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Best home-office and small-business printers

Today small offices have a wide selection of printers to choose from. Color printers may be inkjets, lasers, and models based on other technologies; and monochrome lasers remain an economical choice. Another option is a multifunction printer, sometimes called an "all-in-one," which combines printing, scanning, copying, and faxing functions.

The first part of this guide details how four printers we've recently tested could work well in your small office, with links to the charts in which they are ranked and to our Shop & Compare pricing tool. (Keep in mind that online prices fluctuate constantly.) The second part of the guide offers tips on how to find the best printer for your particular work situation.

Best Printers for Small or Home Offices

The best printers for a small office or home office generate pages quickly and produce crisp output on plain paper as well as on special media. Higher-end models can hold more paper or can print in duplex mode. Multifunction printers perform a wider set of tasks without skimping on efficiency.

The following recently reviewed models are among the best small-business buys we've seen: Canon's Pixma iP4500 and Dell's 1720dn Laser Printer are top-ranked because they're good at pretty much everything as well as being affordable. The HP OfficeJet Pro L7680 is expensive but offers plenty of features and speed in return.

Canon Pixma iP4500

What you get: Canon's Pixma iP4500 color inkjet printer rivals low-end color laser printers in speed--and leaves many higher-priced inkjet competitors in the dust. The text quality on plain paper was very nice: crisp, black, and just a little jagged in more-complicated fonts. Though a laser could print better text, it couldn't compete with the Pixma iP4500's photos, which (aside from yellowish flesh tones) looked vivid and natural. Automatic duplexing is a big bonus at this price.

Our review unit earned a performance score of 90, one of the highest scores we've seen from an inkjet printer. (Note: Performance is one of four attributes we use in computing the total rating for a product. The others are price, specifications, and design.)

Drawbacks:  My primary design complaint relates to the scattered control buttons. All have icons instead of plain-English labels, so they're harder to identify. Photos of people looked excessively yellow.

Dell Laser Printer 1720dn

What you get: Dell's 1720dn Laser Printer is a reasonably priced, well-equipped, capable monochrome laser. It would work well in either a SOHO setting or a small workgroup. Plain-text pages popped up at  a snappy rate of 29 pages per minute. The 1720dn contains an impressive array of features for the price, including an automatic duplexer. The control panel is clearly labeled.

Our review unit earned a good performance score of 79.

Drawbacks:  The main input tray feels a bit flimsy. Though the control panel is clearly labeled, you have to consult the manual to figure out the meaning of some of the blinking-light patterns.

HP OfficeJet Pro L7680

What you get: The HP OfficeJet Pro L7680 All-in-One is pricier than many other inkjet multifunction printers, but it comes loaded with nearly everything a small office could want in a networked MFP. What's more, its speed and low consumables costs make it a viable alternative to color laser devices that cost much more. It can even fax in color to a compatible machine.

Our review unit earned a performance score of 80, making it one of the faster color inkjet MFPs we've tested.

Drawbacks: It's expensive, and print quality is middling overall.

Dell Color Laser Printer 1320c

What you get: Despite its low acquisition price, Dell's Color Laser Printer 1320c offers surprisingly good color quality. High-resolution photos printed quickly--3.1 ppm on average--and looked surprisingly smooth. Colors seemed a tad bluish but looked essentially natural.

Our review unit earned a performance score of 79, a middling score for a color printer.

Drawbacks: The 1320c's text print speeds were mediocre (but output looked okay). The control panel is confusing. The toner cartridge's low capacity (1000 to 2000 pages) translates into higher costs for both black and color pages--at best, 3 cents for a half-page of black text and 15 cents for a page with small amounts of black plus all three colors. Low-volume users may not notice for a while, but a busier office will feel the pinch pretty quickly.

What Kind of Printer Does Your Small or Home Office Need?

Whether your office is in a downtown building or a corner of your den, you want your printer to be fast, reliable, and capable of turning out professional-looking documents. You might also want it to be a multifunction device, so you can copy, scan, and fax without cluttering your workspace with multiple machines. Here are some guidelines to help you decide which kind of printer is best for your work situation.

Inkjets Excel at Graphics, Lasers at Text

When deciding among printer technologies, it might help to think of your printing decision this way: Do you need to paint a picture or to create the thousand words that describe it?

