Windows XP / Beginners

Considering multifunction devices

Several companies sell multifunction devices that can do two or more functions, such as printing, photocopying, faxing, and scanning.

A multifunction device saves space and usually costs less than several separate devices. On the other hand, it is a compromise; it can't be designed to perform any of its functions as well as a single-purpose device would. Also, you must deal with the inconvenience of not being able to use more than one of the device's functions at a time, and you run the risk that a breakdown will take away your ability to do several things.

A multifunction device can be a real convenience if you use each of its functions lightly. If you use one function frequently, you're better off buying a dedicated device to perform that function. On the other hand, if you need to print, copy, and scan, getting one machine to cover all the bases makes a great deal of sense.

Exploring exotic features

You can get printers that accept paper up to 11 inches wide. Wide-carriage inkjet printers cost a few hundred dollars extra; wide-format laser printers cost a thousand dollars or more extra. Even larger format printers are available from specialized suppliers (at specialized prices).

Many laser printers and some inkjet printers can print a page and then turn it over and print the other side. This is called duplex printing. It's a valuable feature if you print proposals or reports whose appearance is important, or if you mail a lot of documents and would like to save postage by reducing weight.

Some applications, notably Microsoft Word, include rudimentary support for duplex printing on a standard printer - if you don't mind taking a stack of printed pages out of the printer, flipping it over, and feeding it back in. The trick lies in figuring out which pages to print first (odd or even), whether they should be printed in normal order (pages 1, 3, 5, and so on) or reverse order (pages 5, 3, 1), and exactly how the stack needs to be flipped (face up, face down, rotated or not). With a bit of experimenting and a bit of time spent on the File → Print dialog box, you can undoubtedly coax your standard printer into doing duplex.

An almost endless list of printers exists to meet specialized needs. For example, banner printers print on wide rolls of paper; drafting printers can print architectural drawings and similar documents on paper up to several feet wide; label printers can produce mailing labels one at a time; and more. If you need something unusual, look for it on the Web or ask people who deal with equipment for your business or hobby. Chances are that if you can imagine a printer with some specialized feature, somebody sells one.

Making a final decision

After a lot of years advising people and companies about printers, I've come to a handful of very simple conclusions:

  • If you don't print a lot, get a good color inkjet printer from one of the major manufacturers. You won't go wrong with any of them.
  • If you do print a lot - say, more than a dozen pages a day - get a laser. It costs less in the long run, although the initial expense is higher. For the occasional color print, find a company nearby that lets you run your pictures through their color inkjet.
  • If you really, really need a color laser (or dye sub) printer, you'll know it as soon as you see a printout. Do the math, and hold onto your pocketbook.
  • If you need to print color and a lot of black-and-white documents, consider getting both an inkjet printer and a laser printer. The laser printer still can pay for itself, and you won't have to compromise the quality of one type of output in order to get both.

No matter what you do, go with USB (unless you need to plug a very high volume printer directly into your network hub). USB is faster, cheaper, and easier to use than any other alternative.

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