Small Business Guide to Multifunction Printers

by Paul Mah

Choosing a multifunction printer for your business doesn’t have to be rocket science. To help you along, we highlight some of the most important capabilities.

Despite various past predictions, printing, faxing, scanning or photocopying have remained stubbornly ingrained in business, leaving the paperless office something of a pipe dream. Thankfully, a modern small business multifunction printer packs many of the above-mentioned features into a single device, cutting down on costs and eliminating the need to purchase and operate a bunch of disparate peripherals.

When it comes to multifunction printers though, how do you select the ideal unit among the many options on the market today? Given that new business printers are released all the time, or may not be available in your region to begin with, we won't provide a list of specific models in this article. Instead, we'll identify six of the most important features that you should look for when shopping for your next small business multifunction printer.

Top 6 Small business Multifunction Printer Features

1. Automatic Document Feeder

When purchasing a multifunction printer for your business, an important factor to consider is whether it comes equipped with an automatic document feeder, also known as an ADF. Instead of being restricted to scanning one sheet at a time, an ADF allows you to place anywhere between 20 to 50 sheets of documents into a tray where they are automatically fed into the multifunction printer one piece at a time.

Though ADF-equipped multifunction printers tend to cost more, they save a tremendous amount of time when you're confronted with stacks of document to process. With this in mind, it may be a good idea to purchase an ADF-equipped multifunction printer even if you need the feature only on occasion. The only exception would be for organizations that perform voluminous amounts of scanning or copying. Obviously, that scenario would lend itself well to using dedicated high-speed scanners and high-volume photocopying machines.

2. Network Support

Another important multifunction printer feature to look for is networking capability. A network-enabled small business multifunction printer connects to the LAN (Local Area Network) as a shared device to receive print jobs from other computers located on the same network. There are other options for sharing printers, of course, but they either entail buying an additional print server adapter or enabling printer sharing at the operating system level and leaving the computer switched on.

guide to small business multifunction printers

In comparison, a network printer typically comes equipped with onboard memory, and it's non-blocking. This means that clicking on "Print" at a source computer will send the print job to the printer spool and return the users to their applications to continue their work. In contrast, the use of a print server usually necessitates the installation of a third-party utility, and which typically prevents other workstations from connecting – and printing – until the current job is done.

We highly recommend buying a multifunction printer that includes network support over one that doesn’t. In addition, small business printers that are network-enabled also incorporate USB ports for the flexibility of deploying them in non-network environments. Increasingly, multifunction printers equipped with wireless networking are appearing on the market. They offer great convenience, though the caveat is that large print jobs may take longer due to the inherently slower speed of Wi-Fi compared to wired networks.

3. Fax Capability

More multifunction printers are discarding fax capability as the popularity of this mode of communication declines. However, many small businesses still incorporate the use of fax in their business processes, which necessitates the purchase of multifunction printers with fax capability to work with them. As a legacy technology though, it does mean that just about every multifunction printer that does include built-in fax capability incorporates the fastest 33.6Kbps fax modem for high-speed fax transmission.

On this front, some of the more advanced models may offer the capability to forward incoming fax to a PC workstation instead of printing it out. This is an excellent feature for reducing paper waste, as well as for filtering the inevitable fax spam.

Best Small business Multifunction Printer Features

4. Advanced Support for Scanning

In a non-network deployment, where a small business multifunction printer connects directly to a PC workstation, the driver software usually saves scanned documents within a predefined folder. Things get more complicated in a networked environment however, and the user experience may vary widely depending on a particular vendors’ implementation.

To avoid having to install yet another software utility onto a dozen or more workstations, it may be better to keep an eye out for the presence of advanced scanning support, such as the capability to automatically upload scanned documents to a predefined FTP location.

guide to small business multifunction printers

Alternatively, some multifunction printer models may also send out scanned documents via email as PDF attachments, with destination email addresses either keyed in at the point of scanning or selected from a preprogrammed address book. Indeed, some may also be able to forward incoming fax transmissions as digital PDF documents that are then emailed to a predefined email account.

5. Laser or Color Printing Capability

It is hardly a secret that printer companies rake in their profits from the sale of consumables such as toner or ink cartridges. With this in mind, we strongly advocate the use of a laser printer when it comes to choosing a small business multifunction printer. Due to their inherently higher operational costs, and the fact that liquid ink can dry up over time, you should avoid multifunction inkjet printers unless you have an extremely compelling business reason to use them.

Of late, multifunction printers with color laser capabilities have appeared on the market. These typically make use of different toner canisters for the three primary colors as well as a separate cartridge for black, which helps to reduce printing costs. On the flip side, it should be noted that color multifunction printers are significantly more expensive than their black-and-white-only cousins.

If color printout capability is important to your business, you may find it more cost effective to purchase a black-and-white multifunction printer and a separate color laser printer – which shouldn’t cost much more than the same price of a color multifunction printer.

6. Driver Support

Finally, one less-obvious feature is the quality of device driver software for your small business multifunction printer. Some printer manufacturers are more aggressive than others about ensuring that their printers are well-supported on the primary computer platforms such as Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. With Windows 8 just round the corner, it becomes even more imperative that businesses choose a vendor that will furnish an updated driver to work on the new operating system.

Paul Mah covers technology for SMBs for Small Business Computing and for IT Business Edge. He also shares his passion for and knowledge of everything from networking to operating systems as an instructor at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore, and is a contributor to a number of tech sites, including Ars Technica and TechRepublic.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Jul 11th 2012
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