Know Your Inkjets
Is an inkjet in your future? You can find the technology in a huge variety of single-function printers and all-in-ones designed to fill a wide variety of roles at home or at the office. Here, we’ll explore the different types of inkjets, and highlight some key features to look for when shopping for one.
With so many models to choose from, it’s helpful to determine just what you want to do with the printer before you start shopping.
Some inkjets are meant for home use, a few are aimed at offices, and others are good for dual use in a home and home office. Several models are made to output nothing but photos, and are ideal for printing out snapshots on the spot, while others print text and graphics as well, and also excel at producing gallery-worthy prints.
The so-called near-dedicated photo printers are widely used by professional photographers, artists looking to output high-end work, and amateur photo enthusiasts alike. There are even inkjets designed for mobile printing, complete with batteries. Most home inkjets are meant for personal printing or, at most, shared models for outputting a few pages per day. They tend to be compact, and the vast majority of them are small enough to share a desk with.
Graphics and Text Quality
You can count on almost any inkjet to print graphics good enough for both internal business use (like printing PowerPoint handouts) and home tasks (like producing party invitations). If you choose carefully, you can have output quality that would please a graphic artist.
The Achilles’ heel for inkjets is text quality. Ink tends to bleed into plain paper, which makes it difficult to print text with the fully professional look you’d want for documents like a résumé or a business proposal. Not surprisingly, inkjets meant for the office generally do better on this score than home-oriented models, but we have yet to see an inkjet that prints text with the crisp, clean edges and smear-proof ink you’d get from any laser printer. Worse, most inks will smear if you spill something on them or try using a highlighter.
That said, most inkjets at least can print text at a quality that’s perfectly fine for most everyday output. And although it may not be easy to find an inkjet with stellar text quality, there are a few of them out there.
Nearly any current inkjet can print photos that at least match the quality you’d expect from your local drugstore. The few exceptions are primarily among printers aimed at offices, but most office inkjets do a decent job. You can even find a few all-purpose inkjets whose output rivals photo printers meant for professional photographers.
If you’re looking for a home printer to output mainly photos, but also be capable of printing a range of other document types, you will definitely want an inkjet. Printers meant for home use fall into two categories: inexpensive models that typically cost far less than $100 for single-function printers and $150 or less for MFPs; and highly photo-centric printers, with prices of $150 or more for single-function models and $300 or more for MFPs.
The inkjets in the first category often include limited photo-centric features, like the ability to print directly from memory cards and PictBridge-enabled cameras. Inkjets in the more expensive category are photo-centric to the point where you can effectively use the single-purpose printers as simple photo kiosks and the all-in-ones as standalone photo labs. They typically come with relatively large LCDs for previewing photos, and often have touch screens for giving commands. MFPs in this price range add the ability to scan 35mm film and print high-quality photos directly from slides, negatives, prints, memory cards, and cameras. Less common features include a built-in optical drive to let you store images to or print from discs, and the ability to print labels directly onto optical discs.
At the high end of the photo-centric models are near-dedicated photo printers. They are single-function machines that—although they can print text and graphics—excel at printing high-quality photos. The more expensive prosumer and professional models are capable of outputting gallery-quality prints. They have multiple ink tanks (we’ve reviewed models with as many as 12), with each tank holding a different color. Adding extra colors can improve the vividness of prints. For example, some models include more than one type of black ink and several shades of gray, making them particularly adept at printing monochrome images. Generally, the higher-priced models have lower ink costs per volume (milliliter) of ink. They are large machines, and many can print at up to super-tabloid (13-by-19-inch) size. Some, especially the professional models, can print from both sheets and paper rolls.