An inkjet printer excels at painting a picture. Though inkjets have made great strides in speed and text quality in recent years, their forte is graphics quality--especially photo prints. Inkjets can achieve a wider range of colors and produce smoother-looking images than all but the most sophisticated (and astronomically priced) color laser printers. Some can print well even on everyday stock.

Achieving the absolute best quality in an inkjet, however, will cost you. Special papers for brochures, banners, and photos cost anywhere from a dime to a dollar per page (compared to a few cents or less for a piece of plain paper). Ink usage escalates with the complexity of the document, draining pricey cartridges more quickly than you might expect.

A thousand words (or spreadsheet lines) will look better coming from a laser. Lasers set the gold standard for printing precise text--and if that's all you do, a simple monochrome laser could fit the bill nicely. Color lasers (or solid-ink color printers, such as those from Xerox) can handle simple graphics such as pie charts and logos, and they can print decent photos, too.

Inkjets Can Print Less, Lasers More

Do you print a lot, or do you have a lot of people printing? Laser printers--with their (generally) faster engines, higher-capacity paper trays, and higher monthly duty cycles--can pump out longer documents and handle a steady pile of printouts. (Networking is a given for multiperson offices; you'll find plenty of inkjets and lasers that offer Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or both.) Printers that have automatic duplexing can save paper. A small office's paper capacity rule of thumb: Your input tray should exceed your daily print volume.

There is a middle ground. A one-person office might not need networking. A lower-volume office that prints less than 100 pages per day could be happy with an inkjet printer. Some office-oriented inkjets offer faster speed, bigger paper trays, and better plain-paper print quality, rivaling the capabilities of lower-end lasers.

Multifunctions Offer Efficiency for a Price

Multifunction printers that also copy, scan, and fax are growing in popularity--and they're a boon for offices that need to do a lot in a limited amount of space. It costs money to stuff all those features into one box, though; and as a result, a US$700 MFP will have a less robust printer at its heart than a like-priced stand-alone printer. If printing is still most of what you do, adding other capabilities will entail compromising on the primary machine--or accepting a higher price tag.

If you go with an MFP, make sure it has enough features to justify the premium price. If you want to scan multipage documents, get one that has an ADF (automatic document feeder). Some can scan or print in duplex, which is more economical. While you might be tempted to buy a machine with fax functions "just in case," think hard about how often you'll use it--as opposed to scanning to e-mail, which is faster and easier. An MFP with no faxing capability will cost less.

Finally, consider the possibility of multifunction overload. If your office prints, faxes, or copies in high volume, an MFP may struggle more than it juggles--requiring you to wait to copy while someone else's big print job finishes.

Cost of Ownership: The Real Price You Pay

Because both inkjets and lasers can print a wide variety of documents, the final decision often boils down to cost. Inkjets tend to be cheaper to buy but more expensive to maintain over time. Laser and solid-ink printers cost more up-front, but they usually save you money down the line. Here are the main factors to consider.

Cost per page: Divide the price of an ink or toner cartridge by its page yield--usually available (with some digging) from the vendor's Web site--to get a sample cost per page, not counting paper. For instance, a page of black text from a laser printer might cost one to three cents; the same page from an inkjet might cost three to five cents. Those pennies can add up quickly, especially when you use more ink for longer or more graphics-heavy documents.

The smaller the cartridge's page yield, the pricier the ink or toner will be. Some ink tanks are empty after just a few hundred pages. The smallest toner cartridges--around 1000 pages--will cost more per page than a toner supply that can print 2500 or more pages.

Print volume: A small office's consumables rule of thumb: Your ink or toner cartridge's page yield should exceed your monthly print volume. Buying a printer whose toner or ink supply far exceeds your capacity means you're tying up capital in consumables that you might not replace for months. Also, ink cartridges can clog or dry out if left inactive for long periods of time. If you don't print that much--a few dozen pages a day, nothing too complicated--an inkjet or low-capacity laser might work just fine. But if you print a lot, you'll want a printer with a higher-capacity ink or toner cartridge to lower the cost per page and cut down on replacement cost and time.

Other consumables: Lasers have their pricey side, too. Their toner cartridges cost a lot more up-front, especially if they contain a drum and other printer parts in addition to the toner. Other parts, such as the fuser, may cost hundreds of dollars to replace, though they may require replacing only once (or never) over the lifetime of the printer.

Solid-ink printers (such as those from Xerox) require far fewer consumables--mostly ink blocks and a waste collection tray--but the technology is overshadowed by its laser competitor. PC World will be testing solid-ink printers in the coming months.