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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Detailed Considerations and Tips for Specifying Particular Components ]


Description: Printers transform text and graphics from your PC into hard-copy output on paper. They have been around since the earliest days of the PC, and are used for a wide variety of purposes ranging from letters and business correspondence, to the printing of flyers and sales material, to the creation of photographs that in many ways rival those created by conventional chemical processing.

Role and Subsystems: Printers are not part of any of the subsystems as I have defined them; they are an add-on peripheral. However, they are so important to most PC users that most individuals (and especially most businesses) consider them part of the PC.

Related Components: The printer normally connects to some interface or port on the motherboard.

Key Compatibility Selection Criteria: There are only a few specific choices you need to make in order to narrow down your selection of printers to ones that will meet your basic requirements; most printers will work with most PCs. Here are the initial choices you need to make:

  • Interface: Most printers connect to the system through the parallel port. If your system doesn't have a parallel port (rare on desktops, more common on notebooks) you may be able to connect using USB. There are also some printers that don't connect to a PC at all; they sit directly on a local network to be shared by many PCs.
  • Paper Capacity And Handling: Most regular printers can handle a variety of sizes of paper up to about legal size. They usually have sheet feeders that can accept about 25 to 100 sheets of paper at a time, depending on the printer and the paper. If you need to be able to print wide (17") paper or have special paper handling requirements, you will limit your choices to the larger printers that meet these requirements. These usually cost more and have higher print speeds and better features.
  • Operating System Support: Many printers, particularly inexpensive ones, have key functionality as part of their software drivers. Some therefore require a variant of Windows to work properly. If you are not going to use Windows, be sure the printer you select will work with your chosen operating system.

Performance and Capacity Selection Criteria: There are many different types of printers available for you to choose from. They differ primarily in terms of their performance: how fast they work and the quality of output being the main issues of interest to most buyers. Here's what you want to look for (note that I consider print quality issues to be related to the performance of a printer; quality considerations are related to the quality of the printer itself and follow the discussion of these performance issues):

  • Printer Type: There are three main types of printers sold today:
    • Dot Matrix: The oldest kind of printer common in the PC world is the dot matrix, which was used on PCs primarily in the 1980s. These units use an array of pins and a ribbon to print text, and in some cases, graphics. Noisy, slow and low in quality, these have been almost entirely pushed out of the market by inkjet and laser printers. They are still sold for special needs, especially for printing multi-part continuous forms for business purposes (lasers and inkjets can't print through multiple-sheet carbon forms).
    • Laser: These printers use technology similar to that of a photocopier to create high-quality printout at high speed. They are expensive, however, and they are generally limited to black and white output unless you want to spend a lot of money on a color laser printer.
    • Ink Jet: The most popular type of printer sold today, ink jet printers use a special print head that ejects microscopic dots of colored ink onto paper to create an output image. They are relatively inexpensive to buy and almost all will print in color. However, they can be expensive to operate if you do a lot of printing, can be slow, and their output is prone to fading and smudging. Quality also varies widely.
    • Color Laser: These produce amazing output and are fast, but very expensive. They are still not an option for most PC buyers.
  • Black & White Or Color: This is related to the choice of printer type. Most individual PC buyers want the flexibility that comes with having a color printer, usually choosing an ink jet. However, if you do a lot of printing of text you may want to get a black and white laser printer. For businesses, both are often used on a network: a high-speed laser for high-volume printing and a color inkjet for specialty graphics applications.
  • Multi-Function Printers: If you are shopping for a printer for a business or home office application, you may want to consider one of the multi-function office machines that are becoming increasingly popular. These are usually based on ink jet technology and combine a printer and scanner to create four different capabilities: printing, scanning, faxing (which is either scanning or printing plus telecommunication) and copying (scanning plus printing). These units cost more but they may save you the cost of several other pieces of equipment. See the section discussing "Important Features" below for more.
  • Resolution: The resolution of the printer refers to how many dots of ink per inch can be put into a square of paper: the higher the resolution, the finer the quality of the output. However, there is much more to high quality than just resolution. Also, printing at very high resolution is often impractical: it can take many minutes to print a single page, and printing cost is very high because a lot of ink is used. See more discussion under "Magic Numbers".
  • Print Speed: All printers are rated in terms of the number of pages they can print per minute; color printers usually have a separate rating for color printing and for black and white. With very few exceptions, these claims are beyond your typical marketing exaggerations: they are nothing less than outright lies. Sorry, printer makers, but I've never seen a printer yet that came close to its rating in real-world use, and I've watched a printer that claimed to print "4 pages per minute" take almost a full minute to print out a fairly ordinary page of text with a small amount of graphics on it. These print speed estimates are based on the assumption that you will print pages that are mostly empty, which is like rating a car's acceleration by testing how fast it goes from 0 to 60 driving down the side of a mountain. To check true print speed, have the salesperson connect the printer to a PC and print real documents and graphics.
  • General Quality: Be sure to subjectively evaluate the output from different printers; this will tell you something about whether the printer is able to meet your needs. Many computer stores have printers set up with button boxes that will let you make a test print. Remember though that these test prints rarely are set to show the best quality the printer can do, and the paper used for demonstrations is usually cheap, resulting in inferior quality output. (They do this to save on the cost of consumables in the store.)
  • Number Of Inkjet Cartridges: Color inkjets produce color by mixing yellow, magenta (pink) and cyan (light blue) ink. Better ones also include a second cartridge for black ink: you want to get one of this type if at all possible, unless you never print text. An inkjet without a black cartridge "simulates" black by mixing all three of its colors; this doesn't really give you black however, just a dull gray. Worse, you waste very expensive color ink on black and white text.
  • Number Of Colors: Standard color ink jets use four colors, as I just mentioned. Some printers, however, add two additional colors, especially those designed for photo printing. This generally produces better quality at any resolution, and can make up for a lower raw resolution rate.
  • Photo Quality: All printers can print photos but some are designed specifically for the task while others are not. If you plan to use your printer a great deal for printing photographs, get a printer intended for it. Check for recommendations on digital photography forums.
  • Cartridge Size: The capacity of the cartridges dictates how frequently you will be changing cartridges, and also has an impact on cost per page for printing. This is more of a concern for high-volume printing.

