Over the years, countless pundits, this author among them, have predicted that, sooner rather than later, most of the world’s workforce would be working from home. The dream? Fewer giant office blocks, less drain on fossil fuels, good-bye to nasty traffic snarls. And remote work would no longer be exclusive to just a select few professionals.
Man, were we wrong! Nearly 40 years into the Information Age, only a global pandemic finally brought governments and the leaders of companies big and small to their work-from-home (WFH) senses. And now, as organizations scramble to manage and equip their workforces remotely, sales of tech gear are soaring, and ever more families and newly minted home-office dwellers are realizing the need for new hardware—including the oft-neglected printer.
Industry and government workers no longer have access to their office printers. Many students can’t print at the school library or in their dorms. And as the pandemic keeps circulating through communities, venturing out to the local Kinko’s to make prints and copies takes on an element of risk.
Indeed, our printers are suddenly dust collectors no more. Many of us still need to print, scan, and make copies, and maybe send the occasional medical fax. And where in the pre-COVID world, several co-workers might rely on the same high-volume printer all day long, now our print and copy volumes are considerably lower—but spread out over lots of cheap home and home-office printers.
We’re seeing fresh, heavy demand for low-cost, entry-level printers for working from home. For many folks, a cheap, occasional-use model is all they need. (We classify “cheap” as under $200; more on that later.) Let’s break down the best values available for your family’s home—which has increasingly become the family office, too. (And if you’re finding it hard to find certain printers in stock in these COVID-challenged times, check out our strategy guide to tracking down tough-to-find tech.)
Though choosing the right printer for your needs is not rocket science, you still have plenty to consider when buying a one. The good news? Nowadays, you don’t have to worry much about paper jams, poor print quality, and other performance issues. Printer and scanner technology has matured enough that you can focus on productivity and convenience features—things like paper-input capacity and handy control panels—as well as on saving money, by comparing running costs.
Do you need to print and copy in color? Do you need an all-in-one (AIO) printer that makes copies and scans documents and photos, or will a single-function (“just a printer”) model do? These are only two of the crucial choice points, so let’s take a look at them and some others, one by one.
Single-function printers do just one thing—print, of course—while all-in-ones (AIOs, also known as multifunction devices or MFPs) can also copy, scan, and (in some cases) fax documents. In terms of design, most AIOs couple the printer with a flatbed scanner on top.
Sometimes all you need is a device that prints, and paying extra for a bigger printer with imaging features you don’t need doesn’t make sense. That said, most home offices will benefit from copying and scanning now and then, and therefore choose an AIO. Even if you don’t copy frequently, in today’s climate, where one of the reasons for buying a printer is safety (that is, reducing your family’s need to run local errands), spending a little extra for a model that can makes sense.
An important distinguishing characteristic of an AIO is whether its flatbed scanner comes with an automatic document feeder (ADF). An ADF is an apparatus for handling multipage documents without user intervention. When copying or scanning a stack of documents, the simplest and cheapest AIOs, lacking an ADF, require you to place pages on the scanner bed (or “platen”) one at a time. With an ADF, you drop the stack in the feeder, press Copy or Scan, and walk away. That’s an obvious time saver if you’ll often scan or copy a bunch of pages in one sitting.
To reduce cost, many lower-end AIOs lack an ADF. Meanwhile, ADFs themselves come in two main varieties: manual duplexing, and auto duplexing. With the manual kind, when the machine finishes scanning the first side of the stack of pages, you need to flip the stack manually and place it back in the ADF to scan the other side. Auto duplexing handles this for you.
Auto-duplexing ADFs are not common on machines under $100. As you move closer to $150 and upward into the $200 range, you’ll see not only auto-duplexing ADFs but also higher-capacity feeders. The ADFs on most lower-cost machines hold around 20 pages, while the ADFs on higher-cost AIOs can hold as many as 50 pages, sometimes more.
