Is an inkjet in your future? You can find the technology in a huge variety of single-function printers and all-in-ones designed to fill a wide variety of roles at home or at the office. Here, we’ll explore the different types of inkjets, and highlight some key features to look for when shopping for one.
With so many models to choose from, it’s helpful to determine just what you want to do with the printer before you start shopping. Some inkjets are meant for family and home use, another subset of them is aimed at offices, and still others are good for dual use in a home and a home office. Certain models are made to output nothing but photos, and are ideal for printing out snapshots on the spot, while others print text and graphics as well. And a few top-end models, aimed at imaging pros, excel at producing gallery-worthy prints.
Those last printers, so-called “near-dedicated” photo printers, are widely used by professional photographers, artists looking to output high-end work, and amateur photo enthusiasts alike. There are even inkjets designed for mobile printing, complete with batteries. Most home inkjets are meant for personal printing of a handful of pages per day. They tend to be compact, and the vast majority of them are small enough to share a desk with.
Graphics and Text Quality
Nowadays, you can count on almost any inkjet to print graphics good enough for both internal business use (like printing PowerPoint handouts) and home tasks (like producing party invitations). If you choose carefully, you can have output quality that would please a graphic artist.
Text quality used to be the Achilles’ heel for inkjets, but now many of them can print text nearly as crisply as a laser printer, though not always with the same archival quality. Surprised? We bust more printer myths in our inkjet vs. laser comparison.
Photo Printing: Expect Excellence
Nearly any current inkjet can print photos that at least match the quality you’d expect from your local drugstore’s photo-processing counter. The few exceptions are among printers aimed at offices, but even most office inkjets will do a decent job with pictures. You can even find a few all-purpose inkjets whose output rivals photo printers meant for professional photographers.
If you’re looking for a home printer to output mainly photos, but also capable of printing a range of other document types, you want an inkjet. Printers meant for home use fall into two categories: inexpensive models that typically cost far less than $100 for single-function printers and $150 or less for MFPs; and highly photo-centric printers, with prices of $150 or more for single-function models and $300 or more for MFPs.
The inkjets in the first category often include limited photo-oriented features, such as the ability to print directly from memory cards and PictBridge-enabled cameras. Inkjets in the more expensive category are photo-centric to the point where you can effectively use the single-purpose printers as simple photo kiosks and the all-in-ones as standalone photo labs. They typically come with relatively large LCDs for previewing photos, and often have touch screens for giving commands. MFPs in this price range may add the ability to scan 35mm film and print high-quality photos directly from slides, negatives, prints, memory cards, and cameras. Less common features include the ability to print labels directly onto ready-surfaced optical discs.
At the high end of the photo-centric models are the near-dedicated photo printers mentioned earlier. They are single-function machines that—although they can print text and graphics—are built for, and excel at, printing high-quality photos. The more expensive prosumer and professional models are capable of outputting gallery-quality prints. They have more ink tanks than your typical basic inkjet’s four (we’ve reviewed models with as many as 12), with each tank holding a different color or shade of ink.
Adding extra colors can improve the subtle gradations and vividness of prints. For example, some models include more than one type of black ink and several shades of gray, making them particularly adept at printing monochrome images. Generally, the higher-priced models have lower ink costs per volume (milliliter) of ink. They are large machines, and selected ones can print at up to super-tabloid (13-by-19-inch) size. Some, especially the professional models, can print from both sheets and paper rolls.
Then you have dedicated, small-format photo printers, which print nothing but 4-by-6-inch, 5-by-7-inch, and/or other small photo prints. Some of these use thermal-dye technology, but many are inkjet-based. In buying one, there are several things to consider. For instance, if you plan to print at events where you may not have easy access to an electrical outlet, you’ll want to get a model with a rechargable battery (either standard or as an option). For those who don’t want to connect their camera to the printer, multiple ports, such as media card slots and USB ports that take flash drives, are must-have features. Last, print size should be taken into account, as some dedicated photo printers don’t produce output in the traditional 4-by-6-inch or 5-by-7-inch variety that you can get at drugstores, and no dedicated photo printers we know of can go any larger.