Although some dedicated, small-format photo printers, which print nothing but 4-by-6-inch, 5-by-7-inch, and/or other small-size photo prints, use thermal-dye technology, many are inkjets. In buying one, there are several things to consider. For instance, if you plan to print at events where you may not have easy access to an electrical outlet, you’ll want to get a model with a rechargeable battery (either standard or as an option). For those who don’t want to connect their camera to the printer, multiple ports, such as media card slots and USB ports that take flash drives, are must-have features. Lastly, print size should be taken into account, as some dedicated photo printers don’t produce output in the traditional 4-by-6 or 5-by-7 variety that you can get at drugstores, and few, if any, dedicated photo printers can go any larger.
Inkjets offer a wide range of connection choices. A few budget models offer only USB, often coupled with a low paper capacity, and are a good choice if you’re in the market for a light-duty personal printer, either in an office or at home. Many inkjets for both home and businesses add Ethernet ports.
If you’re interested in printing wirelessly, the good news is that nearly all inkjets today come with 802.11 Wi-Fi standard. The ability to support wireless printing from mobile devices is of growing importance to both businesses and consumers. Many manufacturers offer free printing apps that are compatible with their wireless printers.
Some models support Wi-Fi Direct (or its equivalent) and/or near-field communication (NFC), both of which allow for direct peer-to-peer connection between the printer and a compatible device without the need of a network. In the case of NFC, the connection is made simply by touching the device to a certain spot on, or even bringing it into close proximity to, the printer.
Duty Cycles and Paper Capacity
While the majority of inkjet printers can be found mainly in a home or a home office, inkjet technology is showing up in more and more business-oriented models meant for heavier-duty printing, including high-end ones that can rival laser printers in speed. They tend to do this by using print heads that run the full width of a page. Although their maximum monthly duty cycles still fall short of heavy-duty lasers, higher-end inkjets are still capable of handling the printing needs (and, in the case of MFPs, copying, scanning, and faxing as well) of many workgroups and small offices.
Still, many inkjets don’t even have a published duty cycle, and for those that do, the ratings are generally laughably low compared with lasers, often measured in a few thousand pages over the lifetime of the printer. The maximum paper capacity in inkjets is often as low as 100 sheets, and rarely more than 300, except in the case of higher-end office models. If your printing needs are strictly light-duty, a budget model with a low paper capacity should suffice.
Inkjets for the Office
Office-oriented inkjets include the few single-function printers and MFPs designed for relatively heavy-duty printing, as well as those that have office-centric features. For instance, they can work as standalone fax machines; fax directly from your PC’s hard drive; and scan to email easily, using your PC’s email program and automatically adding the scan as an attachment.
Office MFPs add an automatic document feeder (ADF) for easy scanning, faxing, and copying of multipage documents. Some ADFs can scan both sides of a page. Of those, duplexing scanners, which scan both sides of a page at once, are much faster than models with duplexing or reversing ADFs (two names for the same thing), which scan one side, flip the page over, and then scan the other.
Office MFPs generally offer paper capacities of 200 sheets or more. Should you want to print two-sided documents, you’ll want a model with an auto-duplexer. Get a model with two paper trays if you want the ability to print with two types or size of paper without having to remove and replace the paper each time you make a switch. A few office inkjets support printing at up to tabloid size, letting you get all those spreadsheet columns onto a single page.
Specialty Inkjet Printers
Inkjets are the only kind of printer with models for mobile use (other than a few thermal-dye printers that need special thermal paper) and with all-in-one models meant specifically for the dual role of home and home office. If you’re looking to print documents while on the road, you’ll definitely want a mobile inkjet. Mobile printers typically have low paper capacities, but make few other compromises. They tend to cost more than comparable non-mobile inkjets, however, with prices averaging about $250.
Dual-purpose MFPs combine office-centric and photo-centric features. To help keep prices down despite all the features, some, but not all, cut corners on paper handling and speed. These are a good fit if you need a single printer for your home and home office, with extra functions like faxing, but don’t usually print many pages.
Pros: Very low running costs. Good output quality, led by great text quality. Prints, scans, copies, and faxes at up to tabloid size. Voluminous paper capacity.
Cons: Large and heavy.
Bottom Line: The Brother MFC-J6935DW can print, copy, scan, and fax at up to tabloid (11-by-17) size, and has very low running costs compared with most of its peers.
