Choose the Best Inkjet Printer

When it comes to printing from your computer, you've got two choices: laser printers and inkjet printers. If you're mainly printing text with a few graphics, a laser printer is the best choice because you'll get crisper text and lower per-page printing costs. For general use, and especially for printing photographs and elaborate images, inkjet printers are a far better choice. With the many options on the market, however, you might need a little help to choose the best inkjet printer.

An inkjet printer works by spraying tiny dots of ink onto the page. Unlike laser jet printers, which layer one color at a time onto the page, inkjet printers can mix their colors, resulting in a greater range of hues and finer detail for images. As you compare inkjet printers, you'll find that resolution, print speed and the cost of replacing inkjet cartridges vary from one model to the next.

Understanding Resolution
The resolution of an inkjet printer tells you the quality of the finished print when you use the highest setting. These printers usually have three settings: a draft mode that saves ink, a standard mode for general use and text, and a fine or high-resolution mode that creates the most detailed prints.

Printer resolution is measured in dots per inch and expressed as horizontal resolution x vertical resolution, such as 1200 x 720. Horizontal resolution tells you the maximum width of printable images, but it's vertical resolution that matters. This number tells you how good your prints will be, and more horizontal dots per inch equal higher-resolution, sharper images.

You'll find varying resolutions in inkjet printers, and even budget models like the Epson Stylus C86 inkjet printer offer resolutions of 5760 x 1440. The actual resolution of printed pages is a bit lower because it takes several dots of ink to generate a single color, and the paper you choose for printing can have an impact on the resolution and quality of your prints. If you want to skip the photo lab and print your digital photos at home, it's worth investing in a printer with a high resolution.

Comparing Inkjet Cartridge Costs
Inkjet printers don't cost a lot up front, if you stick to the standard 8 ½ x 11" paper size. Canon inkjet printers, for example, range from around $100 to $300 for letter-sized paper. Large-format printers can cost $1,000 or more, and these support the same vertical resolution as smaller printers, so you should consider them only if you need the larger images.

The real cost of ink jet printers lies in their ink cartridges, which need to be replaced periodically. Choosing a printer will usually force you to buy inks made by the same manufacturer, since you risk voiding your warranty if you use third-party inks or ink refill kits. It pays to comparison shop for ink cartridges as well as printers to get the lowest lifetime cost.

You'll want to figure out the cost per page for printing to get the best value. To do this, divide the cost of an inkjet cartridge by the number of pages it prints. For example, if a replacement cartridge costs $10 and it prints 100 pages, you'd pay 10 cents per page for your prints. Next, average out how many pages you print each week and multiply this number by 260, which is equal to five years, the average lifespan of an inkjet printer. The resulting number is the lifetime ownership cost of the printer.

There are a few ways to save on ink. First, avoid printers that use all-in-one cartridges or combination color cartridges. Ink never gets consumed at a constant rate, so you'll wind up throwing away good ink when one color runs out. Second, use the draft or standard settings on your printer, which use less ink per print. Finally, look at the different printer options available. The best inkjet printers use six ink cartridges instead of four. Not only does this allow you to print more colors, but it also cuts down on the amount of ink each cartridge uses, depending on what you print.

Comparing Features
Inkjet printers aren't built for high-volume printing, so they're slower and have smaller paper tray capacities. It's best to ignore the speed ratings on these printers, since manufacturers often base them on text-only printing at standard resolution. Printing graphics or printing at high-resolution settings will slow them down, but it's worth the wait if you want high-quality printed pages.

If you frequently print business cards, greeting cards or other items that use thick, specialty papers, it's better to have an inkjet printer that loads pages from the top instead of a tray. Thick paper tends to clog up tray-loading inkjet printers, resulting in incomplete prints or images that are outside the perforated edges of the paper. If you do choose a printer that feeds from a tray, check the capacity and the tray size. It's common to find trays that hold 50 to 100 pages, but finding legal-sized trays can be tricky. A top-loading inkjet printer won't discriminate against legal paper.

A new feature to look for is the ability to print labels directly onto CDs and DVDs. Inkjet printers with this feature include a specialized tray to hold the discs as well as software that lets you design the labels. You'll need to purchase specially coated CDs and DVDs. These cost a little more per disc than standard blank media, but the professional labels you can create are worth the extra expense.

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