Macworld's Ultimate Buyers' Guide: Printers

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With the benefit of hindsight, we can laugh at pundits who predicted that computers would bring about the paperless office. If anything, new technology has made printers more important than ever, both at home and at the office. We use our personal printers to print out tax forms, maps, digital photographs, homework, recipes, e-commerce receipts, and much more. Home-office users, who depend on their equipment for their livelihoods, especially need reliable printers that can meet their needs without breaking the bank.

But as printer prices continue to plummet and the variety of models and options expands, finding the perfect printer becomes more challenging. Before you plunk down your hard-earned cash, you need to make sure you've chosen a printer that meets your specific requirements. There are a lot of factors to consider: Will the text be readable? Will your images look grainy? How fast will your pages print? How long will your printer last?

To help you through the labyrinth of choices, Macworld has put together this guide to purchasing your next printer. We examined three types of personal printer, each with different strengths and weaknesses: monochrome laser printers that cost less than $800, four-color ink-jet printers that cost less than $200, and photo-quality ink-jet printers that cost less than $500. We compiled buying advice and tips for each group, and then Macworld Lab put 20 of these printers to the test, to determine the best in each category. (For results, see "Seeing in Black and White," "Big Color for Small Budgets," and "Picture-Perfect Prints.")

Choosing a Printer Technology

Instead of wandering the aisles of your local computer store and trying to decipher the subtle differences among dozens of printer models, save yourself valuable time by first deciding what type of printer you need. Despite the overwhelming number of models, all printers are based on one of just a few basic technologies. The most common are laser printing and ink-jet printing, which has two varieties: four-color and photo-quality. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages. If you understand how these technologies work, you can determine which best suits your needs. (For more help picking an appropriate printer technology, see "Four Questions to Ask Yourself before You Buy.")

Laser Printers

Monochrome laser printers have long been the workhorses of the printing world. Although limited to black-and-white output, they print significantly faster and sharper than ink-jet models, making them an excellent choice if you need to print long documents or have a heavy printing load.

Behind the Scenes When you send a file to your laser printer, a small laser inside the machine writes the image of the page onto a photosensitive drum, one row of dots at a time. Where the laser flashes, the photosensitive drum picks up a positive charge. As the charged drum rotates, it passes through negatively charged toner--basically, powdered black plastic--which then adheres to the charged spots on the drum. The toner is then transferred to a sheet of blank paper as the page passes beneath the rotating drum. Finally, the paper passes through a set of heated rollers that heats the plastic and fuses the toner to the paper. The result is sharp black marks resistant to smudging, water, and all but the most determined efforts to remove them.

Pros and Cons The laser printer's greatest advantage is speed. Its impressive printing rates are due to two features. First, its marking engine--the part of the printer responsible for putting marks on the paper--takes only a few seconds to complete its task. Second, almost all laser printers available for the Mac contain a RIP (Raster Image Processor). This is a dedicated on-board computer that converts incoming data to a page bitmap --an image of the page at the printer's resolution. Printers that lack RIPs, such as ink-jets, must rely on the host computer to calculate the page bitmap, tying up your computer each time you print a page. Print-ing takes longer, and your Mac is slowed during the job.

RIPs also give laser printers an edge in producing sharp graphics, because most RIPs are PostScript-compatible. PostScript lets a printer interpret and redraw shapes, characters, and curves with much greater precision when printing from PostScript-based applications such as Adobe Illustrator and QuarkXPress. Without a PostScript RIP to interpret the data, these applications are reduced to sending the monitor image to the printer, producing jagged, low-resolution bitmaps instead of smooth PostScript lines and curves.

But laser printers are less impressive when it comes to photo images. No one would mistake a laser-printed photograph for a darkroom print; the result is usually comparable to a good newspaper reproduction. And although color laser printers do exist, they're still rather expensive for personal use, starting at around $3,000.

Monochrome laser printers generally cost more up front than ink-jets, but their consumables (toner, for example) cost less. A page of text that costs 5 cents in paper and toner on a laser printer will probably cost double that--or more--in ink-jet consumables. Plus, most laser printers are capable of producing several thousand pages a month--a workload that would bring most ink-jets to their knees. Considering that a laser printer will typically last much longer than an ink-jet, it's an excellent option for printing-intensive environments such as a home office.

Ink-Jet Printers

If you want to print photographs, charts, or other color media, you're probably in the market for an ink-jet printer. Ink-jets, the most popular type of printer, have evolved from the noisy, slow beasts of yesteryear to sleek boxes that can print in color and in black-and-white. And as the technology has improved, prices have dropped; many ink-jets now sell for less than $100. Although they're significantly slower and more expensive to run than monochrome laser printers, ink-jets offer flexibility that's hard to beat.

Behind the Scenes Ink-jet printers use tiny drops of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks (together referred to as CMYK colors) to produce color prints. Placed next to one another in different patterns, these inks simulate a full range of colors.

