Woman with a compact all-in-one home office printer

What to Consider Before Buying a New Printer

Figure out the basics before investing in a device

With so many home and office printing options available, choosing the right one for your needs can be a bit daunting. Should you get an all-in-one (AIO), or will a single-function printer be enough? Will an inkjet printer handle your print load, or do you need a laser printer?

Whether you're shopping for a basic model to handle the occasional homework essay or online receipt, a home office unit, or a fleet of printers for your company, here are the main factors to consider before you purchase a printer.

This article looks at general printing categories to help you narrow your search. Check out our more in-depth printer-buying information when you're ready to get specific in your printer search.

Home vs Office vs Professional

Home vs. Office vs. Home Professional

Your first job is to assess the type of workload you'll need your printer to handle. Some printers can handle massive loads of documents, printing thousands, or even tens of thousands, of pages in a month. These office-style printers work well for both small businesses and more globally oriented offices.

If you're a home-based professional or a student, your printer should handle a more traditional workload, such as monthly expense reports, term papers, etc. If you're looking for a printer that will be used sparingly, look for a printer with a small loading tray that can be stored as compactly as possible to make room for your other devices and furniture.

Printer prices can vary wildly. After you identify a printer you like, check similar models by other manufacturers to see if there's a big difference in cost.

Inkjet vs. Laser

In general, there are two main printer categories: inkjet and laser.

Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers use cartridges of black or cyan, magenta, and yellow ink to print documents and photos. You'll likely use an inkjet printer in your home or dorm because they're affordable and easy to set up. Inkjet printers are great at printing high-quality photos because they can use pigment-based inks and will print higher concentrations of color than other printer types.

Inside an inkjet printer
 frankieleon /Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Laser Printers

Laser printers use toner cartridges and a complicated drum set up that "fuses" the toner to paper to produce documents. Toner cartridges can handle much larger workloads than ink cartridges, and they're better suited for office settings. 

cartridges of toner for laser printers
antpkr / Getty Images

Inkjet and Laser Printer Costs

Consider printing costs when choosing between inkjet and laser printers. Laser printers are quite expensive, and so are their toner cartridges. However, the toner can last up to a year depending on the workload.

Inkjet printers are much more affordable, as are their ink cartridges. The tradeoff is that the cartridges hold only a small amount of ink and will last just a couple of months under even the lightest workloads.

Ink cartridges are also prone to clogging if they aren't used often. Dried ink can congeal on the print heads, causing error messages, frustration, and blotchy documents or photos. 

Document vs. Photo Printing

Both inkjet and laser printers are capable of printing high-quality documents and photos. But to create stunning, true-to-life photos and art, consider buying a dedicated photo printer. Photo printers use specialized inks and high-gloss photo paper to make lab-quality prints of your images. Some even connect directly to your social media accounts, such as Facebook and Instagram, to print candid shots.

Inkjet and laser printers are best suited for printing documents. Inkjet printers, especially, tend to use a lot of ink when creating a document. If you print a photo with an inkjet printer, you run the risk of smudging and ink bleeding due to long drying times. Laser printer toner doesn't get the same amount of rich color saturation. So while it's possible to print in color toner, laser printers are better suited for tasks like printing out visual aids for meetings.

The type of paper you use for inkjet printing also affects ink smudging and bleeding.

All-in-One vs. Single-Function

All-in-one printers, also known as multifunction printers (MFPs), print, copy, scan, and even fax. They're great for small businesses, home-based professionals, students, and larger offices. Anyone who handles multiple document types and projects, and who needs a way to quickly and easily create and send reports and images, would benefit from an MFP. They're also great for artists who work with traditional media as well as digital art programs. For example, sketch and draw on paper, then scan the image into your favorite program to do line art and coloring. 

Single-function printers may do only one thing, print, but they do it well. Single-function models are ideal for homes with school-aged children who need to write and print essays or other assignments. They're also perfect for those who just want to occasionally print documents, such as online shopping receipts and confirmation emails for personal records. Single-function models tend to have smaller loading tray capacities, lower-volume printing capabilities, and very attractive price points for those looking to print on a strict budget.

Single-function printer with a small form factor

Mobile Printers

Consider if you'll need to print on-the-go. Mobile printers are lightweight and compact, and some even have built-in batteries for printing on-the-go. Most models fit easily into a backpack or laptop bag for travel. They can also connect to your mobile devices and laptops via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for printing with or without an internet connection. This is great for professional contractors who may find themselves out in the middle of nowhere without a reliable network connection.

Mobile printers are also a good choice for commuter college students looking to print essays or other assignments when they don't have access to (or time to run to) the on-campus computer labs. With a compact, mobile printer, print last-minute papers in your car and have them ready before class.