How to Buy Small Business Multifunction Printers

Wednesday Sep 15th 2010 by Housen Maratouk
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A multifunction printer is the undisputed king of multi-taskers in any office. We sort through the range of features and prices to help you find the best business printer for your small business needs.



Updated on 07/11/2012. Original article posted on 9/15/2010.

Looking for the latest guidance on buying a multifunction printer for your small business? A lot has changed in the two years since we posted this piece. Be sure to check out our latest, most up-to-date article Small Business Guide to Multifunction Printers. We list and discuss the top six features small businesses should look for in a multifunction printer. Go on…check it out.

For years, we've heard about the coming of the "paperless office," an almost Utopian world of digitized data where the clutter and expense of printed documents will be little more than memories of a bygone era.

But while the more efficient businesses may have moved beyond the days of overflowing file cabinets that hold an organization's various documents and records, we're still pretty far from the point where most small business organizations have managed to do away with printed documents altogether.

Helping us bridge the gap between the office of today and whatever the "office of tomorrow" ends up looking like are tools like multifunction printers, also called All-In-One (AIO) printers.

Multifunction printers let you not only print, but also scan, copy, fax, and perhaps even digitally store and send copies of your documents. But as with uni-tasking printers, AIOs come in a variety of configurations. Depending on your specific needs, equipping your office with one can cost you less than $100 or well into the thousands. It's important to figure out just what your needs are, at least for today and ideally for the next few tomorrows.

Determining Your Small Business Technology Needs

Whichever multifunction printer you look at, certain features are just bound to be included. Models meant for office use -- not at those multifunction photo printers marketed for casual use in the home -- should function as a printer, document scanner, copier, and fax machine.

How well a particular model performs these tasks can vary. It's always a good idea to read reviews of a specific model to determine its print quality and speed, how well the ADF (Automatic Document Feeder) feeds pages, and how faithfully it reproduces colors and images. After all, if you get stuck with an AIO that produces choppy text at a snail's pace, grabs four sheets of paper at a time when you're trying to copy or fax, and adds a yellow tint to everything you scan, all you've really bought is a big old paperweight.

Also important in buying multifunction printers is acquainting yourself with what's out there and figuring out exactly what you want and need out of your next AIO printer. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Are you looking to connect your AIO to a single desktop or have it accessible across a local network?
  • Will you be printing a few pages per day, a few hundred, or a few thousand?
  • Will you be printing in color or exclusively in black and white?
  • If in color, are you looking to occasionally print decent-quality charts and graphs, or are you look for glossy images?

These are the basic questions you'll need to ask yourself when choosing multifunction printers. And it doesn't stop there, either. To demonstrate this, let's take a look a couple of low-end options (price-wise, that is), a couple in the middle of the pack, and a couple at or near the top, just to give you a sense of what's out there and what spending some more money, up-front, might buy.

Epson Workforce 320 multifunction printer; business printers
The Epson Workforce 320 inkjet multifunction printer.
(Click for larger image)
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Low-End Multifunction Printers

You'll typically find ink-jet multifunction printers at the lowest end of the price scale. These might seem attractive because of their low price tags, which can start at less than $100 for a model that can print a few pages per minute. But the price can scale up to the $300-$500 range for a networkable model that will at least claim to print a great deal faster.

At the time of article's writing, models around the $100 mark are available from four of the biggest manufacturers of multifunction printers: HP, Canon, Lexmark, and Epson. Each comes with a flatbed document scanner/copier, has a small ADF and prints a few pages per minute (though it'll claim dozens per minute at "draft speeds").

Multifunction printers at this price level don’t offer automatic duplexing (double-sided printing), and they have a low duty cycle. Most of the models include some kind of networked printing, whether wireless or via Ethernet, though a few connect only via USB (the Canon MX320 and the Epson Workforce 320, for example, listed at $60 and $80, respectively).

