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Printer Buying Guide: Choose the Perfect Printer for Your Needs

Get an overview of different types of printers and their functions so that you can choose the best device for your needs.
  • November 14, 2018

Updated March 16, 2021

In This Article: 

The Scoop on Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers are versatile and commonly used to print photos in vivid color, office documents with crisp clarity, and for other everyday printing needs.

Learning About Laser Printers

Laser printers are the workhorse for heavy usage use at home or in a small business.

Are Photo Printers Worth It?

Designed to only print photos, these devices have a compact design that takes up little space.

Uses for 3D Printers

Learn more about the evolving technology of 3D printers.

Dot Matrix Printers: The Workhorse

Learn more about the common uses for dot matrix printers.

Multifunction Printers: An All-in-One Solution

An ideal solution for a home office or small business that needs a printer, fax machine, scanner and copier is a multifunction printer, also called an all-in-one printer.

Overview of Thermal Printers

Learn more about the two main types of thermal printers.

There are many different types of printers on the market, from laser to inkjet to 3D printers and beyond. This guide will give you an overview of different printers and their functions so that you can choose the right printer for your projects.

The Scoop on Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers are versatile and commonly used to print photos in vivid color, office documents with crisp clarity, and for other everyday printing needs. While inkjets bring a lot to the table with versatility, their print speeds are generally slow to average. Business-grade inkjets are usually a little faster than home models.

The quality of the print can depend on the paper. Plain paper or specially coated inkjet paper should be used for documents. Printing photos on plain paper can lead to fuzzy, grainy results which might be acceptable for casual use but not for a business proposal. Printing photos and images on glossy photo paper will yield gorgeous, high-quality prints.

Ink cartridge cost is another consideration when choosing a printer. Inkjets that are oriented more towards printing documents will usually use a pigment-based ink which is made up of color suspended in liquid. This type of ink works best for printing documents as the colors don't tend to blend, and the result is text and lines printed with crisp clarity. Inkjets used for printing images and photos produce optimal results using a dye-based ink that blends colors and results in beautifully rendered prints. Enroll in CDW’s Print Supplies Program to get free shipping and discounts on printer consumables, including ink and toner cartridges. #inkjet

Epson SureColor P700

Learning About Laser Printers

While some small businesses or departments that do light printing can make do with an inkjet printer for their day-to-day needs, the workhorse for heavy usage use at home or in a small business is the laser printer.

A laser printer works by using light to beam an image of the text or photo that is being printed onto a rotating drum. The transmitted image attracts toner and the rotating drum transfers the image to the paper. The process generates heat and the ink is baked into the paper and dries almost instantly, resulting in crisp, smudge-free results. Although generally more expensive than inkjets, the toner costs of using a laser printer can be more economical in a heavy-use environment than an inkjet, depending on the model chosen.

There are two main types of laser printers. The monochrome type uses a single drum of black ink and is ideal for producing black-and-white printed materials. A color laser printer has four drums (one for each color), and many models have controls that allow for limiting color usage to specific applications, so color toner isn't used as quickly. It should be noted, though, that color laser printers are considerably more expensive than their black ink counterparts and color inkjet printers.

Laser printers produce professional-quality documents, colorful spreadsheets and high-end graphics; however, they don't produce the same quality for photo printing as an inkjet or dedicated photo printer. That said, laser printers remain a great choice for high-volume printing because they produce pages faster than inkjet printers, and it takes so little time for printed laser pages to dry. 

HP Color LaserJet Pro M454dw

Are Photo Printers Worth It?

While inkjet printers can produce high-quality photo prints and some high-end models can produce stunning images, a dedicated photo printer will generate photos and images perfect for scrapbooking, sharing and saving. Designed to only print photos, these devices have a compact design that takes up little space.

The ease of delivering media to a photo printer is another perk. Most photo printers have a card slot so you can take the photos directly from your camera to your printer. The latest photo printer models now also come equipped for wireless printing, so you can print directly from your mobile phone or tablet using a WiFi connection.

Most photo printers have an LCD color screen so you can pick and choose which photos to print. Most photo printers don't require linking to a PC. However, the option is there as a download or software installation for many models if you need more than essential editing functions such as red-eye removal or black-and-white photo printing. Most photo printers have a default size of 4x6-inch prints; some models have adjustable sizes for printing everything from wallet-size photos to 5x7-inch prints.

Photo printers use a few different technologies to print, including both dye and pigment-based inks. A newer method is thermal color printing, which uses heat to print on a special paper that reacts by displaying varying colors depending on the heat applied. 

HP Sprocket Photo Printer

Uses for 3D Printers

3D printers are still an evolving technology. These printers usually use a strong, lightweight thermoplastic called FDM to create three-dimensional objects. To get an idea of the weight, the same type of plastic is used to mold Lego modeling blocks. These printers need to be linked to a computer or connected via Wi-Fi and use accompanying software to design and print a 3D rendering, one layer at a time. Printing can take anywhere from four to eighteen hours on average. These printers are used for creating toys, parts and realistic prototypes and models for demonstrations and presentations. 

MakerBot Replicator+

Dot Matrix Printers: The Workhorse

Dot matrix printers, which work via impact printing, have been around for decades. A moving printhead moves across paper that is fed into the printer via a trackwheel. These are some of the lowest priced printers on the market and can print several layers of paper and are often used in environments where packing slips, receipts and file copies are needed. They don't use toner cartridges or drums, but they need print ribbons replaced regularly. 

Multifunction Printers: An All-in-One Solution

An ideal solution for a home office or small business that needs a printer, fax machine, scanner and copier is a multifunction printer, also called an all-in-one printer. Many models can scan directly to the cloud for sharing and group editing of documents and most have Wi-Fi capabilities, so they can be accessed anywhere in the local network. The print quality ranges from comparable to inkjet produced to laser-quality documents.

All-in-one printers come in a variety of formats, and models can be either inkjet or laser printers. In general, inkjet all-in-one machines are more popular for household use, while laser versions are more commonly found in business settings (and are significantly more costly than their inkjet counterparts). Choosing the kind of color output you want can also be a great starting point to narrow down all-in-one printer options. Black and white printers can be cheaper.

When it comes to the functional capabilities aside from printing, these devices vary widely. Some are limited to scanning over a USB connection, while other models can do so wirelessly. All-in-one printers are generally a great choice when it comes to versatility, as they combine printing, faxing, copying and scanning capabilities in a single device. 

HP OfficeJet Pro 9015 All in One

Overview of Thermal Printers

There are two main types of thermal printers. One kind uses a special type of paper that reacts to heat and is ideal for printing labels, receipts or faxes. The other type uses a ribbon cartridge with a waxy residue inside. As paper is fed into the printer, heat melts the wax onto the paper and prints the image. Both types of printers are inexpensive and quiet to use. 

Sizing It All Up: How To Decide Which Printer is Right For Your Needs

An excellent way to narrow down the best printer is to determine the types of printing you do most often to identify the printer model that will best fit your needs and your budget. The wide array of printers available in today’s market means that more printer solutions are available than ever, ranging from the most common inkjet models for everyday use to high-quality laser printers to 3D printers for the most sophisticated prototype printing.


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