Most ink-jet printers use one of two technologies to expel the ink droplets from the print head. Thermal (or Bubble Jet) technology uses heat, while Piezo technology employs small electronic crystals to create vibrations. Both methods are capable of producing excellent results. The most important difference is that inks developed for Bubble Jet printers can't be used in Piezo printers, and vice versa.

There are two types of color ink-jet printer on the market: four-color ink-jets, which are typically designed to be all-purpose printers, and six-color ink-jets--or photo printers--which are designed for high-quality photographic output. The quality of color output you require and the amount you're willing to spend will determine which is right for you.

Pros and Cons: Four-Color Ink-Jets These ink-jets are at home printing monochrome text or color graphics. They print to a variety of paper sizes and types, and their initial purchase price is easy on the wallet.

But this flexibility comes with trade-offs. Ink-jets can't approach the speed of laser printers. Since they rely on the host computer to do all the processing, some time may elapse between when you click on a print button and when the printer starts printing. Simple text documents print fairly quickly--ten pages in two to five minutes on the models we tested. But print speeds for high-resolution photographic images dragged significantly: it can take some ink-jet printers 16 minutes to produce a single high-resolution image.

An ink-jet printer's low initial cost is one of its main attractions, but it's important to factor in the ongoing expense of operating it. The per-page cost of ink-jet printing is generally higher than that of laser printing, often more than twice as high.

When it comes to image quality, all-purpose ink-jet printers are a mixed bag. They can produce black-text documents, but many can't match the sharpness of a laser printer. And since ink-jet printers rarely have a built-in PostScript RIP, they print documents from PostScript-based applications as monitor-resolution bitmaps. Software and hardware RIPs are available for some ink-jet printers, but they generally cost several times more than the printer itself.

If you're looking to produce photographic output, today's all-purpose ink-jets print decent images from scanners or digital cameras. Their main limitations are poor highlight detail and obvious dot patterns. While some printers can produce magazine-quality photographs, others print high-contrast, oversaturated images that, although recognizable, are hardly pleasing.

Pros and Cons: Photo Printers Four-color ink-jets' shortcomings have inspired a new generation of printers that can truly claim to produce photo-realistic images. Photo printers typically feature finer dot patterns than their general-purpose siblings, yielding the continuous gradations of tone and color found in photographs. Of course they're also more expensive; the models reviewed in this guide range in price from $199 to $499 (even-costlier larger-format photo printers are also available).

To achieve better highlight detail, most photo printers use two extra inks--light cyan and light magenta--with the regular CMYK colors. The light cyan and magenta dots are invisible to the naked eye, adding to the illusion of continuous tone.

When photo ink-jets first appeared, consumers' main concern was image quality. A testament to the growing maturity of the technology, their major concern today is not how good a print will look but how long it will last. If printed on suitable paper and handled correctly, images made with today's long-lasting inks can have a lifetime similar to that of a conventional photographic print.

For photographic output on specialty paper, you can expect to spend upward of 50 cents to produce a single 8-by-10-inch image (which still compares very favorably with the cost of traditional darkroom prints). In a pinch, photo printers can produce other types of output, such as text documents. But since the inks they use are substantially costlier than those made for general-purpose ink-jets, and since photo printers are designed to

lay down more ink, that's a very expensive way to print pages of text. Photo printers are fine for the occasional non-photographic job, but if you regularly print both text documents and photographic images, you'll be better off buying two printers. The extra cost up front will quickly be recovered in ink savings.

As with general-purpose ink-jets, photo printers do not contain a built-in RIP. But then, you don't need a RIP for photographic work. It's a consideration only if you work with layout or illustration programs, and again you'd probably be better off getting a second printer for that purpose.

Making the Choice

When you choose a printer, consider the type, quantity, and quality of documents you need to produce. You may have to make compromises--say, if you need color from an ink-jet and the high volume of a laser printer. And there are other considerations: laser printing is a mature technology that's unlikely to undergo sweeping changes, so you can reasonably expect a laser printer to provide good service for a decade. Ink-jet printers, though more flexible, are still evolving, and the ink-jet you buy today is likely to seem antiquated in two or three years.

Finding the Perfect Printer

Even after you've settled on a type of printer, choosing a specific printer in that category can be a headache. You must sort through dozens of vendors and an ever changing list of models. The fact is, two printers that seem to be identical may perform quite differently. The true test of any printer is the quality of the print. If it's at all possible, look at sample output before you buy. If you can't do that, check the store's return policy to make sure you won't be stuck with a dud. (For examples of common image problems, see "Looking at the Fine Print.")

Choosing Your Laser Printer

If you've decided to go with a laser printer, consider the following factors.

Print Quality Don't judge print quality solely by text output unless text is all you care about. Most laser printers produce very similar-looking type (see " Monochromes Measure Up "). But be sure your printer can handle type correctly and doesn't cut words off at the margins.

