A multifunction printer may offer the convenient, consolidated functionality your organization needs, but there are a lot of choices out there. Before making a selection, be sure to consider these key factors.
All-in-one printers have become increasingly popular, especially in smaller organizations, where desk space and technology investments must both be maximized. However, the myriad models, features, and functions can prove bewildering when researching and selecting an all-in-one printer (also known as multifunction machines). From features -- such as flat-bed scanners and resolution -- to functionality -- printing, copying, scanning, and faxing -- there's much to think about when making a purchase decision. To simplify the process, consider these 10 things when you're evaluating your choices.
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The first question to ask when researching an all-in-one printer purchase is what functionality the device must provide. Besides serving as a printer, all-in-ones typically include scanning and copying capabilities and in some cases, fax technologies.
Manufacturers, of course, face relentless pricing pressures. To help maintain competitive price points, they must frequently sacrifice the quality of print and scan engines when including other capabilities (such as fax services) within a unit. Thus, you should consider carefully those functions the all-in-one must provide within your organization. By selecting a unit with only required functions, and foregoing unnecessary functionality, you can reduce the unit's cost while increasing the likelihood that the features you do receive will be of higher quality.
Photo printing is another function that certain all-in-one printers deliver. If you must frequently print high-quality photos, be sure the model you choose supports photo printing. At a minimum, such models should support assorted photo paper sizes, including 4 x 6, 5 x 7, and 8 x 10 prints, as well as color printing resolutions of at least 4,800 x 1,200 pixels.
#2: Print engine
The second factor to consider when purchasing a multifunction machine is the device's print technology. Inkjet versus laser, that's the question.
Inkjet printers have many advantages. Replacement cartridges are less expensive than lasers. Inkjet machines, overall, are typically priced less. And they usually have a much smaller desktop footprint. Inkjets also typically accommodate a wider variety of print media.
Laser printers, however, have a few of their own advantages. Print quality is typically better and more consistent, and their prints, over the long run, are usually less expensive. This is because inkjet cartridge life is but a fraction of that for laser printers. Lasers are also quieter. But they're almost always larger than inkjet counterparts.
#3: Scanning features
Although some organizations only occasionally rely upon their all-in-one printer to scan documents, other firms depend on such devices to scan numerous multipage documents daily. Be sure to give your scanning requirements careful consideration.
If you will need to scan multipage documents frequently, insist on purchasing an all-in-one printer that has a capable automatic document feeder. The ability to load several pages at once in the device's document feeding tray, as opposed to having to feed each page separately, will save considerable time each month.
Offices placing an emphasis on scanning should purchase models that scan documents at high resolutions. They should avoid all-in-one models that can't scan documents at optical scan resolutions of at least 600 x 1,200 DPI (dots per inch) and 24 bits. The higher the DPI and scanner bit depth, the crisper and sharper those scanned images will appear.
If you regularly need to scan odd-shape documents or photographs, seek device models that have a flat-bed scanner. Otherwise, those odd-size items may have to be taped to 8.5 x 11 paper so you can feed them through a device's automatic feed mechanism -- a process that's both cumbersome and wasteful. Fortunately, many all-in-one manufacturers (including Brother, Epson, HP, and Lexmark) produce flat-bed models that also feature automatic document feeders.
#4: Print resolution
When print quality is the first priority, pay special attention to the black and color print resolutions the multifunction machine produces. Print quality is typically measured in DPI. The higher the number, the better.
Inexpensive inkjet printers typically produce 600 x 600 DPI black resolution, while other models produce even 1,200 x 1,200 DPI. Inexpensive inkjet printers' color capabilities, meanwhile, often start as high as 4,800 x 1,200 DPI.
Entry-level laser printers' black print quality almost always outpaces that of inkjet machines. Lasers usually produce 1,200 x 1,200 DPI black resolution, at a minimum.
Laser printer color quality can be misleading. While typically not as high as inkjet color printing, laser systems' color print resolutions of 1,200 x 600 are common, which should prove acceptable for most corporate needs. When you're shopping for a specific model, almost all retailers can provide test samples for your review.
One item important to note is manufacturers' strategies in listing all-in-one printer specifications. When manufacturers list a model's highest print quality, the rating they list is almost always generated using the printer's slowest print speeds.
#5: Printing performance/duty cycles
Print speeds are important in almost every office. Whether an organization needs to regularly generate lengthy multipage reports or frequently print just short forms for customers, print delays and slow page performance can prove frustrating and costly (especially in the form of lost opportunities).
Entry-level inkjet and laser printers boast speeds of 20 to 30 pages per minute for black pages. Color printouts take longer to produce, particularly on inkjet machines.
However, keep in mind that manufacturers usually list an inkjet's draft mode print quality when listing maximum pages per minute. Laser printers usually produce higher quality printouts faster. Further, manufacturers typically list page per minute totals after the first page prints; most laser printers generate the first page more quickly than inkjet printers can.
Duty cycles, too, must be considered. A machine engineered to manage 2,500 printouts per month will require more frequent cartridge changes and likely sustain a shorter service life if it's used in an environment in which 5,000 or more prints a month are required. Carefully match a device's production with its estimated recommended monthly volume or duty cycle rating.
#6: Network connectivity
Network connectivity is a critical factor to consider when purchasing an all-in-one printer. If a multifunction device is going to be accessed by multiple users or PCs, whether for scanning or printing, choose a device that includes an integrated Ethernet network interface. Without a network connection, a multifunction device's service capacity is limited to essentially a single PC (or requires that a clumsy network share be created on the host PC and that the host PC always be available to the other systems).
#7: Wireless connectivity
The other option for networking an all-in-one printer (besides a wired Ethernet connection) is wireless LAN connectivity. In environments in which many wirelessly networked laptops (or desktops connected to the local network via a wireless network) will need to print to or receive scans from the multifunction device, wireless network capability is required.
When selecting a multifunction machine that PCs will connect to using wireless connections, be sure the machine is compatible with the existing wireless network. Many organizations are moving to 802.11n as their WLAN standard. Whether your organization uses 802.11b, g, or n, confirm the multifunction model being purchased matches the deployed standard.
#8: Driver support
Users of Apple Macintosh, Linux, and even older Windows operating systems (including Windows 2000 and Windows 98) should check whether all-in-one printer manufacturers provide driver support for their operating systems. Driver support is essentially standard for Windows XP systems, but organizations should still verify that the all-in-one models they purchase support Windows Vista, as well. Without drivers and supporting print, imaging, and fax software, users of other operating systems may find themselves unable to use the multifunction device.
#9: Duplex printing
Duplex printing is an element that's often overlooked. Organizations that need to print anything from reports to forms using both sides of a sheet of paper will find themselves out of luck if they buy an all-in-one device that doesn't support duplex printing. Check to ensure that the model you select matches your organization's needs.
#10: Replacement cartridge availability
Replacement cartridge costs, whether the cartridges are inkjets or lasers, are one thing. Actually finding replacement cartridges is another.
If you're considering purchasing off-model or lesser-known brands, you may find it difficult to locate replacement ink. Since ink cartridges often seem to fail at the most inopportune time (such as the evening before an important presentation is due), the ability to locate replacements at local office supply stores can be of particular importance.
By sticking with reputable brands, and by using only ink cartridges supplied by the original manufacturer, you can ensure that replacement ink is readily available and that the cartridges work as well as the original ones when the unit was new.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.