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Holiday Gift Guide: Buying a printer (Updated)

Welcome to TUAW's 2011 Holiday Gift Guide! We're here to help you choose the best gifts this holiday season, and once you've received your gifts we'll tell you what apps and accessories we think are best for your new Apple gear. Stay tuned every weekday from now until the end of the year for our picks and helpful guides and check our Gift Guide hub to see our guides as they become available. For even more holiday fun, check out sister site Engadget's gift guide.

Updated to correct AirPrint availability for Lexmark and Epson.

As much as we'd all love to get away from the piles of paper that dominate our lives, it's still hard to live without a way to commit digital content to paper. Whether you're printing labels and envelopes, need to print a report for school, or you like to print photos from your iPhone or iPod touch, a printer may be a necessity for most computer users. Printers have come a long way from the days of the slow and noisy ImageWriter II shown above, and now even cheap printers can astound you with their high quality output.

In this edition of our 2011 Holiday Gift Guide, I'll provide some hints on what you should consider when purchasing a printer to work with your Mac or iOS device. We'll start with the basic questions you need to ask yourself about the way you print and the features you can't live without.

All-in-one or print-only?

Most printers these days come in two styles -- all-in-one printer/scanner combos (often referred to as multi-function devices or multi-function printers) and just plain printers. All-in-one printers are very useful if you often need to scan documents that have been signed, or if you want to be able to scan printed photos.

Those who are thinking about doing high-quality photo or slide scanning should opt for a separate printer and a specialized photo scanner. While the scanners in the all-in-one models have improved dramatically over the years, they usually can't match the high resolution, scanning speed, and retouching software that comes with a dedicated photo scanner.

There are some differences in the all-in-one printers as well. Some are designed just for printing and scanning, while others provide the ability to send and receive faxes. If you're still using the ancient technology of faxing to send documents, you'll want to look for a model that has the built-in fax modem and RJ-11 telephone port.

Photos, printouts, or both?

The next thing to think about is what you'll be printing. Photo printing is done on special coated paper that provides either a matte or gloss finish to your images, and even a low-cost photo printer can turn out fairly good printed pictures these days. On the other hand, if you do a lot of photo printing, it's going to be much less expensive in terms of consumables (ink cartridges and photo paper) to just take your images to a local drugstore or photo shop on an SD card or flash drive for printing.

A 2005 New York Times article noted that printing a 4" x 6" photo from a home printer could cost anywhere from 28¢ to 50¢ per image. Consumers in the US can go to a number of retailers and get prints in the range of 10¢ to 16¢ a piece, or easily use one of a score of online photo printing services (including Apple's built-in print service in iPhoto). Prices of consumables -- the print paper and ink -- haven't dropped much, so these numbers are probably still accurate.

What are you paying for? Convenience. You can do one-off prints of favorite pictures in a minute or less. I've often been able to upload photo files to a local Walgreen's store and pick them up in about an hour, which is still pretty convenient.

Most inkjet printers will do both photo and regular printing, so if you still think that you need a printer that does a decent job of making photo hard copies, go with inkjet. Which brings us to our next topic:

Laser or inkjet?

Laser printers have dropped considerably in price over the years while capabilities have soared. In fact, a quick look at the HP website showed two black and white laser printers with a price tag of less than $100. The least expensive color laser printer is now running $149 on sale.

What's the big attraction of laser printers? Speed. Many laser printers can pop out a first page in less than ten seconds, then churn out pages at anywhere from 12 to 42 pages per minute. For the impatient folks in the crowd, that's a plus. However, inkjet printers are no longer as poky as they used to be, with print speeds up to 35 pages per minute. Once again, it's the consumables that will bite you every time.

Toner cartridges are expensive, especially for color laser printers that generally require four cartridges -- black, cyan, magenta, and yellow -- to print a full range of colors. It's not uncommon to spend well over $200 for toner cartridges for a color printer, and $75 - $100 for black toner cartridges.

Inkjet printers are also quite inexpensive. HP has a low-end color inkjet printer that is available for $30. How can printer manufacturers sell printers cheaply? It's easy -- they're using the pricing model that was pioneered by razor manufacturers years ago. You basically give away the razor and then make money on the consumables -- the razor blades. In this case, the manufacturer makes a ton of money on ink (or toner) cartridges.

With that $30 printer I was referring to, you get a single black ink cartridge and a single color cartridge, good for about 165 pages of printing. When it's time to buy a new set of cartridges, you're looking at $58 -- almost twice the cost of the printer! The page yield on those replacement cartridges is about 330 (color) to 480 (black) pages, which adds up quickly.

If you do a lot of printing, I'd recommend a laser printer. The toner cartridges are more expensive, but they also last a lot longer -- usually in the range of 1,300 (color) to 2,000 (black) pages. The extra speed is also going to make you happy if you're printing big reports all of the time.

For photos or casual color printing, it's inkjet all the way.

USB or wireless?

Back in the day, every printer had a cable. Whether it was AppleTalk, Ethernet or (more recently) USB, you were constrained to printing from a computer that was tethered to a printer. Now many printers come with built-in Wi-Fi (or Bluetooth, rarely) connectivity so that you can print from anywhere on the network.

For those who just want to print from a desktop Mac or PC and don't mind being anchored to a printer, then USB is just fine. For those who want to print from a laptop, Wi-Fi is the way to go. And for those who want to print wirelessly from an iOS device without an intervening personal computer running something like Printopia, you want to look for an AirPrint-compatible printer.

There's a full list of AirPrint-savvy devices in this recently updated Apple knowledge base article. Lexmark is represented with the fewest devices (3) and Canon's list is deceptively long, since most of those model numbers are variations on the three announced printers. Epson & HP, on the other hand, have a relatively complete suite of options there.

HP has the most AirPrint printers, with more than 20 models listed on the company's US site as supporting direct printing from iOS (Apple's list of HP devices is longer, including some not sold in the US). Canon recently added three AirPrint-compatible printers to its line and promises that future Pixma photo printers and all-in-ones will also support AirPrint. Epson supports AirPrint on most of the devices that fall under its Epson Connect feature branding; the three printers that don't support AirPrint do work for photo printing using Epson's iPrint app.

Conclusion

There are a lot of good printers on the market. Remember when you're looking for one to use with your Mac that you should make absolutely sure that it supports Mac OS X printing. Printers from most manufacturers, including HP, Canon, Epson, and Lexmark, work very well with Mac OS X, but be sure to check older models for compatibility. If you're trying to ditch the PC or Mac and just go straight from iOS, then be sure to look for AirPrint compatible printers from HP, Canon, Epson or Lexmark.

Be sure to check manufacturer online stores for deals that you can't usually find in stores, and also keep an eye out on the Apple Online Store (or ask at Apple retail locations) for free or low-cost printers added to a Mac package.

Whatever printer you decided on, remember that consumables are the biggest part of the lifecycle cost of your printer. Look at the replacement toner or ink cartridge costs before you buy, and try to get a feel for the cost per page that you print.

Printers are becoming less of a necessity for computer users, so think about your needs before you choose. Don't buy one with all the bells and whistles unless you have money to burn or really need all those capabilities.

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