Pros: Low running costs. Good print quality. Prints, scans, copies, and faxes tabloid-size pages. Single-pass duplexing ADF. Three paper input sources.
Cons: Super-tabloid support would provide greater value.
Bottom Line: The Brother MFC-J6945DW is a wide-format color inkjet all-in-one printer that prints well and is feature-packed and inexpensive to use, making it an exceptional value for small offices.
Pros: Lightweight and compact. Two additional ink cartridges for higher-quality photos. Two paper input trays. SD card, Ethernet, and Bluetooth 4.0 support. Excellent print quality. Fast snapshot printing.
Cons: No automatic document feeder. Lacks NFC and Wi-Fi Direct. Slow document printing.
Bottom Line: Though it lacks an automatic document feeder, the six-ink Canon Pixma TS9120 Wireless Inkjet All-in-One printer produces exceptional text, graphics, and photos.
Pros: Excellent output quality. Prints borderless square and tabloid-size media. Has two 100-sheet paper input trays. Smart Home ITFFF enabled. Robust connectivity.
Cons: Lacks NFC and Wi-Fi Direct. No automatic two-sided scanning. High running costs.
Bottom Line: The Canon Pixma TS9520 is a wide-format printer that’s rich in features and connectivity, and produces excellent output for low-volume homes and offices.
Pros: Excellent photo quality. Prints borderless images from 4 by 6 inches to 13 by 19 inches. Uses new Claria Photo HD inks. Small and light for an oversize printer.
Cons: Running costs a bit high. Prints speeds are slower than the competition.
Bottom Line: The consumer-grade Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000 Wide-Format Inkjet Printer produces output quality that’s comparable with much more expensive professional models.
Pros: Exceptional cost per page. Above-average print quality. Expandable paper input capacity. Low price.
Cons: Recommended monthly print volume is low. A bit slower than competing laser machines. Out-of-the-box paper input capacity is low.
Bottom Line: An entry-level monochrome inkjet printer, the Epson WorkForce Pro WF-M5299 prints well and is very inexpensive to use, making it an exceptional value for small- to medium-size offices.
Pros: Excellent print quality overall. Auto-duplexing ADF. Competitively low running costs. Supports Wi-Fi Direct and NFC. Fast for its class.
Cons: No multipurpose tray. Small output tray. Slightly expensive.
Bottom Line: The WF-4740 prints well and fast, and it supports just about every midrange business-centric inkjet feature available, including Wi-Fi Direct, NFC, and two-sided scanning.
Pros: Good overall output quality. Prints borderless pages up to 13 by 19 inches. Auto-duplexing up to tabloid-size. Supports Wi-Fi Direct and NFC mobile networking. Two large paper drawers.
Cons: High cost per page. No USB thumb drive support.
Bottom Line: The Epson WorkForce WF-7210 is a single-function wide-format printer that’s fast and produces quality output, making it an excellent addition to a small office in need of printing pages up to 13 by 19 inches.
Pros: Above average print quality. Instant Ink-eligible. Multiple connectivity options. Auto-duplexing ADF.
Cons: High cost per page without Instant Ink. Lackluster software bundle.
Bottom Line: Terrific print quality and competitive print speeds and running costs make HP’s OfficeJet Pro 6978 good for low-volume printing in small offices and workgroups, especially when used with HP’s Instant Ink service.
Pros: Small and spiffy. Voice control with supported smart home UIs. IFTTT scripting for extending smart capabilities. Impressive print quality. Competitive ink costs with Instant Ink, plus free snapshot printing from your smartphone.
Cons: Borderless prints limited to 5-by-7-inch. Single, small paper input. “Scans” and “copies” only via smartphone.
Bottom Line: HP’s Tango X “smart printer,” the first we’ve tested with voice activation and smart home features, is all about printing from mobile devices. It’s not perfect, but given its unique free-snapshot printing angle, it will be a tough act for future models to follow.