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10 things to look for in a multi-function device

Don't get sidetracked by bells and whistles: Consider these basic necessities when choosing a multi-function device.

Shopping for a multi-function device can be surprisingly tricky. Although pretty much all the multi-function devices being sold today offer scanning, printing, copying, and faxing capabilities, there are huge differences in quality, capacity, and features. This article describes some of the more important criteria to consider when shopping for a multi-function device.

1: The warranty

I have to admit that I have never been one to worry about warranties. When it comes to computer equipment, my philosophy has always been that by the time the warranty expires, the device will be obsolete anyway. A few weeks ago, however, a motor burned out in an expensive, enterprise-class multi-function device that was less than a year old. Fortunately, the warranty was still in effect and the manufacturer replaced the unit at no cost to me. Because things like this can (and apparently sometimes do) happen, it is never a bad idea to check the warranty before making a purchase.

2: The type of ink used

Like other printing devices on the market, multi-function devices tend to use either laser or inkjet printing. The type of ink that is used (laser toner or ink cartridges) not only affects your bottom line, but also plays a role in print quality. Some color laser printers, for example, produce less-than-desirable results when printing photographs.

3: Printing speed

Pay attention to the print speed. Depending on the make and model of the device you are purchasing, the print speed might be different for black-and-white and color documents.

Keep in mind that the print speeds advertised by the manufacturer represent the fastest rate at which the device is physically capable of printing under ideal circumstances. In the real world, external factors often mean that your page-per-minute count will be lower than what the manufacturer stated.

4: Scanning capabilities

Most of the multi-function devices on the market will allow you to scan documents to PDF files. However, not every device does this in the same way. Some will allow a scanned document to be delivered directly to the Documents folder on your desktop or on a network share. But others can save scanned documents only to a USB flash drive or to an SD card.

5: Cost per page

If you plan to do a lot of printing, the cost per page is a major factor to consider. Sometimes, the lowest-cost devices have some of the highest costs per page. Manufacturers will practically give the devices away (with price points under $100, in some cases), knowing that they will make money on selling ink for the device. On the flip side, some of the higher end inkjet multi-function devices use huge ink cartridges that might cost a bit up front, but provide a low cost per page.

6: Supported paper types

Some multi-function devices are surprisingly diverse with regard to the types of paper they support — and others are not. For example, I recently helped a friend pick out a multi-function device. One of his main requirements was that the device be able to print addresses onto envelopes. Of all the devices we looked at, only three actually fit this requirement. The choices get even slimmer if you need wide-format printing.

7: The number of paper trays

Having multiple paper trays can be very handy, especially if you perform high-volume printing or if you print to a variety of paper sizes. Extra paper trays are sometimes used as a way to increase the device's paper capacity or to handle multiple paper types or sizes.  Having multiple paper trays might not always be an essential requirement for a multi-function device, but it is definitely a nice feature to have.

8: Duty cycle

Yet another important consideration is the device's duty cycle. The duty cycle normally refers to the number of pages a device is designed to print each month. That isn't to say that you can't exceed the device's duty cycle. But devices with a low duty cycle might break down under the stress of high volume printing.

Many multi-function devices have surprisingly light duty cycles. However, there are devices in the under-$500 range with duty cycles ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 pages per month.

9: Duplexing capabilities

If you occasionally need to do two-sided printing, you'll need a device with duplex printing capabilities. But this isn't the only type of duplexing that's relevant to multi-function devices.

Many multi-function devices include an automatic document feeder that is used for bulk scanning or bulk copying. Some of these feeders have duplexing capabilities, which enable the device to do two-sided copying or two-sided scanning without requiring you to manually flip the source material.

10: Supported media types

One more thing worth looking into is the media types your multi-function device supports. Most multi-function devices will allow you to insert a USB flash drive containing photos or documents you want to print. However, some devices support other media types, such as SD cards or Sony memory sticks. A few of the newer devices even support printing directly from nontraditional data sources, such as smartphones.

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Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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