Printers, Toners, and Ink; Oh My!

Plus my First Ever Printer Recommendation
by Robert Cates Downard

Every so often I hope to show you the gadgets and computer accessories that I love the most and the ones I recommend. You'll learn why I make the choices I do and hope that the knowledge you get from this will help you make an informed decision on your next purchase. This is not an ad. All of my reviews are based on products that I have purchased or have used without any form of payment from any company who makes or sells these products. I get nothing out of it other than knowing the people I help will get what they need.

Today's goal it to help you choose the right printer for you. I will mainly be discussing options for individuals and small businesses (under 10 users); of course your needs may be different but at least you'll get a general idea of what to look for. I also won't discuss the extra bells and whistles like scanning or faxing because most printer these days that come with them are too similar to make any difference in someone's purchase of a printer. Scroll to the bottom to see what my very first printer recommendation is after 15 years in this industry. Hope it helps!

Printer Trials & Tribulations

Let's first have a little chat about why we all despise our printers from time to time. I don't think I've met a single person on the planet who would say that their printer works perfectly 100% of the time. It's just not possible. Too many parts are made of plastic. They need lubrication and over time, dust and debris clogs the belts and gears. Repairs often cost as much as a new printer. Every model is just a little bit different from one another. There are literally hundreds of different models to choose from. The software and drivers to run them don't always work with the computer operating system. Ink can expire. Paper gets jammed. Wi-Fi loses connection.

UGH! It's seems like a potential mess no matter where you turn, but it's sort of a grass-is-always-greener kind of thing. One person has a bad experience with EPSON and switches to HP while someone else has it bad with HP and goes to Canon... With all the negative reviews surrounding every single printer you look at and the above listed headaches, I hope you understand why I cautiously recommend what I do. There is always the chance of getting something defective from the factory, but it's usually a very easy process to exchange what you get if you keep your box during the return period. After that almost everything else can be resolved over the phone with the manufacturer. Bear in mind most negative reviews are simply bad luck or have to do with an issue on the computer.

So now, lets' talk about the two primary types of printers. 

Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printing is a type of computer printing that recreates a digital image by propelling droplets of ink onto paper, plastic, or other substrates. Inkjet printers are the most commonly used type of printer, and range from small inexpensive consumer models to expensive professional machines. (Source: Wikipedia)

As we've all come to learn, the money made by the printer companies is on the ink they sell and not the actual unit. In 2013, Consumer Reports published that even the cheapest ink will run $13 an ounce. At that rate, it's like buying a $325 bottle of wine! Companies aren't even shy about it anymore, offering subscription bargains for regular ink delivery. Even then you're still spending thousands of dollars on ink over a printers average lifespan.

But the ink made by the manufacturers are typically the highest quality ink you can buy. That means the colors are vivid and true to life and the colors will stay on the paper for as long as possible. Many bargain inks are diluted and may not look as good or last as long. Some are better than others and you may already have a favorite brand, but for ink I feel it's easier to stick with the original manufacturer.

Inkjet printers, are best for pictures and are good for all around general use. Pictures printed with your average color inkjet printer will look stunning and rivals that of a 1-hour photo shops who develops them (just as long as the digital camera you took the picture from is a high enough resolution). If you print a lot of pictures with your printer, you basically have to invest in an inkjet ecosystem. There are other printers specifically built for photos only and are even better but, you guessed it, costs more money.

Printers that offer separate cartridges for each color are a cheaper over time verses printers that share one cartridge for all colors since you only have to replace the color that runs out. If you get any inkjet printer, I highly recommend getting one that uses separate ink cartridges.

Another way to save some money on ink is participating in recycling offers from places like Office Depot, for example. If you sign up for their free membership and give them your old empty ink cartridges, they will give you a couple dollars here and there for store credit. Even if the store you go to doesn't offer a deal like that, I still highly recommend recycling empty ink cartridges so they can be properly recycled.