Quality Selection Criteria: Printers range greatly in quality. How important quality is to you depends entirely on how much you print and what you print. Here are some issues to look at when considering the quality of the printer itself:

  • Construction: Take a look at the overall construction of the unit. See if it is solid, and watch how it behaves when it is printing. Cheap units will tend to vibrate a great deal while operating.
  • Noise: If you are sensitive to noise, be sure to listen the unit while it is running; some are nearly silent while others make a terrible racket.
  • Cost Per Page: This is a very important consideration if you do a lot of printing. Various publications that review printers routinely publish a comparison of various printers, contrasting how much they cost to operate in terms of ink use and other expenses. Even within the same type of printer cost per page can be dramatically different from one model to the next. If you print a lot, pay more to get a printer with a lower cost per page. If you rarely print, it probably makes more sense to get a less expensive unit even if it costs a bit more per page to use.

Warning: Be careful when looking at very inexpensive printers: check out the cost of their ink cartridges and how much ink they contain. The last time I went shopping for a printer I was shocked to discover a change made by a major printer manufacturer. They had replaced some of their more popular models with new printers that used a new ink cartridge design. These new cartridges cost as much as the old ones did but had half as much ink in them!

  • Duty Cycle: Many printers are rated in terms of how many sheets per month they can reliably handle. You can try to print as much as you want on any unit, but if you need high-volume printing and try to use a printer designed for infrequent use, you greatly increase the chances of problems.
  • Host-Based Operation: To save cost, many printers (especially cheap ones) offload some of their processing smarts onto a software driver and use the main PC's CPU. This is very similar to how Winmodems work. However, though I recommend against Winmodems, I think host-based printers are usually fine. The difference is that the average PC user has their modem operating far more often than their printer. If that's not the case for you, be sure to avoid host-based printers.
  • Repair History: Printers are more prone to failure than most other PC peripherals. Be sure to check out the history of any printer before buying it, to be sure it isn't a model causing a lot of problems to past buyers.

