Updated: How to choose the perfect printer for your SMB

Introduction and printer choice

Note: Our choosing a business printer feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in November 2012.

The paperless office has continued to be conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, using paper in an office environment seems to be as popular as ever. Even with the ability to digitise any paper document, the printed word remains a stubborn component of office life.

So, your business needs to have a printer, but which type do you choose? Of course, as with a lot of business decisions, the choice you make will be highly subjective. As no two businesses are the same, their printer needs won’t be the same either. To start off with, you have a choice of three broad categories of printer:

1. Inkjet printers

As their name suggests, inkjet printers use liquid ink that is squirted at the paper to create the image. Inkjets have continued to develop their capabilities and are today the most versatile printer your business can buy. Whether you need to print office documents or high quality photos, there’s an inkjet printer to suit your requirements.

2. Laser printers

For many years laser printers were too expensive for small business or home use, but today they are compact and affordable. The big advantage of laser printing is speed. Using dry toner the capacity of the toner cartridges is many more times that of a typical inkjet cartridge. Businesses that need to print large quantities of documents quickly should choose a laser printer.

3. All-in-one printers

Also known as Multi-Functional Devices (MFDs), these printers have a built in scanner and fax capability. For small businesses that need a compact printer yet want to integrate scanning and fax as well, MFDs are an ideal choice.

Some businesses may also have specialist printing requirements. If your business needs to print larger documents, A3 paper (297 x 420mm, or 11.7 x 16.5-inches) printers are available. And most inkjet printers will be able to print via memory cards. Lastly, a wide range of printers are now wireless, which means they can print from desktop PCs, tablets or smartphones via your company’s Wi-Fi network.

HP Officejet Pro X576dw

Printer choice

With so much choice it can be difficult to make the right decision. If your business doesn’t need any speciality printing such as large page sizes, the choice basically boils down to inkjet or laser.

Speed

In a busy office, no one wants to wait around for their work to print out. Here the laser printer has a clear advantage. If you print most of your documents in black and white, laser printers can achieve 60 pages per minute (PPM) with some workhorses exceeding that.

Quality

The type of printing your business needs to do will guide it to the quality of the output that is needed. Inkjets have improved massively over the last few years, but for many, lasers still have the edge on quality. If your business needs to print customer presentations, then a laser will give you crisp text and graphs. That said, photography will have a more natural look if printed on an inkjet.

Workloads

How many pages your business will churn out each month is the workload or duty cycle as it’s also called. Printers have mechanical components, which have a lifespan. Look for a printer workload that matches the average number of pages your business needs to print each month to avoid breakdowns and a drop in output quality.

Networking and security

Laser and inkjet printers have been converging with many now offering high speed Ethernet connectivity or Wi-Fi. If your business needs to print sensitive documents, some printers will queue these until a PIN is entered into the printer by an authorised user.

Features

Many small businesses are looking to do more with less to reduce their costs. Here an MFD is the perfect solution. To ensure your MFD meets the needs of your business, follow this checklist:

1. Can the machine your business is considering handle the capacity needed?

MFDs come in all shapes and sizes. Many are aimed at the domestic market. Look closely at the stated capacity and match this to your business workload.

2. How important is quality of scanning and printing?

Many of the latest MFDs use print technology that was, up until a short time ago, only found in high-end laser printers. Look at samples of print and scanned output before making your choice.

3. Is fax capability needed?

Fax is far from a dead communications medium, with many large businesses still needing it. Look at the fax capability of the MFD, which today is likely to use the cloud as well as direct dial to another fax machine.

4. Will your company need to manage sensitive information?

Access to the features of an MFD should be controlled with PIN numbers or passwords. Also, ensure that the MFD only prints the required copies to ensure data security. And think about whether the USB port should be disabled.

5. Does your business require remote printing?

With the rise of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), printing from mobile devices is fast and efficient. Look closely at the apps that will use the MFD to ensure these connect securely.

The careful assessment of your organisation’s printing needs will lead you to the right printer with the capabilities you require. With a number of factors to consider, balance these to create a list of needs, which you can then use to match to your perfect printer.

Ongoing cost

Running costs

One of the main concerns with printers is that after their initial purchase price, what will the ongoing cost be over the lifetime of the printer?

For many businesses the cost of ink for their printers is often an afterthought, indeed if this is considered at all. For decades the printer (inkjet printers in particular) have been berated for the high cost of printer ink. Manufacturers cite high R&D costs as the reason, but businesses have understood for several years that ink costs will be high to compensate for the low cost of purchasing the printer itself.

Various schemes have been tried over the years with HP Instant Ink being the latest. Here a compatible printer – for businesses the OfficeJet Pro 8610 all-in-one is a good choice – will automatically order more ink via post to ensure it never runs out.

You enrol your printer and set a subscription level based on the number of pages a month you will be printing. The system is flexible enough to allow businesses to begin at a low subscription rate and up this as print volume increases.

As the cost of replacement inkjet cartridges remains high, the market for unbranded cartridges has become widespread. Should your business use unbranded ink? The inkjet printer manufacturers have used various techniques to stop this practice with the most common being the addition of a microchip to their own legitimate cartridges that the printer reads before accepting the new replacement ink.

The quality of the ink and the attached microchips can be an issue for some printers. Research by Which indicated that it’s really a trial and error exercise with some users having little or no problems with unbranded cartridges, with others reporting their printers rejecting the cartridges completely. If your business is looking to save some money on cartridges, it seems you will have to simply try a few from unbranded sellers and see which work. It’s worth a try though, as they can cost half the retail price of branded inks.

For several years it has been possible to retrofit an inkjet printer with a refillable ink tank. The ink cartridges in the printer are replaced with new cartridges that have a pipe running to a large external ink tank for each ink colour, which can be refilled.

Epson EcoTank

EcoTank solution

Using this system is frowned upon by the printer manufacturers, which is why Epson has launched EcoTank. The new range of printers have external ink tanks that can be refilled with larger capacity ink bottles. For businesses the Epson ET-4500, 4550 and WF-R4640 are MFDs that should serve most needs.

The initial cost of the printer is higher than you would expect, but Epson claims you’ll have two years’ worth of printing from the supplied ink. New bottles of ink have a capacity of 70ml (the average ink cartridge is less than 10ml in most cases) and cost around £8 (about $11, AU$16) making this system highly cost-effective if your business has a large workload. The system is aimed at the home user initially, but small businesses can equally make use of EcoTank to gain more control over their ink costs.

Your business needs to have a reliable print service. Assessing your printing needs will guide you to the right type of printer with enough capacity. Running costs remain an issue with the persistent high cost of branded inkjet and toner cartridges, but your business could investigate whether EcoTank is the answer.

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