What distinguishes laser printers is their ability to print fine lines and shades of gray. A print's gradations of gray should be smooth without noticeable bands, and photographs should reproduce at least as well as they do in your morning newspaper. Also check thin lines to see if they break or jump.

Speed Keep in mind that the print speeds listed by the manufacturer--measured in pages per minute (ppm)--usually bear little relation to real-world conditions. The advertised speed is the speed at which the printer can output multiple copies of the same page once the image has been processed by the RIP. Unless you're printing dozens of copies of the same page, you're unlikely to achieve that speed.

In the real world, a laser printer's speed depends heavily on the RIP. In general, the printer spends much more time converting the data to a page bitmap than it does actually putting the toner on the paper, especially for complex PostScript files. Unfortunately, it's difficult to com-pare processor speeds unless you stand by each printer with a stopwatch. So if speed is important to you, be sure to check recent reviews for more-realistic rates.

Resolution The advertised resolution--measured in dots per inch (dpi) --can also be misleading. Resolution refers to the number of addressable dots--the number of places where the printer can choose to print a dot. But you seldom get the maximum available resolution, because toner can scatter, and it spreads a little when it's fused to paper. So the actual resolution--the degree to which the printer can resolve fine detail--is always lower than the stated resolution, sometimes much lower.

To counteract this problem, some laser printers offer multiple resolutions, with resolution enhancement on the lower resolutions. Most resolution-enhancement technologies modulate the laser to produce dots of different sizes (although never smaller than allowed by the printer's maximum resolution). This variation often produces even better gray-scale halftones and smoother edges on characters than the printer's highest resolution can. In other words, a 600-dpi laser printer with resolution enhancement may produce better-looking output than a 1,200-dpi laser without it.

PostScript Most laser printers include either an Adobe-licensed PostScript interpreter or a Post-Script-compatible interpreter from a third party (called a PostScript clone). The vast majority of today's PostScript-clone RIPs seem to do every bit as good a job as those sanctioned by Adobe. If you need to print only pages of text, you probably don't need PostScript, but if you want to print documents from PostScript-based applications, a PostScript RIP is essential.

Choosing Your Ink-Jet Printer

Many of the criteria you'd use to judge a laser printer--such as print quality and speed--also will apply to ink-jet printers. (To learn how all-purpose and photo-quality ink-jet printers fared in our tests, see " Colorful Competition " and " A Photo Finish.")

Image Quality If it's difficult to make meaningful judgments based on a laser printer's resolution specs, it's just about impossible with an ink-jet printer's. This is because inks soak into paper--bleeding and blending into one another--to varying degrees, depending on the paper's composition. Ink-jet resolution specs are like clothing sizes: you can use them to compare different items from the same vendor, but when you start comparing different brands, you have to go beyond the manufacturer's information. The only reliable way for you to judge ink-jet image quality is by looking at print samples, preferably printed on the same paper you intend to use regularly.

When you test a printer, make sure the paper settings in the printer driver match the type of paper you're using. These settings control the amount of ink the printer lays down and the dither pattern it uses to do so. Too much ink will produce oversaturated and dark prints, while too little will produce washed-out results. Check for obvious ink dots and smoothness of tone. You should also examine the image's color for natural-looking skin tones and the presence of highlights and shadows.

Paper and Ink The results you get from an ink-jet depend heavily on the combination of ink and paper stock. An ink may produce gorgeous results on one paper and hideous ones on another, so take a look at the types of paper supported by any printer you're considering; make sure they're up to your standards. If you plan to use third-party inks or papers in your printer, you may want to join one of the many mailing lists devoted to the various ink-jets (try, for example). You'll learn from others' experiences which ink-and-paper combinations get good results.

Remember that your printer's consumables will play a big role in your bottom line. With some ink-jets, you can replace a single ink when it runs out; with others you're forced to replace all the ink colors--even if some are still full. Check to see whether the ink-jet model you're considering is widely supported by third-party ink vendors (try doing a Google search on ink-jet inks). If it isn't, you may have to use the more expensive inks sold by the printer vendor.

Noise Finally, be sure to weigh the annoyance factor. Ink-jet printers vary widely in the amount of noise they make: some are almost silent, while others shake, rattle, and roll. Try to hear the printer in action before you buy it.

The Last Word

Printing from the Mac has never been easier or more affordable, so take time to analyze your needs. Consider the operating costs, as well as the purchase cost, of any printer. Give due weight to features you absolutely must have and to those you'd like but can live without. If you follow these guidelines, you'll end up with the printer that's best for you.

BRUCE FRASER is a coauthor of Real World Photoshop 6 (Peachpit Press, 2001), which he proofed on a ten-year-old Apple LaserWriter Pro 630 and an Epson Stylus Photo 1270.

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