Choosing the right printer

Businesses rarely expend much effort when buying a printer, but there are savings and efficiencies to be made if you weigh up the...

Businesses rarely expend much effort when buying a printer, but there are savings and efficiencies to be made if you weigh up the options. Neil Fawcett reports

The average end-user's experience of printing can be easily summarised as one of two states: "it works, therefore I love it," or "I clicked print and nothing happened so I hate it."

Printing remains a complex issue and it is an overhead that must be carefully managed. Plenty of time is spent planning and designing server installations, storage architectures and online offerings, but printing tends to be something of an afterthought. Considering the effort put in by the likes of Lexmark, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard to improve printing management within the enterprise, this is certainly a missed opportunity.

"It is amazing how many people just expect the printers to keep running and running and running, often without giving them any thought, while they upgrade all the other kit around them," says Graham Warren, marketing manager at CPG International, which supplies the Genicom and Compuprint branded printers.

The printer options for normal corporate use are: inkjet, laser, colour laser, thermal and solid-ink. The printing technology and the engines that drive these types of printers have undergone several iterations of development and, as a result, price and performance have been fairly well "tuned". Monochrome laser printers, for instance, now offer an excellent price/performance proposition, and companies have no excuse for not delivering high-speed monochrome printing to users.

Colour printing is still a significantly more expensive option in the business world. Nevertheless, colour is coming, and having access to colour output devices within a business network is now commonplace.

These days any printer maker worth its salt has built in the ability to "expose" information pertaining to such things as toner status, paper use and jams to a management tool of some description. Most business printers, especially laser printers, ship with a tool that will use the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) to help map an installation of printers over an IP-based network.

Generally, these tools are relatively simple - SNMP is great at exposing basic information - but some have the ability to scale into a more framework-centric management tool, along the lines of HP's Openview software, that allows complete control over computer assets.

Andrew Semple, manager for business printers at Epson, advises companies looking at buying a printer to look not only at the various "consumable" information that is available from a printer - toner levels, paper usage, etc - but network utilisation. Adding colour output technology to a network will cause a spike in the amount of data being passed from a user's computer to a printer - data traffic that the network administrator may not be happy about.

In terms of speed and output capability, today's printers are top-notch. With the price battles that take place among the leading manufacturers, you can now get hold of a speedy product for a snip. The running costs of printers is often what tips the price/performance balance, but if sufficient effort is put into researching this aspect of the buying decision then the motto "forewarned is forearmed" applies most strongly. If you want trouble-free printing, put more effort into owning the problem.

Buying a printer
  • Base your buying choice on the kind of output you plan to print. Text, graphics and photos each put different demands on a printer

  • Judge a printer by the speed necessary for the quality level you want to use. An inkjet's claimed speed usually refers to the printer's fastest mode, not the higher-quality modes

  • The preferred choice for shared printers is to connect them directly to the network. Make sure the printer offers the right kind of network connection and has software that will work with your network

  • Check the memory. Not all printers allow memory upgrades. Some models need little or no memory because they use the PC to process print jobs

  • The less often you have to add or change consumables, the better. Choose a solution that runs for long periods with little interaction. If you print 25 pages a day, and your printer holds 25 sheets, you will have to load paper every day - a model that holds 250 sheets would be better

  • If the number of pages you print in a month is a concern, pick a printer with a monthly duty cycle that is about four times the number of pages you expect to print

  • Look closely at the management tool options with any given printer. The more control you have the better the experience will be for the end-user

Corporate printing options
Inkjet printers

Four-colour. This is the standard for inkjet printing. Typically, a four-colour inkjet printer holds two ink cartridges - one with black ink and one with coloured inks (cyan, yellow and magenta).

Three-colour. This is a low-end model of inkjet that is rapidly disappearing as prices for four-colour inkjets drop. The main difference from four-colour inkjets is that three-colour printers cannot hold a black ink cartridge and a colour cartridge at the same time. Not good for the business world.

Photo. While many four-colour inkjets can print photos at almost true photographic quality, they are hampered by the range of colours (also called gamuts) they can produce. Photo inkjet printers expand their gamuts by adding additional ink colours, usually light cyan and light magenta.

Laser printers
Laser printers use a photosensitive drum or belt that picks up an electrostatic charge wherever the laser beam hits it. The charged areas then pick up toner and transfer the toner to the paper.

Monochrome. The most common type of laser printer and the area where you will get excellent price/performance. Monochrome laser printers offer a sharpness that inkjet printers cannot match without slowing to a crawl.

Colour. Colour laser printers are making inroads into the business world, and their quality is improving all the time. Fortunately, prices are falling as well. Quality wise they are excellent, but do not expect a colour laser printer to produce the high-quality photographs that you get from an inkjet.

Colour LED printers
LED printers are similar to colour laser printers but with one big exception. Because the LED light source is much more compact than a laser, it is relatively simple to fit four LED print elements next to each other. This allows LED printers to lay down all four colours in one pass. Therefore, they can print in colour nearly as quickly as they print in monochrome. But there is a catch. Such printers may deliver the speed you want, but not the quality of image. This is a category worth spending time evaluating.

Solid-ink printers
Solid-ink printers start with a block of ink - usually wax or resin - which they either spray directly onto a page as an inkjet printer would or spray onto a drum that rolls against a piece of paper like an offset printing press. Solid-ink printers that use the drum approach tend to be more successful because they offer speed with output quality similar to colour laser printers. The advantage solid-ink printers have over colour laser printers and LED printers is that they produce more consistent colour. A disadvantage is that the ink does not slide well over glass, which may cause paper jams in office copiers.

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