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Printers as Jacks of All Trades
by Reid Goldsborough

Link-Up Digital
December 15, 2006

Just as personal computers have become more versatile over the years, so have personal printers. Multifunction printers combine printing with copying, scanning, and faxing in one unit; they sometimes include phone, voice mail, and email functions as well.

Personal printers are particularly useful for the small office or home office, where there may not be space for separate copy machines, scanners, and fax machines and where the cost savings of buying one multifunction unit compared with multiple separate units is needed.

Along with the phrase “multifunction printer”, another name for these all-in-one units is, not surprisingly, all-in-ones. Other names include multifunction devices and multifunction peripherals.

In the past, there were downsides to using a multifunction printer. These downsides still exist today, but they’re less of an issue. It used to be that you had to sacrifice functionality, not getting the same quality or feature set with an all-in-one that you got from individual units. Today’s multifunction printers have virtually bridged that gap, according to testing by Consumer Reports.

The other main downside to multifunction printers is the risk of multifunction downtime. If the unit breaks, you're prevented not only from printing but also from carrying out all the other tasks that the unit makes possible. But many of today’s machines are so inexpensive, often less than $200, that buying a new unit to fill in for the unit being repaired can be an efficient way to go.

There are four main types of multifunction printers: general inkjet, photo inkjet, black and white laser, and color laser. Inkjets print in black and white or color, while photo inkjets provide extra resolution and color fidelity for those who use the machine extensively for printing photos.

Laser devices cost more initially, but they cost less in consumables per page printed and are better suited for heavy use or top-quality text. Color lasers cost even more but are ideal for offices that require color for charts and graphs in reports and other business documents.

Much else about choosing a multifunction device depends on your individual needs.

If you do a lot of copying, choose a unit that has these features:

  • A flatbed rather than sheet-fed design so that you can copy from books rather than just separate sheets of paper
  • An automatic document feeder so you don’t have to hand-feed individual pages
  • The ability to let you copy even when the computer is off

If you do a lot of faxing, consider a unit with a built-in modem so that you can fax when the computer is off. Some all-in-ones aren’t really all in one, since they don’t have any faxing capabilities.

If you’re a shutterbug, consider a unit that lets you print directly from your digital camera, camera-phone, or the camera’s memory card; has a larger LCD screen for viewing images; and allows you to scan negatives or slides. The best photo-scanning quality, however, can still be had with a stand-alone scanner.

If you’re impatient or otherwise need speed, it will cost you more as speed usually correlates with price. Laser units are considerably faster as a group than inkjets and don’t vary as much on pages per minute printed. Some inkjet units can be five times faster than others in printing black text or color photos. Manufacturers’ rated speed is typically faster than real-world speed.

If you have multiple PCs connected to a network, make sure any unit you buy will work with your set-up. Most multifunction printers can be shared when the computer they’re connected to is on. A smaller number can connect directly to a network to allow you to print from any computer without the host computer having to be on.

If you’re Macintosh-based, make sure any unit you buy is compatible. Some multifunction printers work only with Windows PCs.

Top multifunction brands include Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Epson, Dell, Brother, and Lexmark. In their latest ratings of inkjet all-in-ones, Consumer Reports gave top scores in order to units from Canon, Epson, and HP while PC World gave its top scores in order to units from Canon, HP, and Epson. In its latest ratings of laser all-in-ones, PC World gave its top scores in order to units from Canon and HP. In its latest survey of multifunction printer reliability, PC World gave top scores in alphabetical order to Canon, Dell, Epson, and HP.

More and more offices and homes are going the all-in-one route. Multifunction printer sales now account for more than half of all printer sales, and the curve is bound to continue rising.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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