Color Printers

Color Printers

Buyer's Guide

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Introduction Prep Types Specs Features Choosing a Seller Pricing Buying Tips

Introduction to Color Printers

Until recently, business color printers cost too much to be worthwhile for most offices. Instead, small and mid-sized companies turned to printing companies and local copy stores for each color printing job. Now, prices have fallen considerably, so businesses can find suitable printers for as little as $500.

Color printers come in a wide range of models, from $75 inkjets to $10,000 networked machines. However, there is an important caveat for businesses choosing a color printer: ongoing costs.

Those $75 printers are acceptable for a home user who prints only a handful of pages per month. Buying one for your business, though, is a losing proposition: you can expect to pay many times the cost of the printer every year in ink and other consumables. They also aren't built for business volume - even a five person office can overwork a low-end inkjet in a matter of months.

Buying the right color printer for your business can save quite a bit of money, both by eliminating frequent trips to the print shop and by reducing the need to get huge runs of printed marketing materials. Making sure you know what you need your printer to do will help you spend the right amount - and we can help.

This BuyerZone Color Printers Buyer's Guide will:

  • Review the different types of business color printer technologies
  • Highlight the key specifications and features you should look for
  • Uncover the often-overlooked, but very expensive, cost of maintaining a printer
  • Benchmark what you can expect to pay for a color printer

Preparing to Buy a Color Printer

Before you start researching color printers, take a few minutes to understand exactly what type of documents you'll be printing and your likely print volume.

The first consideration is what you'll be printing. What software packages will you be using - mostly Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, or graphics programs like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop? Will you be printing presentations, marketing collateral, charts, photos, posters, flyers, checks, etc.?

These factors will influence the quality printer you need. Some types of printing will have a bigger impact than others: banners or other oversized documents require very specific capabilities. If you need to print on heavy stock or transparencies, that's important to know as well.

One very specific use of color printers is pre-press - creating high-quality printouts of work that you'll be sending to a print shop. This is quite a bit more demanding than most types of business printing, since it demands exact color reproduction and very high quality. For pre-press work, you will have to upgrade to a considerably higher-end printer.

Print volume is another important factor. Business color printers are rated according to their monthly print volume, so you'll need a good estimate of your expected activity. Make sure you include any printing your office currently does at the local copy shop in your estimation, plus 10% to 25% to account for increased usage due to increased availability.

You also need to know a little bit about your computing setup. If your design staff uses Macintosh computers, that will affect your printer purchase decision, as will the type of network you're using.

Types of Color Printers

While there are several types of color printers available today, color laser printers are by far the most popular for businesses. Here's a rundown of the major types.

Color laser printers

Laser printers use a laser beam to produce electric charges on a rotating drum, which transfers toner onto paper through a combination of heat and pressure.

You can find the right color laser printer for almost any office, from low-end models capable of around 30,000 pages per month to high-powered printers that handle 200,000 pages per month or more. They generally create very sharp graphics, and the pages they print are relatively safe to handle without fear of smudging. Operating costs - an important consideration when choosing a printer for a busy office - are also much lower than other types of printing.

Over 2 million color laser printers were sold in 2007, according to Lyra Research, and that number is only going to increase as prices continue to drop - in fact, sales are expected to increase by 20% annually in the years ahead. Unless your color printing needs are very minimal, a color laser printer is probably the best choice.

Inkjets

Inkjet printers spray ionized liquid ink onto paper, one narrow strip at a time. These printers make up the bulk of the home printer market, but they're rarely a good deal for business use. The primary reason is the ongoing cost.

Inkjet printer manufacturers use a similar profit strategy to disposable razor companies: they sell the printers at an enticingly low cost and make their profits from replacement ink cartridges. At 15 to 50 cents per page, the cost of inkjet printing can be seven to 25 times that of laser printing at a more reasonable two to eight cents per page. (Read more in the Pricing section)

Inkjets do have their niche applications, however. When using special photo paper, inkjets can print very high-quality photographs, better than most color laser printers. They are also an inexpensive way to add color to your office documents, if you don't plan to use them too often. However, they can't handle the volume most businesses require: few are rated for more than 5,000 pages per month.

Other types of color printers

Inkjet and laser are by far the two most common types of color printers, but there are several other varieties you may encounter.

Solid ink printers use blocks of colored wax instead of liquid ink or toner. Inside the printer, the wax is melted, then sprayed onto paper where it quickly hardens. These blocks are easy to handle - there's no mess or cartridge to recycle.

Solid ink printers are better at printing on a wide variety of paper than laser printers. In addition, the cost per page is fairly competitive with color lasers, quality is generally good, and because they have very few moving parts, solid ink printers tend to be reliable even at high print volumes.

The major drawback comes from the fact that the resulting printed pages are wax-based. There is a real risk that pages left in a hot environment (in a car, or on a heater) will melt enough to stick together or smudge. Images can also be scratched off the page.

