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Printer Primer


Printer Primer
April 29, 2000

Author: TechSoup

If multiple users share a printer over a network or a switch, and it is used heavily for black and white printing, a laser printer is usually the best option. But, because laser printers usually prohibit color printing, many times it can be useful for an office to use a laser printer for general black and white usage, and an inkjet as the color printer when needed. An inkjet printer is also completely adequate in a small office or for a single user.

The advent of digital technology and the Internet brought promises of a "paperless office," but in reality, paper consumption has actually increased in our computer age. Printing technology has become sophisticated enough to give you the power to publish high quality materials without ever having to visit your local Kinkos.

Purchasing a printer confronts the buyer with an impressive array of acronyms and jargon. Navigating your way through dpi, ppm, and duty cycles can be an exercise in stamina and patience. To simplify things,
MindPride provides this outline of what you need to know in order to make an informed decision.

How to Judge A Printer
Print Quality
The days of the dot-matrix are over, and print quality has been increasing steadily in the last decade. The most common gauge for a printer's quality and detail is the resolution, measured in linear dots per inch (dpi). The higher the dpi (i.e. the more dots that a printer can fit within a square inch), the higher the resolution, and the better the print quality. A 300 x 300 dpi (commonly referred to as 300 dpi) printer prints 90,000 dots per square inch. Similarly, a 600 dpi printer prints 600 x 600, or 360,000, dots per square inch.

dpi Quality

300 Fine for everyday black and white printing
600 Better for everyday black and white printing with graphics
1000 Usually the upper limit for laserjet printers
1200 Needed for high quality graphics, desktop publishing
2400 Amazing quality - may require special paper to achieve promised results

It used to be that laser printers consistently outpaced inkjets in the print quality category. Now, both types of printers have sufficient quality for most common printing tasks.

Waiting for the printer is a modern office pastime. While it may be fine to let a printer crawl through a printing job at home (where you have time to watch grass grow), minimizing that wait is integral for nonprofit offices, especially when the printer is shared by multiple users. There are a number of things that affect the overall speed of a printer:

Warm-Up Time
A printer that fires out pages at blazing speed after warming up for a couple hours is not particularly impressive. It is always important to find out how long it takes a printer to start from a "sleeping" state.

Pages Per Minute (ppm)
The second speed concern is the number of pages per minute (ppm) that a printer can output. Laser printers are usually the leaders in this index of speed. Most laser printers will print at between 6 - 24 ppm, while anything over 8 ppm gets expensive in the inkjet field.
It is important to consider that a printer's ppm rating is based on text documents. Sometimes, printers that perform far above average when printing black text do not do nearly as well when confronted with graphics. Graphics printing is usually dependent on the printer's memory, but there are a number of variables that play into this speed. When buying a printer it is always a good idea to try printing a number of different documents (graphics, text, combination of the two) on it before making a purchase. A number of online publications (CNET, ZDNet, etc.) perform these tests for you if you are buying a printer online or through a catalog, and you do not have the option of playing with the printer before purchase.

Endurance and Cost of Ownership
Approaching a printer purchase can be very similar to buying a car. After getting over how impressive the speed, look (or resolution), and cost is, a buyer needs to start thinking about the endurance and the overall cost of ownership. A speedy Porsche may look good in the store, but what happens when you need to find a part in the middle of nowhere? Likewise, a Yugo's up-front cost may look great on paper, but how will it look in two years when it no longer runs?

The cost of ownership of a printer can be very difficult to determine, but there are some important questions to consider that may help:

What is the printer's duty cycle?
Usually expressed in pages per month, the duty cycle is the workload that a printer has been designed to handle. A light duty printer will not be able to handle the strain of working in an office with heavy-duty needs. Many people purchasing printers look for the cheap cost up-front, but the total savings may not be substantial if a replacement is required every year.

What is the cost of supplies?
Inkjet and laser cartridges can run anywhere from $20 - $200. Considering how much new ink cartridges, drums, etc. will cost before purchasing a printer is extremely important. Many manufacturers will make a printer's cost lower by cutting corners that make supplies expensive. For example, color inkjets generally give you three separate ink cartridges: one for each color. That way, if one color runs out, you simply replace that color. However, some companies still make color printers with a single ink cartridge to hold all three or four colors. This forces the user to buy a new cartridge when one color has run out, even if all the other colors are full.

What is the availability of supplies?
A printer with no ink is not a particularly useful printer. Printer cartridges can be notoriously hard to find, and it is extremely important to find out where supplies can be purchased when buying a printer. Some companies are better at this than others, and the best bet is to go with a company that gives you the most reasonable answer.

What is the printer's compatibility?
A printer should be adaptable to the needs of an office. Availability of drivers, networkability, and cross-platform capability are important considerations for some offices. A lot of printers run extremely well on a Windows platform, but do not do nearly as well when confronted with a Macintosh. While many printers can handle multiple size papers, many others do not handle anything other than a standard 8 1/2" X 11" sheet. If you need envelopes or irregular paper printed, it is important to make sure that a printer can handle it.

Inkjet vs. Laser
Competing for the office desktop are two different printing technologies: inkjet and laser. Below is a quick guide to give you the basic information on both types of printers:

Inkjet Printers
Cost: $100 - $500+
Resolution: 300 - 1200 dpi
Speed: 4 - 8 ppm
Inkjet technology has been around since the early seventies, and it is only now becoming a viable office printing option. While there are many patented inkjet technologies, all inkjet printers operate by squeezing heated ink through a syringe-like needle on to the paper.

  • Relatively high print quality at an affordable price
  • Usually print color


  • Tend to be slower
  • High maintenance costs (cartridges need to be replaced sooner)
  • Not usually designed for heavy duty printing

Inkjet printers have become the standard for producing color documents, brochures, and photographic reproduction. They can carry a high maintenance cost in offices with high printing demands or in a shared environment. The cartridges tend to need replacing far quicker than with laser printers, but this may not be a problem in an office with lower printing needs or when used on a stand-alone machine. For small offices and single users, inkjet printers provide high quality printing at an affordable price.

Laser Printers
Cost: $300-$1000+
Resolution: 600 - 2400 dpi
Speed: 6 - 24 ppm
Laser printers have held on to the office market for the past couple decades because they produce high quality documents quickly. Laser printing technology is similar to a photocopier's except that a laser (surprise, surprise) is used to reproduce the images, as opposed to a light.

  • High quality
  • Lower maintenance cost (cartridges/toner lasts longer)
  • Tend to be faster
  • Durable


  • Color printing is usually an expensive option
  • Higher up-front cost

Laser printers still lead inkjets in the heavy duty, black and white printing category. While they may be a more expensive initial investment, laser printers are designed to carry much lower maintenance costs over the lifetime of the printer. They usually print more pages per minute than their inkjet rivals, and they offer features (multiple paper feeders and output trays) that allow for high volume printing. They are a necessity in a networked/shared office setting.


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