If you're about to go shopping for a printer, whether in person or online, keep the following tips in mind.
Set your budget: How much can you spend on a printer? $100? $200? $1000? It's important to know your price range, as you can expect different levels of quality and features as you go up the scale.
Decide on must-have features: What do you want your printer to do? Is photo printing a must? Do you need to print on both sides of the page automatically? What about single-function versus multifunction—are there any trade-offs? For help deciding, read our discussion of your printer options. Based on what's available in your current price range, you might find that you need to spend a little more (or possibly less) to get what you want.
Know your ink and toner costs: A printer is only as cheap as its consumables. If a specific model has caught your eye, check out its ink or toner costs to make sure that you won't be bleeding money over the long term. We show you how easy it is to do the math for ink costs on the next page.
What to expect for your money
$40 to $80: Curb your expectations. You can get a single-function inkjet printer in this price range, but it will most likely be a very slow model with bare-bones features: slow performance, no control panel, skimpy paper handling. The inks will most likely be expensive, to compensate for the rock-bottom hardware price. Watch out for tricolor cartridges, which unite cyan, magenta, and yellow into one package, forcing you to replace all three inks when any single one runs out.
$80 to $100: Basic functionality. In the $100 range, you can buy either a single-function inkjet printer or a low-end inkjet multifunction with basic features, or you can nab an extremely basic monochrome laser printer. These models are designed for single users, and speed is not a priority. Paper handling will remain skimpy, but you might get a halfway decent control panel. The inks or toner will most likely be pricey, since the unit price is low. A few inkjet models might have separate ink cartridges for each color, or high-yield ink options, but you'll still have to watch out for printers that use tricolor cartridges.
$150: Adequate or better. If you can afford a $150 printer, you will get a better range of features and capabilities. Among single-function inkjet printers or multifunctions, you'll start to see more models with automatic duplexing and high-yield ink options, both of which can cut your printing costs. Monochrome laser printers remain basic at this price point, but they're a little better than the low-end ones. Printers in this price range might have adequate speed. Some will have wireless networking capability for sharing among a very few low-volume users.
$250: Midrange inkjets and monochrome lasers. At this price point, models start to offer more functions or improved features, especially for small offices. The single-function and multifunction inkjets in this range will have much better speed and paper handling, as well as more networking features and better control panels with cool features such as touchscreens, color displays, and wide-format capability. A monochrome laser in this price range should have a 250-page input tray, making it useful in a group setting, though probably still slow.
$400: The best inkjets and bare-bones color lasers. If you have this much money to spend on a single-function or multifunction inkjet, you will enjoy a premium level of features and capabilities, including networking, a big color LCD, and innovations like Web connectivity. Speed and print quality will be consistently good, and ink costs should be among the cheapest, with high-yield inks offering impressive savings in some cases. As for laser models, you can get a reasonably fast, networkable monochrome printer or a bare-bones color printer, but the toner costs will probably be high.
$500: Basic color lasers and better monochrome lasers. Graduate to the $500 range, and the monochrome lasers improve a lot, as do the low-end color lasers. Speed and photo quality will still be limited, but you will at least get 250-sheet input trays, networkability, and good speed. Toner costs might still be on the pricey side.
$700 to $800: The sweet spot for lasers. Laser and LED models in this price range are designed for workgroups, with speed and paper handling to match. Solid-ink color printers in this range are another good option. At this level and higher, you're looking at specs such as installed and maximum RAM (to see how many jobs a printer can juggle), standard and optional paper trays (to determine how much the printer can grow to fit your needs), and monthly duty cycle (to get an idea of durability). Toner costs should be reasonable to cheap, possibly with high-yield options.
$1000 or more: First class all the way. If you can afford to spend this much money on a printer, you expect (and deserve) the best. The majority of printers in this price range, whether laser, LED, or solid-ink, offer fast performance, fine print quality, and a wide array of standard and optional features. Toner costs can be amazingly low, thanks to higher-capacity cartridges. Unless you're a business with high-volume printing needs, you won't need to consider a model at this level.
Ink and toner costs
The money you pay for any printer doesn't stop with the hardware purchase; you also have to consider the ongoing costs for replacing the ink or toner supplies. For many inkjet printers, in particular, the cost of replacement cartridges can quickly outstrip the initial cost of the printer. Don't be tempted by a printer's features without also checking on its cost of consumables. Here's how we calculate the cost for our printer reviews.
1) A little shopping: We get the current price of each cartridge from the printer vendor's own Website. If the vendor doesn't sell the cartridges directly, we average the prices collected from three or more major online retailers.
2) A little research: All inkjet printer vendors publish yield data for their ink cartridges—how many pages a cartridge can print before it runs dry. Most vendors' yields are based on an industry-standard measuring tool, a specific suite of documents printed at specific settings so that the results are comparable among different models. Finding the yields can sometimes require a bit of digging; feel free to explore, and don't hesitate to bug the vendor for guidance if you can't find what you're looking for easily.
3) A little math: For each color, we divide the price of the cartridge by the page yield to get the cost per color per page. If a printer offers high-yield cartridges as well as standard-size ones, we gather the prices for both kinds of cartridges.
The resulting costs per color per page will give you an idea of how much the printer will cost you in ink or toner. It's important to note that your mileage may vary depending on what you actually print on a day-to-day basis, and how much you print.
One more tip: Check the printer's "what's in the box" information to see whether you're getting full-size ink or toner cartridges, or lower-capacity, starter-size supplies. It isn't unusual for lower-end laser or LED printers to come with starter cartridges; some snapshot printers give you just a few shots' worth of ink, forcing you to buy a full set right away. Avoiding this trick is getting harder, but at least you'll be aware of it.
[Melissa Riofrio is a senior editor for PCWorld.]