A Modern Guide to Multifunction Printers

Tuesday Sep 24th 2013 by Joseph Moran
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Inkjet, laser, operating costs, mobile, cloud: multifunction printers offer a lot of features. Knowing what to look for in a small business printer can save you time and money. Our guide can help.

The phrase "paperless office" was first coined way back when Gerald Ford was president. Since then, electronic information and communication has displaced much of what we used to do on paper, but dead tree documents still play a big role in most offices. That's why a good small business multifunction printer that can print, scan, copy, and fax remains an indispensable piece of equipment for almost any small business.

With multifunction printers costing as little as $100, the next time you're in the market for one you might be tempted to pick up an attractively-priced model on sale at the office superstore and call it a day. That can be a mistake and cost you lots of money and lost productivity in the long run.

Don't let that happen to you. Read on to learn about the important factors you should consider when choosing your next small business multifunction printer.

Print Technology

One early and fundamental choice you'll have to make is whether to go with inkjet or laser technology. Inkjet printers cost less to buy than lasers, but they're almost always more expensive to own due to the relative high cost of liquid ink. As a rule, laser printers produce higher quality text and graphics output than inkjet printers (though these days the quality of some inkjets can rival that of a laser), but when it comes to photos, inkjets have the edge. Laser printers also typically print faster than inkjets, though there are some exceptions to that rule.

Paper Handling

If you want to minimize the amount of hands-on interaction that you and your employees must perform at the printer, it's important to get one whose paper handling capabilities are a good match for your office. 

For example, most printers have a multi-function input paper tray that can accommodate multiple sizes or types, but not necessarily at the same time. In an office where several people do different kinds of printing, this causes lost productivity due to time spent manually switching paper, or even lots of documents mistakenly printed on the wrong paper (which increases cost). Consider a printer with at least two or maybe three input trays (additional trays may be standard or optional, depending on the printer) to ensure that you have multiple paper types at the ready simultaneously.

Small business multifunction printers

If you do a lot of scanning and/or copying of multiple-page documents, an automatic document feeder (ADF) is a must. The good news is that many—perhaps even most—multifunction printers have an ADF these days. But consider an ADF's paper capacity too, because if you regularly need to scan 40- or 50-page contracts, a 20- or 35-page ADF obviously won't cut it.

A printer with automatic duplex (two-sided) printing is also a smart choice. It can cut your paper costs by 50 percent, not to mention halve the thickness of any documents you might have to store in hard copy form, which comes in handy when filing space is at a premium. Be advised, however, that not every printer that supports automatic duplex printing has an ADF that can scan both sides of a page.  

Cost of Consumables

The price you pay to buy a printer isn't nearly as important as the printer's ongoing cost of consumables—the ink or toner and, to a lesser extent, paper. This is where the true cost of a printer lies.  

To determine how much a printer is likely to cost you over time, take the price of an ink or toner cartridge and divide it by its vendor-quoted page yield to calculate the cost per page. For example, if a black ink cartridge costs $30 and yields 600 pages, then the cost per page is 5 cents. If it's $25 and 800 pages, then it's 3.1 cents. Keep in mind that color printers will have at least two and possibly four to six cartridges in all, and you need to do a separate calculation for each one.

Calculating your cost per page is hardly an exact science, because vendor yield claims are based on a standardized set of pages that don't necessarily reflect your particular mix of printing.  If a vendor says a cartridge is good for 600 pages, you may or may not get that many out of it, but figuring the cost per page is still a useful way to broadly compare the ongoing expense for two devices.

Think of it in terms of car mileage: if a car is rated for 30 MPG, you may not see that given the way you drive (leadfoot!), but you can be reasonably sure that you'll see better mileage out of that car than you will from one that's only rated at 25 MPG. (Optional reading: detailed explanations from HP about how the company comes up with page yields for its inkjet and laser printers.)        

And here's a caveat when it comes to buying ink that applies across all models. Most vendors offer both "high capacity" and cheaper "standard capacity" cartridges, and the latter always, ALWAYS cost more per page because they typically provide something like half the ink for two-thirds the price. So unless cash is really tight, avoid the lower capacity cartridges—they are the definition of penny wise and pound foolish.

Conversely, most printer vendors offer ink/toner twin-packs that cost a bit less than two cartridges sold separately. Unless you print so sparingly that the extra cartridge will sit on a shelf for years until it's no longer viable, this is the most cost-effective way to buy ink or toner.

Network Connectivity and Scanning Features

Today almost all but the lowest-end printer models include built-in networking, and that usually comes in the form of Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi certainly gives you a degree of flexibility regarding where to locate your printer in the office, but you'd be smart to choose a printer that also provides Ethernet connectivity.

Ethernet is a more reliable network connection than Wi-Fi, especially if you lack a strong Wi-Fi signal throughout your office. Moreover, a Wi-Fi network is a shared medium while an Ethernet connection gives your printer a dedicated link to the network; lengthy and/or complex print jobs will take less time getting to the printer via Ethernet.

Any networked multifunction printer can scan a document and save it on a particular PC. That's nice, but it's not ideal in an environment where the document might need to be accessible by other employees or departments. It puts the onus on the person doing the scanning to then move or copy the file from their computer to a shared location.

A more useful feature is commonly called "scan to network folder," and as the name suggests it refers to the capability to scan documents directly to network folders that you specify. This feature lets you save specific document types such as invoices, contracts, etc. to the appropriate locations without an intermediate step.   

In situations where a document is more appropriately routed to a specific person than to a networked folder, a "Scan to Email" feature saves you time by sending the scanned document to a user as an email attachment. This can also be a convenient way to send scanned documents to individuals outside the organization when necessary.    

Mobile and Cloud Printing Capabilities

It's important that your next printer have the capability to interact with mobile devices, because whatever you need to print may just as likely reside on a smartphone or a tablet as on a PC.  If your business uses iOS devices, a printer that supports Apple's AirPrint technology will let you print from an iPhone or an iPad when both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network.

Google Cloud Print, while not as widely supported, can send documents from a mobile device to any Internet-connected printer. There are also myriad vendor-specific technologies such as Brother iPrint & Scan, Epson Connect, and HP ePrint that offer various mobile printing and scanning features depending on the specific printer model and smartphone OS you have, so be sure to review these features before buying.

Another emerging mobile printing technology is NFC—printers such as the Brother MFC-J870DW multifunction inkjet (read our review) and Samsung C4x0 series lasers let you send documents directly to a printer with a few taps and little to no prior configuration.

Finally, vendors are starting to incorporate cloud storage connectivity directly into their printers, which eliminates the need for a PC, smartphone, or tablet to act as intermediary. Case in point: the aforementioned Brother printer can download and print (or scan and upload) documents directly to services such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft SkyDrive. This capability will become increasingly common in the future, and will be a boon to any business that relies on cloud services.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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