Tell Me About... Printers

Do you know which printer is right for your needs? When you are thinking about buying a new printer, there are some things you should take into consideration...
Published: May 22, 2006
Author: Stacy Reed
Printer tools

Working in your home office, you might find the need to print only a few pages a week. A small business might need to print hundreds, even thousands a week. Larger business and billing agencies may need printers that can print thousands of pages per hour! It's no wonder there is such a wide range of printer types with various speeds and capabilities! Do you know which printer is right for your needs? When you are thinking about buying a new printer, there are some things you should take into consideration before you make a purchase you might regret later:

  • What do you want to print? Color graphics? Photographs? Just text or labels?
  • How do you want to print it? On both sides of the paper? Single or multiple copies?
  • How quickly do you want it to print?
  • What is your budget? How much will ink refills and paper cost?
  • What types and sizes of paper can the printer use? How much paper can the paper tray hold?
  • Do you want to be able to print directly from a memory card? How about wirelessly?

Printers fall into one of two categories. They are either impact printers or non-impact printers. The difference is that impact printers use a mechanism that strikes an inked ribbon which creates an imprint on the paper whereas non-impact printers spray ink, use heat or pressure to create images on the paper.

Impact printers are usually very noisy and they produce a print quality that is sub par for business letters and color image printing. Dot-matrix and line printers are impact printers. They are usually used by companies for routine jobs like printing labels, invoices, or multi-part forms. Most impact printers use continuous-form paper, in which the sheets are connected together, but perforated so they can be easily separated from each other. It also has holes on the sides to help feed it through the printer. You might think these are old-school, but companies so still use these, especially places like auto repair shops, retail stores and factories because they are able to withstand extreme environments.

Most businesses, however, use non-impact printers and so do most home offices - not only because they are much quieter, but because they generally provide better output quality. There are many types of non-impact printers to choose from with a wide range of capabilities to meet a variety of needs.

Ink-jet printers are the most popular for home use because of their low cost and reasonable print quality. They spray tiny dots of ink onto paper and will even print on photo or glossy paper. They can also print on other materials like address labels, envelopes, card stock, and transparencies. Some ink-jet printers come with software that helps users create greeting cards, banners, resumes and the like. There are two factors that determine the quality of an ink-jet printer, one is it's resolution which is measured by the number of dpi* (dots per inch) it can output, and the other is it's speed which is measured by the number of ppm (pages per minute) it can produce. Most ink-jet printers offer resolutions of up to 4800 by 1200 dpi and can print from 5 to 25 ppm. They range in price from less than $100 to a few hundred dollars depending on the quality and features. They usually require a black ink cartridge and a color ink cartridge which can cost upwards of $30 a piece to replace. With the price of ink-jet printers dropping drastically over the years, some people joke that it would be cheaper and wiser to upgrade to a new printer when their ink runs out than to replace the cartridges! Of course, an alternative would be to buy am ink refill kit, but they can be very messy and on occasion cause problems with the printhead or nozzle, especially if the ink has a chance to dry in the cartridge before it is refilled. On average, it costs about $.05 to print a single black and white document and about $.13 to print a color document. If you want to use specialty papers or print high-quality photographs, the price increases considerably so make sure you take that into consideration before you print out all those 8x10's of your family reunion. Just a side note: it is usually cheaper to pay a professional to print high-quality photographs than it is to print them yourself at home.

Most photo printers use ink-jet technology to produce color, photo-lab quality photographs, usually in just one or two sizes. Some photo printers can print letter-sized documents which makes them a popular choice for the home or small business. They range in price, depending on the features and output quality, but for the most part, they are inexpensive. They typically have a built-in slot for memory cards so you can print the photos you took with your digital camera without having to transfer the images to your computer first. Some photo printers even have a built in LCD screen so you can view or edit your images before printing. These printers are great for printing small photos, but what kind of printer would you need if you wanted to print very large banners, signs or posters? Graphic artists use very large and complex printers called large-format printers that are capable of producing high-quality photo-realistic prints, signs, posters, maps, diagrams, and the like. Most large-format printers also use ink-jet technology and can handle paper widths up to 60 inches and usually us large rolls of paper, though some can use individual sheets.

