You? To ensure that your existing equipment is compatible with the parts you're considering, read the auction description carefully. Most sellers will tell you which Macs the spare part is compatible with. If you're a little shaky on the particulars of your products, go to your OS X Mac's Utilities folder and launch the Apple System Profiler application. It lists your Mac's model type, connected drives, and OS version. And for the history and technical specifications of almost every piece of hardware Apple has ever made, as well as information about other companies' printers, scanners, cameras, and more, download the free Mactracker application from www.mactracker.ca.

eBay Alternatives eBay isn't always such a clear-cut boon to bargain hunters. (For more on its potential drawbacks, see "eBay Buyer Beware.") Other sources for low-cost cables are bargain bins in office, electronics, and computer stores. For most kinds of parts, you may also want to cruise by Pre-Owned Electronics ( www.preownedelectronics.com ). It carries an extensive warehouse of new and used parts that are certified and come with a 180-day warranty. You can search its online knowledge base, which includes photos, for information on parts. (See " Where to Shop Online " for more sites that carry a wide range of peripherals, as well as systems and software.) -- ag

The Legacy Life

One sure way to save money on peripherals is to avoid buying them. Although the ports on your new Mac may not match up with the ports on your old printer, MIDI interface, or keyboard, with the help of an adapter and a software utility or two, your legacy peripherals can get a new lease on life.

If you have a serial-port printer that supports LocalTalk, you can connect it to your new Mac with a device such as Asanté's $129 AsantéTalk Ethernet-to-LocalTalk adapter ( www.asante.com ). GeeThree offers the $50 Stealth Serial Port adapter ( www.geethree.com ), which lets you use serial-port devices (printers, PDAs, and MIDI interfaces, for example) with Power Mac G4s, blue-and-white Power Mac G3s, and rev. A–D iMacs. And keyboards and mice that bear the old ADB connector can be brought back into service with Griffin Technology's $39 iMate ADB-to-USB adapter ( www.griffin technology.com ).

In addition to an adapter, you may need software that allows your old peripheral to work with OS X. Thanks to support for the Common Unix Printing Service (CUPS) built into Jaguar and Panther, and to the collection of free open-source drivers known as the Gimp-Print utility ( http://gimp-print.sourceforge.net/MacOSX.php3 ), you may be able to print from your old HP, Epson, Canon, or Lexmark printer. Older scanners can likewise lead renewed lives with the help of Hamrick Software's $60 VueScan ( www.hamrick.com ) -- a collection of OS X–compatible scanner drivers. -- cb

TIP

Take the long view -- laser printers are actually less expensive than ink-jet printers.

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