Important Features: Here are a few special features to look for when shopping for a printer:

  • Envelope Printing: Many printers support printing directly onto envelopes, useful for some applications.
  • Direct Photo Printing: There are some special photo printers that include the ability to plug digital camera media into them and print directly, without the use of a PC. This can be very useful in some situations, though it's not generally necessary.
  • Multi-Function Features: Multi-function printers vary drastically in features, so be sure to read all the fine print. A very good feature not found on all models is standalone faxing: this lets you use the unit to send and receive faxes without the PC being on, so you can receive faxes 24 hours a day without leaving the PC running. Also look for the ability to scan, print and copy in color (some will print in color but only copy in black and white).
  • Software Package: Printers usually come with a software package of some sort. These range in value from extremely useful to "throw-away". Check the side of the box.

"Magic Numbers" To Watch For: There are two big magic numbers when it comes to printers, both of which I have already mentioned: dot resolution and print speed. Be sure not to overrate resolution claims: focus on the bottom line, how the output looks. Be sure to find out how much it costs to actually print at the printer's maximum resolution, and how long it takes to print a full page. Ignore print speed claims unless independently verified (though if you print rarely, print speed is arguably not that important anyway.)

Performance Impact: Printers are not performance components; the only way they can affect performance is negatively, if they are host-based. If you print large documents using one of these printers, you may notice substantial slowdowns while printing is going on. This becomes worse if you are using a slower PC, or if you are printing documents with a high graphical content.

Retail, OEM and Gray Market Issues: Every printer I have ever seen was retail-boxed; there may be OEM ones out there but I have not seen them. I always buy printers from a local retail store, where I can evaluate them before buying, save on high shipping charges, and return the item in the event that it fails soon after the purchase.

Importance of Manufacturer: There are only a few companies that make printers, and most of their models fit reasonably well somewhere in the spectrum of price and performance. Each uses slightly different technology and has a different market approach, so be sure to compare different manufacturers' products.

Typical Component Lifetime: The life of a printer depends both on the type of printer and on how much you use it. With infrequent use a printer will last for many years easily; if you print 100 pages a day on a $100 ink jet you should anticipate problems long before a year is up.

Warranty Issues: Printers fail more frequently than most other components, due to their moving parts and inks that can leak, dry up or clog. Be sure to get as long a warranty as you can. Resist the temptation to buy extended warranties unless they are very cheap and the printer is very expensive. Buy from a local source with local support if possible.

Driver Support Issues: Printers usually come with driver software and the companies generally do a fairly good job of keeping them reasonably up to date. Sometimes though, it takes a while for new drivers to be produced for new operating systems.

Special Specification Considerations: Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when shopping for a printer:

  • Check return policies on printers. Due to the costs involved, most vendors will charge restocking fees on returned printers if they have been opened and the ink cartridges used (though they should not if the item is returned for exchange due to being defective).
  • Do not fall for the games vendors play with trying to sell ridiculously overpriced super-fancy printer cables. I've seen salespeople try to sell $35 printer cables to folks who are buying a $75 printer. They claim these cables are "IEEE approved" and "gold plated" and "designed for modern high-speed printers" and whatever else they can think of. For most people, these are totally unnecessary. Try the $10 printer cable first; if it doesn't work then you can always get the super-fancy titanium and diamond job later. ;^) I've never had a problem with any sort of printer cable working with any sort of printer.

Tip: If your local computer store only sells jet-powered ruby-encrusted printer cables for a small fortune, try looking for a plain one at a local electronics store such as Radio Shack.

  • Some cheap printers don't come with ink cartridges, and they are expensive, so be sure to add them in. However...
  • ... also watch for the new trick of selling printers with "economy" cartridges. In this case "economy" is a euphemism for "half-filled". :^) You aren't in fact getting a full cartridge with these. Once again, done solely to get the sticker price of the printer as low as possible.
  • If you are into digital photography and only want to print out pictures occasionally, consider online photo services: you upload your shots and they print them on professional-quality paper and mail them to you. A photo-quality printer is expensive to buy and operate, and is therefore a worthwhile investment only if you will be printing a lot of photographs.
  • Printers can be shared; if you have two PCs in your home that are networked together, you don't need two printers.

Next: Other Peripherals

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