Picking the right printer can be tough, with so many features to choose from, and individual printers with almost any possible combination of those variations available. Here are some pointers to help you find both the right category of printer and the right model within that type, along with our top-rated reviews.
The three most useful ways to categorize printers are by purpose (general or special), intended use (home or office), and technology. Define your needs by all three categories, and you're well on your way to finding the right printer.
Most printers, including most inkjets that manufacturers market as photo printers, are general-purpose models, meant for printing text, graphics, and photos. Special-purpose printers include portable printers, dedicated and near-dedicated photo printers, and label printers. (Even among specialty printers, 3D printers are a unique case, and beyond the scope of this discussion.) If you're looking for a model to print, say, photos, consider whether you want to print only photos or want a printer that can also produce other kinds of output.
General-purpose printers tend to focus on photos if they're intended for home use or on text if they're intended for the office. Many all-in-one printers or MFPs are meant for the dual role of home and office printer (particularly for home offices), but generally favor one role over the other. Consider how you plan to use the printer, and pick one designed for that role.
The two most common technologies, laser and inkjet, increasingly overlap in capabilities, but there are still differences. The most important are that nearly all lasers (and laser-class models, such as solid ink and LED-based printers) print higher-quality text than nearly any inkjet, and almost any inkjet prints higher-quality photos than the overwhelming majority of lasers. Ask yourself whether text or photos are more important, and pick a technology accordingly.
Single-Function or All-in-One Printer?
For general-purpose printing, additional capability means choosing an all-in-one printer (AIO), also known as a multifunction printer (MFP). Those other functions include some combination of scanning, copying, and faxing from your PC, standalone faxing, and scanning to email. Office printers also typically add an automatic document feeder (ADF) to scan, copy, and/or fax multipage documents and legal-size pages. Some ADFs can handle two-sided documents, either by scanning one side, flipping the page over, and scanning the other side, or employing two sensors to scan both sides of the page on a single pass.
Some MFPs offer additional printing options as well. Web-enabled printers, both home and office models, can connect directly to the Internet via Wi-Fi to access and print out selected content without needing to work through a computer. Many Wi-Fi–enabled MFPs let you print documents and images from handheld devices. Some models let you email documents to the printer, which will then print them out.
Do You Need Color?
For a home printer, you probably need color, but for an office model, if all you print are documents, there's no reason to spend money on color output. Keep in mind, however, that many color lasers can print at high enough quality to make your own advertising handouts and trifold brochures, which could save you money compared with printing small quantities at your local print shop.
Be sure to look into the printer's size. Even some home models can be uncomfortably large to share a desk with, and even a printer with a small footprint can be tall enough to feel like it's towering over you. At the other extreme, we're seeing a growing number of compact versions that can fit into tight spaces in apartments, home offices, and dorm rooms.
In addition to a USB port, most office printers and an increasing number of home printers include Ethernet ports, so you can share the printer easily on a network. Many also include Wi-Fi capability. Even if they don't, if you have a wireless access point on your network, you can print wirelessly to any printer on that network, whether the printer itself offers a wireless connection or not. Printers that support Wi-Fi Direct (or its equivalent) can connect directly to most Wi-Fi–enabled devices, even if your computer or handheld isn't designed to support Wi-Fi Direct. We're also seeing printers that can connect to and print from a mobile device via near-field communication (NFC) by merely tapping the phone or tablet to a particular spot on the printer.
Printers vary significantly in output quality. Check out text, graphics, and photos separately, since high quality for one kind of output doesn't necessarily mean high quality for the others. Read reviews for the details.
If almost everything you print is one or two pages long, you probably don't need a fast printer. If you output a lot of longer documents, speed is more important, which means you probably want a laser printer. As a rule, laser printers will be close to their claimed speeds for text documents, which don't need much processing time. Inkjets printers often claim faster speeds than more expensive lasers, but usually don't live up to these claims. They have been getting faster, however, and a few recent high-end models can hold their own speed-wise against comparably priced lasers.
How Much Will You Print?
If you print only a few pages a day, you don't have to worry about how much a printer is designed to print, as defined by its recommended (not maximum) monthly duty cycle. If you print enough for the duty cycle to matter, however, don't buy a printer that doesn't include that information in its specifications. Figure out how much you print by how often you buy paper and in what amounts. Then pick a printer designed to print at least that much.
Also consider minimum and maximum paper size and whether you need a duplexer to print on both sides of the page. For input capacity, a useful rule of thumb is to get enough capacity so you should need to add paper no more than once a week.
See How We Test Printers
Finally, be sure to consider the total cost of ownership. Most manufacturers will tell you the cost per page, and many give a cost per photo. To get the total cost of ownership, calculate the cost per year for each kind of output (monochrome, color document, photo) by multiplying the cost per page by the number of those pages you'll print each year. Add these amounts to get the total cost per year. Then multiply that by the number of years you expect to own the printer, and add the initial cost of the printer. Compare the total cost of ownership figures between printers to find out which model will be least expensive in the long run.
For a head start on finding the right printer for your needs, check out our top picks below, as well as our favorite wireless printers, and our roundup of the best printers for Macs.
Featured in This Roundup
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Brother HL-L5200DW laser printer offers a compelling mix of high-speed printing, above-par text, good paper handling, a wide-range of connectivity choices, and low running costs. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Brother MFC-J985DW seems like a typical lower-price inkjet MFP but for one thing: its unusually low running costs, which are unheard of in a printer at its price. Read the full review
Canon imageClass LBP151dw
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Canon ImageClass LBP151dw is a speedy, budget mono laser printer with above-average text, and is a good fit for a micro or home office. Read the full review
Canon Pixma MG5720 Wireless Inkjet All-in-One
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Canon Pixma MG5720 Wireless Inkjet All-in-One delivers better output quality than most inkjet multifunction printers, making it ideal for home use or as a light-duty personal printer. Read the full review
Canon Pixma TS8020 Wireless Inkjet All-in-One Printer
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Canon Pixma TS8020 Wireless Inkjet All-in-One Printer has excellent photo and text quality, and is unusually fast at printing photos. Read the full review
Dell Color Smart Multifunction Printer S3845cdn
%displayPrice% at %seller% Although the Dell Color Smart Multifunction Printer S3845cdn is pricey, its speed, print quality, and low running costs make it an excellent color laser all-in-one for your micro or small office. Read the full review
Epson WorkForce Pro WF-6590
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Epson WorkForce Pro WF-6590's speed, full feature set, and low running costs make it a standout choice as a small-office color inkjet MFP. Read the full review
HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile All-in-One Printer
%displayPrice% at %seller% The HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile All-in-One Printer is an inkjet that's light enough to travel with, but can copy and scan as well as print. Read the full review
HP PageWide Enterprise Color 556dn
%displayPrice% at %seller% The HP PageWide Enterprise Color 556dn is a fast inkjet printer that produces laser-quality text and terrific-looking graphics at very low costs for its class. Read the full review
Samsung Multifunction Printer ProXpress C3060FW
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Samsung Multifunction Printer ProXpress C3060FW is a well-rounded color laser all-in-one printer with strong output quality led by particularly good graphics. Read the full review