Dye sublimation produces near-photograph quality output by using heat to transfer dye directly from a ribbon to paper. It used to be found only in extremely high-end printers for graphic design firms, but now it's a popular choice for inexpensive home photo printers, as well as instant photo kiosks. Per-page costs are sky high - $2 per page is common - but the print quality makes them worthwhile in select applications.

Basic Printer Specs

Speed

Print speed, measured in pages per minute (ppm), is one of the first statistics printer salespeople will quote when describing a printer. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most misleading.

For one thing, manufacturers perform speed tests in conditions favorable for faster printing. For example, they may run paper sideways, creating a "shorter" page. They may also print fairly simple text pages, instead of graphics-intensive pages, and may even load their test printer with extra memory.

Rated speeds also don't include the time it takes the printer to warm up - printing the first page of the day can take up to several minutes. Whatever the reasons, the speeds you see quoted in product literature are rarely attainable in real-world situations. Do some hunting online and you can find independent reviews for most printer models that will give you more realistic speeds.

It's important to distinguish between black and white and color speeds. Many color laser printers can reach speeds of 25 ppm for black and white documents, but drop to 5 to 10 ppm for documents in color.

Volume

While speed is important, it's also a function of the volume the printer is capable of printing: printers built for larger monthly volumes generally run at higher speeds. Unsurprisingly, the volume numbers are often exaggerated as much, or more, than speed figures. If you actually print 85,000 pages per month on a printer rated for that amount, you're likely to encounter considerable mechanical problems.

For this reason, you should always overbuy monthly volume capabilities. Look for a printer rated for at least 25% more than the actual number of pages you're likely to print. Often, you'll find that printers with the quality and features you demand will boast monthly volume figures much higher than your actual needs.

Resolution

Resolution is a measure of how many individual dots the printer uses to make up an image. It's useful as a general guideline, but it's important not to use it as the absolute arbiter of quality: different printing methods and technologies can produce extremely varied results at the same resolution.

Do choose printers with a minimum of 600 x 600 dots per inch (dpi) for crisp-looking text and graphics. For optimum photo printing or detailed graphics, resolutions of 1,200 dpi or higher may be the best choice.

Color Printer Features

Once you know the basic specs you're looking for, decide which additional features are most important to you. The two most important considerations are memory and printing languages.

Memory

Printer memory, like computer memory, is essential for speedy operation. For relatively simple print jobs - mostly black and white with only splashes of color, mostly text and few pictures, and relatively short documents - you won't need more than the standard amount. But for more demanding jobs that include complex graphics, multiple fonts, and many pages, you may want more memory.

Color laser printers typically start with 32 megabytes (MB) of RAM, or random access memory. For graphic-intensive applications, you should consider upgrading to 128 MB or 256 MB. Check the expandability of any printer you're considering: almost all laser printers can support memory upgrades, but few inkjets can. You don't have to buy the additional memory when you initially purchase the printer - installing more memory is fairly straightforward and can be done any time.

Printing languages

The two common languages used by color printers are PostScript and PCL. PostScript is the gold standard for printing: it is very precise and capable of handling the most complicated jobs.

PCL is the most common language found on ink-jet models, and is perfectly adequate for most low- to mid-range office printing. For CAD drawings, intricate graphic design, and other complex images, however, you should look for a PostScript printer. In addition, PCL cannot be used with Macintosh computers, and is not as popular as PostScript in high-end printers.

Some manufacturers use an interpreter to convert PostScript directions into printer commands. These "clone" versions of PostScript tend to work fine most of the time, but may run into inexplicable difficulty with very complex images.

Additional features

Paper handling capabilities vary considerably between printers. To print double-sided copies, look for a model that supports duplexing, which lets you print both sides of the page without re-feeding the paper. You'll often have several options for paper trays - if your printer is destined for a busy office, upgrading to a larger paper tray or adding multiple trays will mean fewer waits while the paper is restocked. And if you routinely print on heavy stock, a printer with a straight paper path can reduce the chances of jams.

Evaluating Color Printer Sellers

Buying online or from an office superstore is fine for low-end printers, where your only concern is price. For quality business printers, though, establishing a relationship with a printer seller can provide better results in the long term.

Printer sellers usually carry lines from multiple manufacturers, allowing you to compare print quality for yourself. The best approach is to get printouts of the same files from the models you like - this will allow you to compare models directly.

If you're looking for a mid-range to high-end printer, don't be afraid to ask for an on site trial. Many sellers will lend you a printer for a few days or a week so you can evaluate its performance in your environment. If you can get this opportunity, take advantage of it.

While size isn't necessarily the best indication of seller quality, longevity may be. Small companies that have been around for a long time should be just as dependable as larger companies. Smaller sellers may offer a more personal touch, while larger sellers may have more of a selection, but these differences aren't critical.

