Thewirecutter.com has a very informative and funny article about printers, by Liam McCabe, Why All Printers Suck – Even the Best Ones
You’ll be gratified to know that printer frustration is not your fault. McCabe says, “Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and stop expecting printers to “just work” because that would make sense in a world where a touchscreen supercomputer fits in your shirt pocket (mobile phone). Like most things in life that you have no control over, you’ll be happier if you accept printers for the janky money pits that they really are. Most of you are going to hate something about any printer that you buy, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Instead of fighting it, try to reframe the issue in your mind: You’re not buying a printer because you’re supposed to have one at home. You’re buying a printer because it’s (just barely) less inconvenient than going to a copy center.”
There’s lots of good information in his article, and it will make you laugh, but here’s what I think you want to know, explained in simple terms:
Printers are actually pretty inexpensive when you consider all the amazing technology in them — the print-heads, the ink, and the mapping software. That simple-looking box can cover a piece of paper with a precise array of millions of dots of colored ink in a few seconds.
The cost of the printer doesn’t cover the costs of the research and development, manufacture, and distribution. The manufacturer is essentially subsidizing the machine with the intention of recouping its costs from your ink purchases.
Don’t use generic ink cartridges. Ink is formulated to work with specific print-heads. Generic ink might not have the right properties. Also, inkjet printers designed for home use have print-heads built into the cartridge itself. There’s no permanent print-head in most inexpensive printers. If you refill a cartridge you might still have a burnt-out print-head.
Some manufacturers purposely design their printers to shut down if you try to use third-party cartridges. It’s very frustrating, but remember, they’re just trying to protect you from a big mess.
On the other hand, it’s OK to use generic toner cartridges. Toner is an electrostatically charged powder (part polymer, part carbon), and the cartridge itself is just a simple plastic container. There aren’t any fancy print-heads or circuitry. Manufacturers don’t try as hard to protect toner cartridges, they just charge a higher markup on the printers themselves.
If an ink cartridge is missing, your printer will not print and it may not even scan.
If your home network is more complex than just a modem, a router, and your PC, there’s a chance that you’ll run into network connectivity problems. Networking technology in the printer industry is not very good.
At some point, you’ll need to manually download new drivers for your printer after updating your operating system. It would be nice if this happened automatically, but it usually doesn’t. Some companies are better than others at issuing new drivers in a timely manner. thewirecutter.com has found that Brother is very diligent and Canon is the most likely to stop updating drivers for printers that are more than a couple of years old.
The Bare Minimum
If you just need something to print words, the simplest solution is a cheap laser printer. It will cost less than $100 to buy and less than 2¢ per page to operate. Because a laser printer uses toner instead of ink, the toner cartridge won’t dry out even if you print infrequently and you can safely use cheaper, third-party toner if you want to save money.
You’ll have to go to a copy center if you want color prints and the LCD screens on these printers tend to be small and hard to use but it’s better than not being able to print your black-and-white tax returns because one of your color cartridges has dried up.
If you need more out of your printer, consider an all-in-one inkjet printer. These are best suited for home offices that occasionally use color printing, scanning, copying, or faxing but don’t require any of these tasks on a daily basis. An all-in-one inkjet printer costs about $200 and printing costs 2¢ to 4¢ per page for black-and-white and 7¢ to 10¢ per page for color. However, unlike a laser printer, you have to use the ink regularly or the ink will dry up and ruin the print-heads in spite of the automatic purges to keep their nozzles clean and ready to print.
It’s fairly common with my clients who are only here in the desert during the season, to have problems with ink drying up in the ink jets from lack of use. So if you don’t print frequently, a laser printer is a better option than an inkjet printer. (Note: I’ve had problems getting Brother laser printers to work with iPhones, iPads, and Chromebooks even though they claim to work with mobile devices.)
If you only need to scan an occasional document and don’t need a sheet feeder, use a scanning app on your phone or tablet instead of a printer scanner. Printer scanners are very slow and the apps that talk to the computer are poorly designed and very confusing.
It’s a good idea to read some user reviews of any printer that you’re considering. Some printers may test well in a controlled setting when used by experienced testers but fail a home test. User reviews will give you an idea of long-term reliability as well as details that the pro reviews sometimes overlook, like poorly written owner’s manuals, jams with card stock, or problems with the fax machine, etc.
To see my recommendations for specific printers and other techie gadgets, go to Resources Page.