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Before You Buy a Printer

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There’s never been a better time to buy a printer. Prices are falling, quality continues to improve, and there are more choices than ever. Whether you’re looking to buy your first printer or trade in an older model for one with more bells and whistles, you’re in the right place to learn more so you can make the best choice.

But having a lot of choices doesn’t make it easy to choose. Which printer is the right one for you? The answer depends on how you intend to use it. No matter what you need a printer for, there's a high quality and affordable option. The first step is figuring out what you need.

Choosing the Right Printer

The number of printer choices is staggering. It took me two weeks of solid research to choose my own printer, so I know what you’re going through. The task is a little easier if you first analyze how you intend to use the printer most.

Let's simplify things with an assessment of your needs. Take a look at these descriptions and see if one of them sounds like you. Then you can narrow down the choices and find the printer you really need.

The Home Manager

You run a small business from your spare bedroom. That business could be selling Cabbage Patch dolls on eBay--or it could be taking care of the bills, helping the kids with their homework, and printing out a shopping list. You don’t print a lot, but you still need a versatile and affordable printer that can print everything from coupons to photographs of the cat.

Your Printer: A color inkjet printer will give you the versatility you need to take on most projects, and you can find good ones for under $100. If having a copier and scanner will help you get organized, figure on spending about twice that.

The Wordsmith

Are you working on a novel or a book of poetry? You need a printer that can churn out dozens of pages on the double. Color is not a priority; speed and good quality prints are. It would help if you could print on both sides of the paper (duplex printing), collate, and staple.

Your Printer: A laser printer is your best bet. While its up-front cost is higher than an inkjet, its speed and print quality are second to none, and many offer duplex printing and finishing options. Good monochrome laser printers start at about $200, and color laser printers are getting cheaper. Here are some of the best bets.

The Boss

Your printer is the cornerstone of your home office. It has to be able to scan receipts, copy tax forms, fax letters to headquarters, and leap tall buildings at a single bound. It needs to be an all-around hero--durable, hardworking, dependable, and easy to use.

Your Printer: A multifunction printer (MFP), or an all-in-one, will save the day. These inkjet printers are big, but they’re cheap and they can make even the smallest business look like a Fortune 500 company. Good MFPs cost from $200-300, but prices are dropping. Here are some best bets. For a bit more you can even upgrade to a monochrome laser printer.

The Road Warrior

You travel a lot and need to bring your office with you. You’re better off going to Kinko’s to print your presentation, but you still need to print contracts, estimates, and other documents from the road. You need a printer you can use in your car or the airport lounge that’s light and small enough to fit into your laptop case.

Your Printer: A mobile inkjet printer is a lot of printer in a small package. It can print in color, it can run on batteries (some have car chargers), and connect wirelessly to your laptop. You’ll pay a premium, with good mobile printers in the $250 range, but convenience is worth a lot.

The Photography Buff

Weekends find you with digital camera in hand, taking photographs of the world around you. You need a printer that can capture the range and depth of color in your photographs and then reproduce those images on quality photographic paper.

Your Printer: A photo printer will give you great prints (often connecting directly to your camera) in a range of sizes. If you need to do other kinds of printing, a good color-inkjet printer will give you quality prints, though the colors won't be as rich. Figure on spending about $100, while versions at twice that price add CD drives so you can save directly to a disk.

The Artisan and DIY Buff

Not all printing happens by spraying ink or melting toner onto paper. Printers that allow you to print in three dimensions are becoming inexpensive--and companies that will do the printing for you, if you supply the design, are popping up regularly. You can print anything from customized cuff links to toys to iPad stands. And if you want to sell your own 3-D crafts, these online printer shops provide almost everything you need. So if your printing needs run in three dimensions, you should start investigating what happens the behind-the-scenes an online 3-D print shop.
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