Pay attention to the sales techniques of the printer salespeople as well. The best sellers will help educate you about what to look for in a printer and how to make the best choice, instead of just pushing this month's special on you. They'll also give you the exact costs for everything you want and not hit you with added costs late in the process.

Also consider checking references. Any reputable printer seller should provide you with references to customers who purchased the exact model of printer you're considering. Ask them how responsive the seller has been to service calls and how comfortable they feel about the technicians' level of expertise. If the printer has had any problems, find out how these problems were resolved. Of course, the seller will connect you with their most satisfied customers, but you can still gather useful information this way.

Maintenance and service agreements

Buying from a local seller does provide an advantage during the evaluation process: you can stop by their office and check out their service and parts departments. If your printer ever needs repairs, a well-staffed repair shop can be a lifesaver.

Like copiers, color laser printers require regular maintenance: cleaning, inspection, and replacing worn parts. Keeping your laser printer well-maintained is the best way to prolong its useful life and make sure that it runs smoothly between cleanings. A maintenance agreement will usually cover toner, drums, and all other replaceable parts, as well as regular visits to your office by a technician.

Maintenance agreements are usually priced per printed page, typically between one and two cents per copy, depending on your print volume. Other sellers may simply charge a fixed rate per year.

If you choose to buy an inkjet printer, you probably won't be able to buy a maintenance agreement. If it breaks down, it's cheaper to simply throw the inkjet out and buy a new one.

Color Printer Pricing

The single most important pricing factor to remember when buying a color printer is that the ongoing cost is much more than the initial purchase price. The least expensive color printers - inkjets - have far more expensive per-page costs, and will wind up costing you significantly more in the long run.

As an example, consider a small office that prints 50 pages per day, which works out to 15,000 pages per year. A typical inkjet printer cartridge might be rated at around 1,000 pages and cost $30 - that's $450 per year in ink costs alone, for a printer that only cost $150 to buy. Cartridge yields are frequently overstated by manufacturers, as well - they are often based on unrealistic page coverage - so $550 to $600 might be a more realistic estimate.

Consumer inkjets start under $100, but even if you're buying an inkjet for very occasional color printing, you should avoid these cheap rigs. Business inkjets priced between $150 and $300 can produce good results at a somewhat more expensive per-page cost than lasers - but if you're disciplined about only using it when you actually need to print in color, it's a great way to save some money. If you choose an inkjet, make sure you choose one that has separate cartridges for each color ink.

Color laser printer costs

Prices for small business color laser printers have dropped steadily over the years, and you can now find reasonable printers for as little as $300. Your expected monthly volume will be the single biggest contributor to cost: a machine capable of handling the printing needs of a medium-sized office can go for $800 to $2,500. At the high end, networked copier printers double as color copiers and network laser printers, and cost $5,000 to $10,000 or more. See what other BuyerZone users have paid for color printers.

Toner cartridges for laser printers are typically more expensive than inkjet refills, but they also last much longer. Many cartridges have listed yields of 2,000 to 5,000 pages or more. Again, those yields are based on unrealistically low page coverage - 5% in many cases - so you won't get quite the listed performance, but toner is significantly cheaper per page than inkjet refills.

Because of the significant costs of medium and high-end color printers, leasing is a very popular financing option. Instead of a capital expenditure of thousands of dollars, you'll have a much more manageable monthly fee. A color printer lease will also include regular maintenance, and you get the ability to occasionally trade up to a new model. Avoid leases that lock you into a specific printer for more than a year or two: technology moves quickly, prices fall, and your printing needs may evolve, so the flexibility to change models is important.

Color Printer Buying Tips

Know your paper - Laser printers print fairly consistently on multiple types of paper, while inkjet quality changes quite a bit due to the varying absorption of the liquid ink on different papers. However, inkjets generally do a better job on glossy and photo papers, as well as thick card stocks that many laser printers can't handle.

Lasers have the extras - Paper handling features such as duplexing, stapling, and the like are rarely available on inkjets. Color laser printers are your best bet if you expect to run complicated jobs and need these types of options.

Who needs color? - Printing in color uses expensive color consumables. For most users, printing in color is rarely important - and it's often just a by-product of wanting to print a web page or other document that contains incidental color. Many business color printers can be set up so only some users can print in color, preventing accidental color use and helping you keep your costs down.

Mix and match - For many offices, a combination of printers is the best option. One central laser printer can handle the bulk of the black and white printing, while departments that require color - marketing, or graphic design - get a smaller color laser for their use.

Buy used? - To save money, consider a refurbished color laser printer. Refurbished laser printers are printers that often sell for less than the price of toner for a new printer, and were previously used and often sent back for repair. Once the repair is made, the printers go through a refurbishing process and are offered for sale. But remember to check the prices of supplies and maintenance kits -- these can make a used printer much less of a bargain.

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