These multifunction printers might serve the needs of home office users and/or small business computing environments that have minimal printing needs. But with even moderate use, the cost of printing supplies and loss of productivity will quickly make the initial price savings meaningless when compared to higher-end options.

Lexmark Platinum Pro905 multifunction printer; business printers
The Lexmark Platinum Pro905 inkjet multifunction printer.
(Click for larger image)
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Mid-Priced Multifunction Printers

The middle of the pack, predictably enough, spans a wide range of available options. For a couple of hundred dollars, you can expect to buy a more fully featured inkjet AIO that starts up a little faster, prints ever-so-slightly faster, possibly holds more paper in its available tray(s) and can automatically duplex your print jobs.

Just about multifunction printer at this price point can connect to a network, though some connect strictly via Ethernet while others also have wireless capabilities. Move a bit upwards in price, into the mid-hundreds, and you can choose from the highest-end inkjet AIOs and lower-end laser units. The former include models like the Lexmark Platinum Pro905 and the HP Officejet Pro 8500 series while the later include a number of laser printers.

Beyond any speed advantages they might (or might not) have over their inkjet cousins, multifunction laser printers are better suited for higher volumes of printing. Not only can they handle hundreds, or even thousands, of printed pages per month without self-destructing, they do so at a considerably lower cost. Toner cartridges, while not inexpensive, tend to yield far more printed pages than those inkjet cartridges that will eventually bleed you dry.

High-End Multifunction Printers

In this high-priced stratosphere, you'll spend thousands of dollars for high-volume laser black-and-white and color printers. These are meant for organizations that print thousands of pages per month and need a machine that can handle that kind of volume.

Machines at this end of the market tend to have multiple paper trays that accommodate more paper sizes and more total sheets of paper. Laser color printers, meanwhile, allow you to print images at good quality, albeit without the glossiness you can get with inkjet printing.

HP Color LaserJet CM2320 Series multifunction printer; business printers
HP Color LaserJet CM2320 Series multifunction printer.
(Click for larger image)
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If money is no object and your print volumes are so high that they eclipse most small business computing needs, you might be looking at something as expensive as the HP LaserJet CM6030/CM6040 series of printers, which are priced near the five-figure range and can print up to 40ppm.

But more likely options include HP's LaserJet CM2320 series and M3035 series (starting at around $700 and $1,600, respectively), Canon offerings like the imageCLASS MF9280cdn ($1,500), and Lexmark's X4** series (costing upward of $1,200). All of these multifunction printers can handle print volumes that few small business computing environments are unlikely to exceed.

Cheaper Does Not Equal Less Expensive

Whatever route you take, don’t base your decision solely on the price of the product. If the product doesn't do what you need it to do, after all, then your money's been wasted no matter what it cost you.

If you buy bigger than you'll ever need, that's money you could have spent elsewhere. And if you buy an multifunction printer designed to handle significantly lower volumes than you'll actually be printing, you'll lose money in supplies, replacement costs and lost productivity than you saved on the price of the printer.

So do yourself a favor: spend the time now to really look at what your needs are today, what you expect them to be tomorrow, and which product will best meet both.

A Sampling of Multifunction Printers

Vendor/Model Inkjet/Laser Connection-type Estimated Price Canon MX320 X1261 Inkjet USB 2.0; no networking options $59.99 Epson Workforce 320 Inkjet USB 2.0; no networking options $79.99 HP Officejet 4500 Inkjet USB 2.0; 10/100 Ethernet; wireless version also available $299.99 Lexmark Platinum Pro905 Inkjet USB 2.0; 10/100 Ethernet; wireless $299.99 HP Color LaserJet CM2320 Series Laser USB 2.0; 10/100 Ethernet Starting at $699.99 Canon MF9280Cdn Laser USB 2.0; 10/100 Ethernet $1,499 HP Color LaserJet CM6030/6040 Series Laser USB 2.0; 10/100/1000 Ethernet Starting at $8,999

Housen Maratouk is a regular contributor at HardwareCentral.com, one of our sister sites on the internet.com network.

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