Auto-duplexing ADFs come in two subtypes: single-pass duplexing, and reverse duplexing. The difference is simple. Single-pass ADFs have two scanning sensors, one for each side of the paper. These allow the scanner to capture both sides of a document simultaneously. Reverse duplexing scans one side, pulls the sheet back in, flips it, then scans the other side. While single-pass duplexing is faster, both methods work well. In cheaper printers, reverse duplexing is more common, if the scanner duplexes at all.
Without question, color pages are more fun and more attractive than their black-and-white counterparts, and they carry more impact. Color is all but essential when producing your own brochures, flyers, and other promotional material at home, or if printing photos is among your personal printing habits.
But some kinds of documents don’t benefit from color, and sometimes, using color ink in these scenarios is little more than unnecessary expense. Depending on what you print, and on your printer model, each color page can easily cost you three to five times that of a monochrome one, or more.
As we discuss a little further down, though, over the past few years, several printer manufacturers have come out with machines that print both types of documents, monochrome and color, at a much lower cost per page (CPP). Some pull that off via making you buy ink in bulk, up front; some sign you up to an ink subscription.
Whatever the scheme, you’ll want to look at your printer purchase with a very clear idea of what kind of output you need, versus what you might need or want. If all you’ll print is reams of text, a monochrome laser might make more sense; if photo printing or colorful workbook sheets are on the agenda, a color inkjet is your main option.
At one time, laser printers were considered faster, more reliable, and less expensive to use, and were near-universally lauded for better output quality than inkjet machines. Even though many users and even some pundits still tout these traditional “wisdoms,” they’re far from universally true nowadays. Depending on what and how much you print, today’s inkjet machines can outshine their laser competitors. Let’s consider each argument.
Often, laser technology—which maps and applies toner to an entire page all at once—is innately faster than the way most inkjets apply ink to paper, with a relatively small printhead moving back and forth, spraying line after line. Some cheap inkjets churn at a poky 10 pages per minute (ppm) or less, while many low-end laser printers can pump out twice that.
Regarding reliability, years back some inkjet machines were prone to clogged nozzles, paper jams, and substandard output. But those days are over. And as to whether inkjet printers are by definition more expensive to use than lasers, while you’ll see some exceptions, that hasn’t been the rule for some time now. Indeed, so-called bulk-ink inkjets, which use large ink-refill bottles or bags instead of small cartridges, can be less costly to use than rival lasers on a long-term basis. (I’ll talk about those in greater detail in a moment.)
Also, it’s important to note that inkjets tend to use less electricity than comparable lasers. In busy print environments, where the printer remains active, churning out page after page all day, that’s an extra, if hard-to-quantify, “consumable.”
Finally, there’s the biggest misconception of all: that laser printers as a rule produce superior output to their inkjet competitors. This hasn’t been that cut-and-dried for quite a while. Where laser printers have always excelled (and to some extent still do) is in printing text. Inkjet printers, on the other hand, usually print superior graphics, especially photographs.
But inkjet printers have come a long way, and are now serious contenders where good-looking, unimpeachable print quality of all stripes is required. Also, most inkjet machines can print borderless document pages and photos, a finishing technique known in the document-design industry as “bleeds.” Laser printers, on the other hand, must leave some margin around the edge of the paper. When used correctly, bleed finishing makes photos and certain documents look more professional.
Where laser printers’ toner output does prevail over inkjet output is in the longevity or durability of the output. A toner-based print typically lasts longer without cracking or fading, and is not prone to smudging or streaking if exposed to moisture. That’s important in environments where the stability of your hard copy, such as in medical records, is crucial.
For many years, printer manufacturers relied on selling printers at low prices, expecting the sale of consumables (ink or toner) to gain them the profit. Most of today’s entry-level inkjet printers still follow that plan, especially the under-$100 machines. Over the past few years, though, some printer makers have rolled out products with a polar-opposite selling point: saving users money on the running costs.