Now, let's take a moment to talk aboutlaser printers. Also a non-impact printer, they can produce high-quality printouts very quickly. A laser printer uses a laser beam and powdered ink called toner when it creates printouts. Here's how it works: the document information is sent from your computer to the printer where it is stored temporarily in its own memory. The printer then uses software that interprets the information into a page description language (PDL), in essence, telling the printer where the ink should go on the paper. The laser beam produces an image on a cylindrical drum as the light from the laser alters the electrical charge wherever it strikes the surface of the drum. This charge is what causes the toner to stick to the drum. The drum then rotates and transfers the toner to the paper as it feeds through. Lastly, a set of rollers uses heat and pressure to permanently fuse the ink to the paper. For a more detailed and thorough explanation of how this process works, read this excellent article, How Laser Printers Work by Tom Harris. It might seem like a complicated process, but it happens very fast. Generally, laser printers can print text at speeds of 9 to 30 ppm though there are some large businesses that use printers that can output several hundred ppm! Another reason businesses like laser printers is because they can print at very high resolutions, usually ranging from 600 to 2400 dpi. Because of the immense range in speeds and resolutions, the prices vary considerably - from a couple hundred dollars to several hundred thousand dollars.

There's yet another printer that will produce color photographic-quality prints... the thermal printer! They generally cost more than ink-jet printers, but are less expensive than many color laser printers. Thermal printers push electrically heated pins against heat-sensitive paper. There are very basic low-quality thermal printers meant for printing receipts and such, but there are also two sorts that offer high print quality. One is the thermal wax-transfer printer which uses heat to melt colored wax onto heat-sensitive paper that will not smear. The other is the dye-sublimation printer which uses heat to transfer colored dye to specially coated paper. Medical labs, photography studios, and many print shops use these high end printers although they can be very expensive, especially if they have the ability to print a wide array of sizes. Lower-end dye-sublimation printers that can only print a couple sizes are used at home or by small businesses because they are less expensive, but the trade-off is that they print much slower than ink-jet or laser printers.

There are also small portable printers that give people on the go the ability print from their laptop or PDA. They are usually thermal printers, though some use ink-jet technology. They connect to the device using USB or wireless ports and are small enough to fit in a briefcase or carry-on bag. In fact, most notebooks and PDAs manufactured today have the ability to connect to printers (as well as other devices) wirelessly either through an infrared port or with Bluetooth. Since we're talking about small printers, I might as well mention the label and postage printers. Label printers are good for one thing and that's printing labels. They print on rolls of adhesive labels that can be stuck to anything from envelopes to CDs and they can usually print bar codes as well. Postage printers are neat because they have a built in scale that tells you how much your package weighs. Users can pay for postage online and the printer then prints the stamp you will stick to the package.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the very large plotters, which are used by specialists like engineers and architects to print high-quality drawings such as maps, circuit diagrams, and blueprints. These printers use a row of charged wires to draw an electrostatic pattern on specially coated paper and then fuse the toner to the pattern on the paper. Like large-format printers, plotters can handle paper up to 60 inches wide on rolls or on individual sheets. They are also very expensive, which is why you won't find many of them being used for home or small businesses.

If you're planning on buying a printer soon, make sure you shop around. Read ratings by professionals and end users to find out more about the printer you intend to purchase in order to discover hidden pitfalls or just for the additional confirmation that yours is a good model. Some manufacturers offer incentives like rebates, free shipping, warranties or seasonal sales so keep an eye out for a good deal.

*For more information about dpi, please refer to this article: Digital Imaging Part 4 - Resolution

About Stacy Reed

Stacy Reed is Tucows' resident software librarian and editor. She has been reviewing PC and mobile software as well as web services for over a decade. Helping developers improve and promote their products is only one of her areas of expertise. Stacy is also an advocate for Open Source, Creative Commons and freeware, taking special interest in educational resources, social media, cloud sharing, and mobile technology.

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