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Finding the Best Printer

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If that title sucked you in, great, that was my plan. However, I'll come clean right from the start that I don't think you can pin down what is the best printer. It's a little like finding the perfect mate. There are a lot qualities, some good and bad, and there's some compromise to make. Nonetheless, there's nothing wrong with looking for the Gisele Bundchen of printers, right?

Most people have it easy when it comes to printers. They buy them and they work. If I have one super-power it's that I can destroy a printer's ability to print in a single use. This clip (caution adult language) from Office Space is a common occurance with me and printers.

The only printer that is immune is my beloved HP LaserJet 4L that is about 20 years old now. I'd still be using it, but I can't figure out how to hook it up without a LPT1 port. (I bought a USB to LPT1 adapter, but couldn't make it work.) That thing printed thousands of high school, college papers, resumes and more. The whole dorm used it. I changed the laser cartridge once at a cost of about $70.

Times were simpler then. Printing in color wasn't a big deal, we didn't have digital cameras. Wireless technology was still years away. No one conceived of a machine for the home that did scanning, copying, faxing, and printing. In an age where we strive to go paperless and use our tablets to share information it seems strange that there's so much more to consider in choosing a printer.

The last few printers I've had have been... well... disposable. I picked the cheapest one at Staples. Then I supply it with whatever generic ink cartridges that I find on Ebay because ink is so expensive. Often the official ink is more expensive than the printer itself. I know these buying choices may play a role in my ability to destroy printers rather quickly. However, now that I'm not turning in 20 pages for the entire dorm, the amount of printing I need to do is minimal.

Last Friday my latest disposable printer this terribly reviewed HP) died on me. I had a critical 2-page document to print, sign, scan, and return for a business deal. I ended up having to go to FedEx Office and spending an entire 26 cents to print it out. (I was expecting it to be a lot more.)

I'm done with my disposable printer plan. It's time to get something steady and reliable. So last night, I started to do some printer research. I immediately gravitated towards laser printers because of that wonder HP LaserJet 4L. I wanted to put all the ink jet crap in the past. As it turns out there aren't a lot of laser printers that the essential functions I need like scanning and copying. (Some day I'll get faxing to work with my Ooma VOIP.) There was one that met my needs, Canon Laser imageCLASS MF4890dw and at $195 the price isn't bad. The reviews of it are outstanding. I had a talk with my wife as to whether we can give up color printing, since we don't use it much. She was hesitant, but agreed that color printing is usually not necessary for us.

I was about to pull the trigger when a little voice said, "What does The WireCutter think is the Gisele Bundchen of printers?" I love the WireCutter, because they often make the same technology choices I would. So when I have doubts, I go there and see what they are recommending and why.

They weren't recommending any laser printers. They explained that ink jets have caught up to laser printers in many ways, including the price to print a page. Not only that, but unlike the laser printers, a color printer doesn't cost $500+. Additionally they cited this excellent PC World article about how a more expensive printer with cheaper ink can save money.

The Wirecutter particularly liked this Epson WorkForce WF-3520, saying that for $120, it does most everything well including a cost per page (CPP) of about 3.2 cents, which is below average. However, the also mention that for $80 more the HP Officejet Pro 8600 Plus has a cheaper 1.6 cents CPP and is a little faster, plus the ability to scan legal sized documents.

Given The Wirecutter's advice, I'm rethinking going with a laser printer. With the young baby, there might be a need to print out pictures for grandma. So assuming that I ditch the Cannon laser printer, I'm between the two Wirecutter options. Unfortunately, it's not quite as easy as it seems as the Espon they recommend is $20 more than when they recommended it. The gap between the two has narrowed. Additionally, I feel better about the cheaper CPP even though it would take about 3000 pages to make the HP cheaper.

The Amazon reviews for the Espon are better, especially with far fewer people giving it a dud rating of one star. I think the Espon is going to be my next and hopefully last printer for some time.

Readers, what are your thoughts on printers? Find any great ones that you are particularly happy about? Have thoughts about these? Let me know in the comments.

Last updated on May 9, 2013.

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23 Responses to “Finding the Best Printer”

  1. You’re talking about a difference of $60 on something that you will [expect] to use for the next XX years, where XX > 5. The increase of $60 over that time is nominal. If you’re working with legal size and frequent printing, go for the HP.

    Personally, I’d go for the HP because of the wider support – but this is likely availability heuristic bias; HP is far more popular of a printer.

    I doubt you’ll go wrong with either choice, but don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s a small commitment that, if you choose wrong, can be easily corrected in the out years by purchasing a more satisfactory printer.

  2. Lazy Man says:

    With my history of printers, expecting a printer to last for 3 years is optimistic. I don’t think I’ve ever printed on legal size. However, I have a handful of papers from a house closing that it might be nice to just scan and store digitally. It would be a one-time use, more than likely. Also, my printing is pretty infrequent. The wife will be do more work from home and I’ll have to check if she’ll be doing more.