These technologies (HP’s Smart Tank Plus and Instant Ink, Canon’s MegaTank, Brother’s INKvestment Tank, and Epson’s EcoTank) deliver cost-per-page figures that are a mere fraction of the traditional replacement-consumables model. This design is coming to laser printers, too: Earlier this year, HP debuted its Neverstop brand of monochrome laser printers that, instead of delivering replacement toner in costly cartridges, stores it in refillable reservoirs inside the printer—at $16 per refill or 0.6 cent per page.
Of the bulk-ink brands listed in the previous paragraph, EcoTank, MegaTank, and Smart Tank Plus are all cartridge-free technologies. Instead of pricey cartridges that often contain their own expensive printheads and electronics, consumables reside in internal tanks that you fill from inexpensive bottles. Many of these printers are fine machines with exceptionally low running costs, but they start at more than $200, and therefore don’t fit the “cheap” criteria for this article.
Brother INKvestment Tank and HP Instant Ink models—cartridge-based designs that aren’t quite as inexpensive to use as other bulk-ink printers—cost less to buy up front. Some of them, such as Brother’s MFC-J805DW INKvestment Tank All-In-One and several HP Envy, DeskJet, and OfficeJet models, do fit the pricing criteria (discussed in a moment below) to make our cheap-printer roll call, though. Instant Ink is an unusual, intriguing outlier, in which you “subscribe” to an HP ink plan that entitles you to a certain number of pages printed per month at a reasonable flat rate, ignoring the actual amount of ink drained. Replacement ink comes automatically in the mail. It’s a great deal for photo-printing mavens.
The bottom line? Unlike a few years ago where your money-saving options on ink and toner were limited, finding a machine with low running costs, even in the entry-level market, is possible.
Some home offices not only print a lot, but also print on different types and sizes of paper. What if you print most of the time on plain paper or letterhead, but suddenly need to output a spreadsheet on legal-size paper? Or a sheet of labels, or a check? What if you just print all the time, and you need a machine with deep paper trays that don’t require constant reloading?
While most cheap printers don’t offer high-volume trays and multiple input sources, pay attention to the machine’s input configuration options. Many printers come with, in addition to a main paper input source, a simple one-sheet override tray for printing one-off envelopes, forms, or labels, or perhaps a 10- or 20-sheet alternative tray for photo paper or envelopes.
Note that a printer’s input capacity tends to scale with its rated “print volume,” which manufacturers usually express as the number of pages the machine is good to print per month. The two most common such measurements are the duty cycle (the absolute most pages the printer should put out each month) and the maximum suggested print volume (a more reasonable target, to avoid undue wear on the mechanism). Some makers of cheap printers don’t rate their models.
Where they do, though, these volume measurements are often thousands of pages apart. When a machine’s monthly duty cycle is, say, 20,000 pages, the suggested monthly volume is usually 10 percent of that or less. When buying a low-volume printer, it’s best to let the suggested print volume be your “real” guide. While a printer can run pegged out at its duty cycle month in and month out, it will require less attention and last a lot longer if you run it closer to the suggested volume rating.
Nowadays, most printers, especially the cheap kind, come ready to connect to most handheld mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) wirelessly. The standard wired interfaces for computers comprise two main kinds of connections: an RJ-45 jack for Ethernet networking, and/or a USB port for connecting to a single PC. Ethernet, however, is more of a business-centric protocol and is not a given on lower-cost printers.
Of the list of wireless standards, only Wi-Fi and AirPrint are actual local area network (LAN) protocols. The others—Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth, Mopria, and NFC—are primarily peer-to-peer protocols that allow you to connect a handheld or other device directly to the printer without either device being part of a LAN. NFC is unique, in that it allows you to connect to the printer by simply tapping an NFC-enabled device to a hotspot on the printer, usually on or near the control panel. In addition to all these, most printers and AIOs these days also support connectivity via several popular cloud sites, such as Google Cloud Print, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, and Evernote.
