Depending on the kind of project, printing can be time-consuming and complicated. Despite the fact that an increasing number of documents originate in digital format, you cannot always avoid printing hard copies. Because not every household or office has access to a quality printer, and even the most cost-conscious business owner will not look fondly on the idea of collating and stapling 1,000 copies of a catalog or instruction manual, the option of choosing online printing services can save time, money, and hassle.
A few years ago, the use of professional printing services would have meant a trip to a photography store or print shop, with the associated wait and expense. These days, mercifully, you can handle the entire process, end to end, from the comfort of your home or office.
Here are a few online resources (which also may be associated with stores in your local area) where you can order professional print jobs at a reasonable price. While you can always seek independent, local vendors who provide quality, full service in your community, the selections below offer a broad scope and point you to popular resources that may not be specifically associated with printing services.
Photos and keepsakes
If you’re in the market for high-quality prints such as photos and calendars, there are a number of options available, starting with the mothership herself: Apple’s iPhoto offers a printing service that will handle all sorts of items like books and greeting cards. It’s not a low-cost service, but it does have the distinct advantage of being nicely integrated with the company’s software, and it is known to be quite reliable.
For a less expensive alternative, you can try one of the big box stores. For example, Costco offers its members an excellent online photo service that combines the kind of low prices the retail chain is known for with a wide variety of products that go well beyond basic printing. Best of all, you can upload your content over the Internet and be notified when it’s ready for pick-up at your local store. In my personal experience, Costco offers really good quality—I know quite a few professional photographers who use it for their personal prints—and the in-store personnel is generally knowledgeable and helpful.
While Costco requires a membership, the services of retail giant Walmart and its online photo center are open to everyone. Walmart offers excellent pricing, a consistent product line and a huge selection of photo-based gift items and novelties; if you ever wanted to see the smiling faces of you children on a candle, the Walmart service is for you. Plus, the company gives you the option to either ship your keepsakes or pick them up at one of its store locations.
When it comes to producing presentations, reports, and other documents, there are so many choices that your biggest challenge will be settling on one.
The most obvious destination for these services is one of the big business supply chains, like Staples, OfficeMax, or Office Depot. Generally, you get the same prices offered in store (or better), plus deals on shipping the documents to a location of your choice.
In recent years, several shipping companies have jumped on the business printing bandwagon as well. Both Fedex and UPS have acquired their way into the ability to print and ship just about any kind of document you can think of, with the added opportunity of picking your products up at their physical locations.
There are also many companies that offer business printing without having any physical presence. For example, Mimeo specializes in many office-related items like brochures, flyers, and booklets, but also more esoteric products, like manuals and other training materials. The company offers free delivery for orders over $100, and owns warehouses strategically located next to several shipping hubs for the fastest delivery options.
Finding more options
Depending on your needs and budget, there is a virtually unlimited supply of companies out there that are ready to print everything you can possibly imagine (and plenty more besides), from a few pictures to a few thousand books. The services specifically cited in this article are designed to give you an idea of how to start looking for an online professional printing vendor for home or business projects, and were chosen for their nationwide presence and overall availability. I can only relate my personal experience as to their quality, absent a formal survey.
Finding the right provider is a matter of identifying your needs for a particular job in terms of printing capabilities, quantity, and delivery options. Big chains like Staples and Walmart offer consistent output and reliable service, but their prices may not be competitive for high-quantity jobs, and the gamut of services they offer is limited to those products that appeal to a broad audience. Specialized shops, on the other hand, typically fare better at high quantities and can cater to more specific needs for niche printing.
Whatever your needs, however, finding a service provider capable of handling a printing job end-to-end can be a huge timesaver and help keep more of your money in your pocket, where it belongs.
[Frequent Macworld contributor Marco Tabini is based in Toronto and can be found on Twitter as@mtabini .]