    I’m biased towards HP for their reputation with printers. That’s counter-balanced by the junk HP that I have now. Also I have a fair amount of bitterness towards them for completely screwing up the best mobile operating system, webOS. Even that’s countered by the fact, that I would get wireless printing from my existing webOS devices in the house, something that I can’t get from other printers… those focus support on Android and iOS.

    You are right about not sweating the small stuff, and this is the smallest of stuff (except when the printer doesn’t work and you have to run FedEx). In 7 years of blogging, I’ve covered a lot of the bigger stuff, so today I thought I’d cover something smaller, but still applicable to a large number of people.

  3. Funny that you mention webOS. I think I read in prior posts that you purchased an HP TouchPad. I bought 2 of them myself (my son has one and I have one). Although the original operating system (webOS) seemed promising, it was missing an app store, basic tools, etc. The thing sat in a corner for a good 6 months until I reformatted it with Android / cyanogenmod. The tablet is now a daily use device.

    If you still have your Touchpad, consider reformatting it; it was very easy to do and can be dual booted between webOS & Android.

  4. phr3dly says:

    I’ve been through the same laser-printer/inkjet debate many times over the decades. Inkjet printers are like CFLs. There’s always a chorus of voices saying “They’re really as good as the real thing this time!”, and then I get suckered in, and every time I’m disappointed. Either because of chipped non-refillable cartridges, or heads that clog if you don’t print at least once/week, or ink that smears, or what not.

    I’ve got a couple laser printers. One small wifi Brother (2270-DW) that sits near the kitchen, where we print most of our stuff, and a larger Samsung (don’t recall the model number) that sits in the office area, and also handles copies. It has a scanner and fax, but I don’t use those functions.

    I think I paid a couple hundred bucks for the Samsung 5-6 years ago. My use is low volume, but it still works fine.

    Come to think of it, ever since my first laser printer (GCC PLP II) back in 1990 or so, I don’t think I’ve ever had a laser printer /stop working/. Generally it just gets hard to find consumables after a while, but with the advent of cheap laser refills from ebay, that’s not a legitimate problem anymore either.

  5. Don’t post this, but did you check out techbargains? They have a duplexing network printer for very cheap:
    http://www.techbargains.com/news_displayItem.cfm/348309

  6. Lazy Man says:

    webOS had an app store, just limited apps because Palm didn’t have the money that Google/Apple had to make the same quality devices and marketing campaigns. Once Verizon canceled their order of Palm devices going with Android and the Droid campaign they were mostly done with a 3rd rate carrier. HP had the money to compete, but decided to blow it on terrible acquisitions (something like 8 billion for Autonomy) instead of on a competitive mobile strategy.

    I use my two TouchPad every day as webOS devices. They still work great for email, web, calendar, Pandora, etc. Also, the Touchstone cradles make them nice digital picture frames and clocks. I put Ice Cream Sandwich on mine, so I could stream MLB.tv, but I haven’t found a need for Android other than that. I’m going to try to put Jelly Bean on my wife’s as she has an Android phone and might be able to better use it that way.

    I would use my TouchPad much more often before I got my Asus Zenbook. At 3 pounds and instant-on, it gives me a lot of what I would use a tablet for, especially since I’m typically creating content, such as answering comments like these.

    Wow, that was a little off topic…

  7. Lazy Man says:

    Phr3dly,

    Ha ha, I think CFLs really were as good when they first came out. I switched everything that I could and never looked back.

    My big fear with the ink jet is the heads clogging or the ink drying up. A couple of printers ago, I got a message that the printer heads needed replacement. I only had the printer for 15 months (I think). New printer heads cost more than the printer in the first place.

    Maybe this is another reason to go with the cheaper ink jet. If ink jets are still going to have these problems, I can move to laser. If laser did color and it all came at a reasonable price, I’d be all over it.

  8. Lazy Man says:

    Sorry, TPM, when I see a comment from someone who I’ve vetted, I pretty much just post without reading the comment too much.

    The printer that you mentioned looks good, except that it leaves me buying a copy, scanner, fax, combo device. My biggest use of printing is signing documents and scanning them back in to send via email. The wife wants to minimize our technology per square foot ratio (can’t understand why), so it could be a good deal, but just not for me.

    Also looks like it is $11 more at Amazon, so maybe not super cheap? Perhaps just clearing out an old model?

  9. Paul says:

    I’ve had my dell networked color laser printer for almost eight years. Still on the original toner cartridges. It’s printed 3800 pages since I got it. Just looked and a color network mfc is $260. I’ve had no issues, and fully recommend a dell laser. I’ll never own another inkjet.

  10. robyn says:

    i had an HP laserjet for 10 years, printed an average of 10,000 pages a year. bought my ink from a refiller, 123inkjets or inkjetsuperstore. i had an adapter in the back so it could plug into my printer port. i loved it so much, such a workhorse that i rebuilt it twice. well, it finally died and i replaced it with a samsung ml-2955dw, based on ink cost. my criteria are: ONLY black/white printing, speed and ink cartridge capacity [3000 pages or more, those 1500 page cartridge are a waste. since 100% or my printing is documents a color printer is a waste of money, as it uses color cartridges even for the black/white. i have a 2nd printer, an inexpensive canon mg-5220, i use for scanning and fax to email. it is color [my BF bought it to print photos] but i never print color. my printer is 14x14x7, his is 12x16x6, so small footprints under ouor respective desks. so consider YOUR particular needs. 2 machines may be the way to go.