Most of today’s lower-end machines come with Wi-Fi and USB connectivity. Ethernet, where you can find it, is the fastest and most secure option; Wi-Fi, which few printers lack nowadays, is highly convenient, as well as plenty fast enough for most uses. And most of today’s printers also provide free downloadable apps that let you connect your smartphones and tablets to the printer over a wireless network. What you get doesn’t always correspond to the printer price, so check the individual details of any model you are looking at with care.
Typically, the cheaper the printer or AIO, the fewer the functions and features—the less the machine does—and thus the lesser need for a large, option-rich control panel. While a few of today’s cheap printers (mostly AIOs) have roomy color touch screens, most employ simple panels of a few buttons and status LEDs.
A graphical control panel is handy, though. In addition to making walk-up functions (such as making copies or printing from cloud sites) easy to perform, such panels allow you to specify security and other configuration changes, monitor and order supplies, and generate usage and other reports. You can also control, configure, and monitor most printers via an onboard web portal that you access from your PC, a phone, or a tablet browser.
Again, the level of comprehensiveness in this vein may not correspond to the price. Check reviews or the printer’s spec-sheet details on support for features like these.
Each family or home office has its own unique needs in terms of print and copy volume. Since we’re in search of the best “cheap” single-function or AIO printers here, this article assumes your print and copy volume is small—say, up to a couple hundred pages each month. For most families and homebound office workers, 200 prints per month is a lot, although in today’s brave new world, we’re seeing a lot more printing from home than just a few months ago, and expect that demand to rise.
We scrutinized all of the printers PC Labs has tested in the last few years that remain on the market today. Our main candidate machines fit into two pricing classes: “cheap” ($100 to $200) and “super cheap” (under $100) based on MSRP. However, given the pandemic, printers are selling out from many etailers, and some of them, especially those that have third-party marketplaces, have models selling for well above MSRP, with “super-cheap” models spilling into the “cheap” class, in practice. So you’ll definitely want to shop around if you see an inflated price versus the MSRP we cite for our picks. Often, with some judicious searching, you can find some of our picks for significantly less than MSRP.
Note three things about our selections. First: The three main printer types we’re looking at here are lasers, business-oriented models (both laser and inkjet), and photo-centric models (all inkjets). Usually, you will see significant differences between machines tweaked for office use and for photo printing. Low-cost business-oriented inkjets, for example, often come with ADFs, whereas their photo-centric counterparts often don’t.
Meanwhile, photo-minded inkjets, by definition, print photos better and sometimes employ more than just the standard four process-color inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, or CMYK). Our current best photo-centric inkjet AIO under $200, the Epson Expression Premium XP-7100 Small-in-One, for instance, comes with an additional Photo Black ink, to add depth and richness to photos and graphics.
Second: We’ve also included in our picks here two niche classes of printers that have good models that sell for under $200 and thus qualify as “cheap”: label printers (for folks shipping lots of items from home) and dedicated portable photo printers (for quick-output mini-snapshots). Hit the links for much more on each of these, but know that the latter aren’t necessarily inkjets. The very smallest use an inkless technology known as Zero Ink (ZINK) that has the colorizing material embedded in specially treated paper stock.
Third: We can’t recommend any “cheap” color laser printers for less than $200. All of the top laser machines here are monochrome, and given the typical lofty cost of four color-laser replacement toner cartridges, color lasers’ exclusion from this roundup, given its budget-price aim, seems suitable.
It’s important to note, too, that you can find some very cheap printers nowadays—some of them well under $50—at the bottom of most inkjet makers’ lines. But keep in mind that “cheapest” isn’t usually the best value. It’s best to look for authoritative reviews that assess value and all the hardware factors, like PC Labs’ own evaluations do. All of our picks below are informed by rigorous, repeatable testing.Source