Laser Printers

Laser printing is an electrostatic digital printing process. It produces high-quality text and graphics (and moderate-quality photographs) by repeatedly passing a laser beam back and forth over a negatively charged cylinder called a "drum" to define a differentially charged image. The drum then selectively collects electrically charged powdered ink (toner), and transfers the image to paper, which is then heated in order to permanently fuse the text and/or imagery. (Source: Wikipedia)

Laser printers use toner and costs significantly less to operate verses inkjet printers. Obviously, they sound cooler because they do in fact use lasers, but the downside is the image quality. When printing a photograph, colors often look dull and muted verses the same image printed from an inkjet printer of the same price. In most cases you will find that a color laser printer costs substantially more but you will find a plethora of reasonably priced black and white or grayscale laser printers.

Laser printers are best for bulk printing needs, especially for documents, texts, and drafts. Buying toner for them (toner is basically just dried ink power) cost much less per page than a similarly priced ink cartridge. An ink cartridge will last roughly 200-300 pages, while a toner cartridge will last about 500 to 3,000 pages. The convenience factor alone in not having to change cartridges all the time is a huge benefit. So if you print a lot of documents, receipts, invoices, memos, faxes, emails, etc., look no further than a laser printer. It is your best value with basic black/gray laser printer being the appropriate choice for average people. Color laser printers are a lot more expensive but the cost per page savings over inkjet still holds true.

The downside to laser printers (besides photo quality) is the power usage on startup or waking from sleep. I mention this because there are plenty of rural pockets in Sonoma County where power may not be as reliable. While this isn't an issue for most homes, laser printers do draw an extra boost of electricity at first and then they hum along idly while it's actually printing. This may cause issues if your building has older wiring or you have a lot of other electronics connected to the same breaker switch. It is possible for a laser printer to cause a short. I see it happen mostly for people who have an electric room heater on at the same time. This can be negated by using a battery backup for your computer and anything else that isn't the printer, as it will keep a steady flow of power to all your other electronics even when there is a spike in usage from the printer. Plus having one of those in case the power goes out isn't such a bad thing anyway and is money well spent. For newer homes, this may not be an issue.

Toner cartridges should also be recycled properly and should not just be dumped in any of your regular bins. Color laser printers always use separate cartridges for each color and their size is much larger than one that only uses black toner or a color inkjet printer. Laser printers print faster and are often times quieter than inkjet as they warm up very quickly. Replacing a toner cartridge may also be more challenging for some users but that's just because of their larger size, each cartridge is a little bit wider than a standard sheet of letter/ legal paper and weigh about as much as a new iPad.

What to Get

Now that you have had a short lesson on the two main types of printers and what they can do, it's time to decide on what printer to get. For people who do not print a lot, just get yourself an inkjet printer. If you print a lot and it's a lot of everything, you may want to consider owning two printers. One that's inkjet for when you do nice photos or need something printed in color, and then a black and white laser printer for just about everything else. If you print a lot of color documents like brochures, maps, or other things that don't need to be printed at a very high quality, than a color laser printer will be a great idea.

Unfortunately, I do no have any laser printers that I personally can give my stamp of approval on. The only one that comes close is a black and white model from Brother, HL-L2340DW. It's usually priced under $100 and a single toner cartridge costs about $20 for 1,500 pages when I buy them from Rosewill. The thing has been running like a champ for me and a few of my friends who also own it. It's very popular with students. The only problem I have with it is the way it gets set up for wireless leaves a little bit to be desired. But once it's set up it will work great. There are even versions of it with scan/fax capabilities if desired.

Drum roll please! Now for the recommendation you've been waiting for... It's the Canon MX922!

The Canon MX922 color inkjet printer scans, faxes, and is quite possibly the best all around printer ever sold to consumers. After years of walking into people's homes and seeing all the worst case scenarios, this was by far the one printer in every home that always worked properly. It's a printer that's never had a single complaint from those I've helped personally. I run into them everywhere and I finally bought one for myself. It's very easy to set up and compatible with AirPrint. That means you can print wirelessly from your iPhone and iPad. I bought mine for under $100 as well. But replacing all the ink costs roughly $90 when I get the XXL sized packs, but I find that Costco has the lowest prices on Ink for this printer at about $80 for all five cartridges (two for black and one for each primary color).