  11. robyn says:

    btw my printing has gone down considerably in the past 2 years, now about 6500 per year, i create pdf and email them to clients for proofing.

  12. Lazy Man says:

    Paul, thanks for the tip, that’s the kind of experience I’m looking for with a printer. I gave Dell printers a look and the C1765nfw looks interesting: http://accessories.us.dell.com/sna/productdetail.aspx?c=us&cs=19&l=en&sku=225-4113. According to this PC Mag review, it’s 3.5 monochrome CPP and 18.5 color CPP aren’t very competitive, but if you get that out of the original toner cartridge those are practically 0. It’s definitely going on the short list.

  13. Paul says:

    eBay has the high yield 2000 page toner for that model for under $20. so CPP can be a lot less. My original toner was rated for 1500 pages. the colors have 80% left and the black has been claiming 20% for two years. My mother replaced a inkjet printer with a dell monochrome laser. She was having local pharmacy refill the cartridges every month. She is still using her original toner cartridge 2 years later. Prints just as often as she use to.

  14. Amit says:

    I would never buy an epson printer. You need to have both black and color ink even if you only plan to use the black ink – the printer simply refuses to print otherwise. And the availability of generic ink cartridges seems to be more limited.

  15. Lazy Man says:

    Is the Ebay toner for that model OEM (original equipment manufacturer)? That’s where I think I ran into problems with my ink jet printers in the past. I bought print cartridges that didn’t have the right chips and didn’t work as they should. I’m guessing because the alternative is that my super power of destroying printers is real :-(.

  16. Lazy Man says:

    The HP printer that I’m currently looking to replace is refusing to print entirely due to the black cartridge problem. The problem is so bad that most of the time I time I turn it on, it just blinks at me and reads shut me off and turn me on again. I wish I were making this up.

    As for the generic cartridges, I’d rather pay $50-70 for the real thing and be done with them for years like I was with my HP LaserJet 4L. That’s what I’m looking for.

    I’m willing to pay for reliability… just not $100 for every 200 pages like the ink jet that I had previously. I don’t want to live a life where I’m always making sure that I have 3-4 generic print cartridges from Ebay “on-call” in case the one in the printer doesn’t work.

    That’s where I’ve been. I want something reliable where I spend money and I know it is well-spent.

  17. Steve says:

    A friend repeatedly gave me a hard time about my ancient printer. Granted, it was parallel port, and didn’t even have a 64 bit driver so we had to tuRN on our older computer to print, and was out of cyan ink. But we print maybe a hundred pages a year.

    I waited until he got his yearly upgrade, and then he gave me his hand me down. It’s much nicer, relatively.

  18. Lazy Man says:

    Looking at that printer on Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/Canon-imageCLASS-Laser-Multifunction-Copier/dp/B004RFGJZ4 – and the product comparison table, it doesn’t look like it has fax, though areas say it does. It doesn’t appear to be wireless, which is a must have. Also it appears to be a copier first, which scares me. I’d rather spend a couple bucks more and get the Canon imageClass that I mentioned in the article. The only thing that is slowly me from pulling the trigger on it, is that I’m thinking I want color now.

    The question is whether I can get reliability, color, and price without me having to pick only two. It seems like reliability and price I can get with monochrome lasers. Many sources are saying that all three are possible from the ink jets that I mentioned, I just have doubts… measuring reliability isn’t exactly easy.

  19. Paul says:

    What will you do with color? You won’t get photo quality with out special paper, ink, and a good printer.

  20. Lazy Man says:

    I don’t need real photo quality, my son’s grandparents will be ecstatic with anything that they can put on the fridge if the updates are more frequent than they have been. I’ve tried other services like sending them throw Walgreens/CVS and the process isn’t working for us.

    The hope is to buy a good printer (I’m an expert at buying bad printers) and the ink they use for color is the same whether it is for photos or not. A small purchase of some special paper would be reasonable.

  21. If my printer breaks I generally look for another inkjet printer that has ink cartridges that can be refilled inexpensively at stores like Walgreens. I have been wowed many times in the past with awesome printers only to later discover that the ink will eat you out of house and home. I look for a printer that is simple and gets the job done.

  22. Rita says:

    Funny so many people like HP printers. I’ve owned several HP printers & nothing teaches you the basic truth “you get what you pay for” better! Every single one of them has been nothing but junk. My high school son took special joy in throwing the last dud over our 2nd story deck. I swore I’d never again waste my money on an HP printer. The printers we’ve had the best luck with have all been by Canon. Yeah, ink might cost more but unless you do lots & lots of printing, sometimes it’s better to pay a little more for something you know you can rely on when the last-minute term paper is due in 10 minutes.

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