USB and Beyond: Printer Connectivity
Inkjets offer a wide range of connection choices. A few budget models offer only USB, often coupled with a low paper capacity, and are a good choice if you’re in the market for a light-duty personal printer, either in an office or at home. Many inkjets for both home and businesses add Ethernet ports.
If you’re interested in printing wirelessly, the good news is that nearly all inkjets today come with 802.11 Wi-Fi standard. The ability to support wireless printing from mobile devices is of growing importance to both businesses and consumers. Many manufacturers also offer free printing apps that are compatible with their wireless printers.
Some models support Wi-Fi Direct (or its equivalent) and/or Near-Field Communication (NFC), both of which allow for direct peer-to-peer connection between the printer and a compatible device without the need for an intermediary network. In the case of NFC, the connection is made simply by touching the device to a certain spot on the printer.
Duty Cycles and Paper Capacity
While most inkjet printers are designed for homes or home offices, inkjet technology is showing up in more and more business-oriented models meant for heavier-duty printing. Some high-end models can even rival laser printers in speed. They tend to do this by using printheads that run the full width of a page. Although their maximum monthly duty cycles (the number of pages you can print without stressing the printer) still fall short of those of heavy-duty lasers, higher-end inkjets are capable of handling the printing needs (and, in the case of MFPs, copying, scanning, and faxing needs) of many workgroups and small offices.
Still, many inkjet makers don’t publish rated duty cycles, and for those that do, the ratings are generally quite low compared with those of lasers. The maximum paper capacity in inkjets is often as low as 100 sheets, and rarely more than 300, except in the case of certain higher-end office-oriented models. If your printing needs are strictly light-duty, a budget model with a low paper capacity should suffice.
Laser Alternatives: Inkjets for the Office
Office-oriented inkjets include the few single-function printers and MFPs designed for relatively heavy-duty printing, as well as those that have office-centric features. For instance, an office MFP can work as a standalone fax machine; fax directly from your PC’s hard drive; and scan to email easily, using your PC’s email program and automatically adding the scan as an attachment.
Office MFPs also add an automatic document feeder (ADF) for easy scanning, faxing, and copying of multipage documents. Some ADFs can scan both sides of a page. Of those, duplexing scanners, which scan both sides of a page at once, are much faster than models with duplexing or reversing ADFs (two names for the same thing), which scan one side, flip the page over, and then scan the other.
Office-design MFPs generally offer paper capacities of 200 sheets or more. Should you want to print two-sided documents, you’ll want a model with an auto-duplexer. Get a model with two paper trays if you want the ability to print with two types or size of paper without having to remove and replace the paper each time you make a switch. A few office inkjets support printing at up to tabloid size, letting you get all those spreadsheet columns onto a single page.
A specialized kind of office inkjet is the mobile inkjet, meant for business travelers that need printing wherever they go. Indeed, inkjets are the only kind of printer with models for mobile use (other than a few snapshot-centric thermal-dye printers and no-ink “ZINK” printers that need special paper). If you’re looking to print documents (contracts, receipts, prospectuses, and the like) while on the road, you’ll definitely want a mobile inkjet.
Mobile printers typically have low paper capacities, but they make few other compromises if hard copy on the spot is paramount. They tend to cost more than comparable non-mobile inkjets, however, with prices averaging about $250.
So, Which Inkjet Printer Should You Buy?
Above and below, we’ve compiled a pick list of the top late-model inkjets we’ve tested in PC Labs, spanning a variety of usage cases: home- and small-office printing (color and monochrome alike), photo printing, and mobile document printing. For more picks, check out our favorite printers overall (incorporating laser printers alongside inkjets), as well as our top photo printers.