Buying a printer: fact vs. fiction

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Buying a printer would seem to be straightforward: Decide what you need the printer to do—text? photos? scanning, copying, and maybe faxing?—and you’ll have a good idea of what kind of printer you need.

Unfortunately, connecting those dots isn’t always so easy. That’s because the printer market is rife with conventional wisdom that isn’t always wise at all. Here are a few of the most common printer myths and my take on whether or not they’re really true.

Inkjets do a bad job with text

Not true. Most inkjets print perfectly legible text. But for documents the public will see—such as resumes and brochures—it’s hard to beat the clean and sharp characters produced by a laser.

The problem is technical: If you spray a liquid (such as ink) on a porous surface (such as plain paper), that ink is going to bleed into areas where it shouldn’t, making for less-than-optimal text and other fine lines.

If you had unlimited space and money, you would buy a laser for text and an inkjet for photos. Most of us, however, live in the real world and have to choose one or the other. If you like to print photos at home, that choice will most likely be an inkjet printer.

To help get the best possible text out of your inkjet, try using better quality paper. Many companies sell presentation papers for their inkjets that allow less ink-bleeding. Also, make sure to check that your printer driver is set for best results-high or fine quality—and that proper paper type is selected.

Image quality from multifunctions is poor.

Not really true. Because they combing printing, scanning, copying and (sometimes) faxing into one machine, multifunction printers have become wildly popular. But do you sacrifice quality for convenience? Probably not.

These all-in-one devices are often built on the same print engines as stand-alone printers. Some, in fact, look like the vendor just glued a scanner on top of a standard ink-jet. In such multifunctions, print quality is identical to the stand-alone version of the printer.

The only catch is that manufacturers don’t make multifunction versions of their highest quality printers. High-end printers used for fine art and archival prints can use specialized inks and print on a wide variety of papers. So, for example, Epson’s Stylus Photo ink jet printers can cost as much as $800; the Stylus Pro models start at $1300. Yet Epson’s highest end multifunction—the Artisan 810 All -in-one Printer—costs as little as $200 (Best Current Price). Its output will clearly not be in the same league as that of the Stylus Photo or the Stylus Pro

You need an Airport base station to share a printer.

Not true. Plugging your printer directly into the USB port on an Airport base station ( ) is a convenient way to share a non-networked printer—but it isn’t the only way. Many printers, even those on the low end, now offer both wired and wireless Ethernet printing options. But the easiest way to share your USB printer over your local network is to enable printer sharing in the Print and Fax System Preferences. Once that’s setup, other computers on your network can see your shared printer via Bonjour in their Print and Fax System Preference.

Lasers are hazardous to your health.

Possibly true. A study published by the Queensland University of Technology several years ago found that laser printers emit tiny particles into the air. The resulting particulate pollution is comparable, under certain conditions, to the air near a busy road. Emissions rates were found to vary by the vendor and the age of the printer. Follow-up research indicated that those emissions have something to do with the paper being heated inside the printer, before the toner is applied.

In theory, those ultrafine particles emitted by lasers could have the same kinds of health effects as other small particles—such as those in cigarette smoke or polluted air. But those health hazards have not yet been definitively established. In the meantime, researchers recommend moving printers—particularly those that get heavy use—away from areas where people sit; wherever you put your laser, it should be well-ventilated areas.

Your printer is spying on you.

Possibly true. The Electronic Frontier Foundation maintains a list of color laser printers that, it says, lay down light yellow code-patterns on every print; the dots are viewable in blue light or under magnification. These codes were developed to help the federal government track down criminals who were printing counterfeit cash. But the EFF fears that the codes could also be used to track and monitor anyone who uses those printers. Monochrome laser printers and inkjets don’t appear to leave such markings.

James Galbraith is Macworld's Lab Director.

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