Multifunction printers (MFPs), also known as all-in-ones or AIOs, add a range of features beyond printing. All can also copy and scan, and many add faxing to the mix. Our favorites range from small models suitable for home or home-office use and costing around $100 to behemoths able to anchor a busy workgroup, with duty cycles of tens of thousands of pages a month.
Printer manufacturers offer a huge variety of MFPs, both inkjet-based and laser-based. (You might be surprised to learn which printer technology is better for you.) Given the mix of print technologies and brands, finding a model with the right set of features may not be an easy task. But here are the key things to consider when shopping for an AIO printer.
Is Your AIO for a Home, or an Office?
The single most useful way to categorize MFPs is by intended use: home, office, or both. If you’re looking for a home MFP, you probably care about photo quality, which means you want an inkjet. Beyond that, if photos are your primary interest, and you’re looking for a way to print them from virtually any source—memory cards, USB memory keys, cameras, slides, strips of film, and original photographic prints—you need a photo-lab MFP. There are only a few choices in this subcategory: You can spot them by their ability to scan slides and strips of film, a feature most MFPs leave out.
When looking for an MFP strictly for an office, you probably care more about text than photos, which means you’ll want a laser or laser-class printer. (The latter type includes LED printers, and even some inkjets.) You probably also want it to support faxing, though there is much to be said for using an online fax service instead, and to include an automatic document feeder (ADF) to scan, copy, fax, and email multipage documents.
If you need a printer for the dual role of home and home-office MFP, you’ll want an inkjet for its photo quality, but one equipped with office-centric features like an ADF and a fax modem.
AIO Printers: Key Functions and Features
Getting beyond generalities about home and office MFPs, it’s useful to make a list of the functions and features you actually need.
Printing, scanning, and copying are a given, but even these basics aren’t as straightforward as you might think. Some MFPs are limited to scanning over a USB connection. If you plan to connect over a network, make sure the scanning works on a network. The ability to scan transparencies (slides and strips of film) is unusual enough that it’s often listed as a separate function. Be sure to check the sizes the MFP can handle; transparencies are often limited to 35mm.
Some MFPs need a computer for copying. If you want to copy with the computer off, make sure the MFP will work as a standalone copier, operated from its control panel.
A fax feature almost always includes standalone faxing, which you control through the MFP’s keypad. But it doesn’t necessarily include a PC faxing function—faxing documents directly from your PC without having to print them first. PC faxing can be in the form of a fax utility, a fax driver that you use like a print driver, or both.
Email features also come in two forms. A direct-email function allows you to scan a page and send an email directly to your Internet service provider (ISP) or an in-house email server on your network. The more common choice for low-end MFPs is to open an email message on a PC and add the scanned document as an attachment. Any given MFP can offer either or both kinds of email. Note that some direct-email features won’t work with all ISPs, so be sure to find out if they will work with yours before buying.
Most MFPs include flatbeds suitable for scanning photos or single-sheet documents. An automatic document feeder (ADF) will let you easily scan (plus copy, fax, and email) multipage documents. For MFPs with letter-size flatbeds, an ADF will often let you scan legal-size pages as well, but not all do, so check first.
Some ADFs can also perform duplex scans (that is, they can scan both sides of a page). If you deal with many two-sided documents, the feature is well worth looking for. Most MFPs that support duplex scanning do so by scanning one side of the document, turning it over, and then scanning the other side, but some provide one-pass scanning—scanning both sides of the page at once—which is much faster. If the MFP includes a print duplexer, you can copy both single- and double-sided originals to your choice of single- or double-sided copies.
Color Printing: Thumbs Up or Down?
If you never print in color, there’s no reason to spend money on this feature. Keep in mind, however, that many color laser MFPs can print at high enough quality to let you print your own marketing materials, which could be less expensive than printing small quantities at your local print shop.
With almost no exceptions, however, inkjet AIOs are color-capable. You’ll get color printing whether you need it or not with inkjets.
Printer Size and Connectivity: Do You Have the Space?
MFPs tend to be bigger than single-function printers, and even some home MFPs can be tall enough to make you feel like they’re towering over you if you put them on your desk. Be sure to check out the MFP’s size and weight, though chances are you won’t be moving it very often.
Then there’s the connectivity, which might tie in to where you place your printer. In addition to a USB port, some MFPs include an Ethernet port, and almost all but the least expensive support wireless Wi-Fi connections for easy sharing. If you prefer Wi-Fi, keep in mind that if you have a wireless access point on your network, you can print wirelessly to any printer or MFP on that network, whether the printer or MFP offers Wi-Fi or not.
Some MFPs now include support for Wi-Fi Direct (sometimes called something unique by the printer maker), which lets the printer effectively become its own access point so you can connect a phone or computer to it directly, instead of connecting through a wider network. A few offer support for Near-Field Communication (NFC), which allows you to initiate printing from a compatible mobile device simply by tapping the printer with the phone or tablet.
Assessing Scan/Print Quality (and Quantity)
In addition to checking out the printer’s output quality, you may need to check the scan quality. It’s not an issue for offices, because virtually any scanner can scan documents at sufficiently high quality for copying or optical character recognition (OCR). For photos, however, you’ll want to take a closer look, particularly for transparencies.
When you’re calculating the duty cycle and input capacity you’ll need for an MFP, remember to factor in copies and incoming faxes to the total number of pages you’ll print. Also, be sure to check cost of ownership over the life of the printer. Compare the total cost for each model you’re considering to find out which will be most economical in the long run.
So, Which All-in-One Printer Should I Buy?
Whether you’re looking for a home or office all-in-one, a good place to start your search is with our highest-rated MFPs, listed below. For more, check our top printer picks overall, as well as our favorite inkjet and laser models.