A Small Business Buyers' Guide to All-in-One Printers

by Gerry Blackwell

Choosing the right multifunction printer can save you money and boost productivity. We look at the points you need to consider before you buy.

Making the wrong choice when buying a multifunction printer for your small business can have real, negative consequences. With the wrong small business printer, the quality and professionalism of printed materials you send to customers could be compromised. And total cost of ownership over the long haul can be significantly higher.

So how do you go about making the right decision when buying an all-in-one printer that combines print, scan, photocopy and fax functions?

We put that question -- and others -- to the two foremost resellers in the country: CDW, a major business equipment e-tailer, and Staples, the largest retail office supply chain. Both companies have a strong focus on small businesses.

Multi- or Single-function Printer?

We first asked if in fact every small business needs printing, scanning, photocopying and fax in one machine? Wouldn't a single-function printer suffice in many circumstances -- and cost less?

Daniel Wegiel, vice president of merchandising at Staples, agreed that multifunction or all-in-one printers have become a knee-jerk first choice for small businesses, but most of the time, he said, it's the right choice.

All-in-ones take up less room, are more energy efficient and clearly cost less than buying single-purpose devices to perform each of those functions. There are situations, though, where single-function printers make more sense.

multifunction small business printersSome road warriors need tiny mobile printers for the car, and those are always single-function. Graphics and visual workers often need wide-carriage models to print large-format materials -- again, always single-function.

Many small businesses may also have one multifunction to perform a variety of tasks, including color printing, and a single-function monochrome printer, usually laser, for text document printing. 

Do You Need Fax?

There are three-in-one printer models that leave out fax capability. If businesses do occasionally need it, they could scan and attach the resulting image to an email, or use a computer fax service.

But while Wegiel and CDW's category manager for printers, Tod Lichner, agreed that many businesses probably don't use fax much, they said virtually all still demand it in an all-in-one.

"I think it's ingrained behavior," Wegiel said. "If it doesn't have fax as a separate function, it's not perceived as a business product."

"Our best-sellers all still have fax," Lichner added.

Business resellers rarely carry multifunctions without fax for this reason. Also, manufacturers mostly make three-in-one multifunction printers only for consumers. And as we'll see -- for other reasons -- small businesses should probably avoid consumer-targeted products.

For small businesses returning to the multifunction printer market, a few things of note have changed recently.

New in All-in-One Printers

Some desirable, once-premium features such as Wi-Fi connectivity, auto document feeders and duplex printing -- automatic two-sided printing -- have moved down market so that even fairly inexpensive printers now include tehm.

Duplex printing makes it possible to save significantly on paper costs, and it also reduces carbon footprint. Wi-Fi can drastically simplify connecting computers to networked printers.

Wegiel and Lichner both said document feeders that automatically direct pages stacked in a tray into the scanner are now a must-have feature for most business users.

Small businesses that have made the mistake of buying all-in-ones without a document feeder are invariably frustrated by them, they said, because it means manually placing each page of a multi-page document on the scan bed -- a time-consuming and tedious task.

Web Enabled Business Printers

Many all-in-ones are also now "Web-enabled," supporting printing over the Internet and from smartphones and tablet computers. "That's the newest, sexiest thing," Lichner said.

These products must be connected to a local network and have a Web or email address, and they can accept transmission of print jobs over the Internet, sometimes as email attachments.

Hewlett-Packard's ePrint technology led the way. Other manufacturers, such as Epson, now offer similar functionality, some using Google's Cloud Print services.

It means employees could print documents from their smartphones or laptops on the commute to the office, and have pages waiting for them -- and more easily print to a customer's, supplier's or hotel business center's printer.

Web-enabled printing is fast becoming another standard feature, though, available on even very low-priced all-in-one business printers.

Pro Line Inkjet Printers

Perhaps the most significant change in recent years is that Hewlett-Packard, with its OfficeJet Pro line, and later Epson with its WorkForce Pro line, introduced inkjet all-in-one printers that compete head-to-head with the laser multifunctions that once dominated the business market.

"These machines are built to compete with low-end to mid-range color lasers," Wegiel said. These are products typically priced in the $500 range."They're faster [than other inkjets] and have the paper-handling capacity and robustness to handle large page volumes. They're definitely a low-cost alternative to laser," he added.

They can also be loaded with higher-capacity ink cartridges; this saves money in the long term, and reduces frequency of intervention to nearly the level of laser printers and their long-lasting toner cartridges.

The HP and Epson Pro line inkjets are "definitely closing the gap" on lasers, Lichner said.

Laser Vs. Inkjet

Choosing between laser or inkjet printers has long been a major decision point in selecting an all-in-one. The new products change that dynamic.

Laser, however, is still the first choice for monochrome printing, Wegiel said, which continues to be cheaper than inkjet. Monochrome laser offers the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) when factoring in cost of supplies.

The new Pro line color inkjet all-in-one printers from HP and Epson, however, promise significantly lower TCO than color lasers based on cost per page, he said -- as much as 50 percent less.

While color laser toner cartridges have relatively high page capacity -- and last a long time compared to most inkjet cartridges -- they can cost as much as $100 each. For a $500 printer, the cost to replace all four toner cartridges (red, green, blue, black) almost equals the cost of the printer itself, Wegiel noted.

"There was a lot of sticker shock for small business buyers. So now the Pro inkjet machines have really targeted that category," he said.

Total Cost of Ownership

Cost-per-page, which will determine TCO, should always be a prime consideration. It's sometimes not easy to calculate based on information in vendor marketing materials. It might take some digging or asking questions to get the information needed.

Even then, Lichner noted, comparing specifications across vendors may be like comparing apples and oranges because not all of them test the same way.

The real cost-per-page will also vary from company to company, he said, depending on a few variables, including the type of printing -- mostly draft-quality text or mostly high-quality color with images -- and the volume of printing over a given period.  

"A number of questions need to be answered," Lichner said. CDW sales reps will ask customers those questions and help them figure out which product will deliver the best TCO, he added.   

In fact, small businesses can figure out approximate cost-per-page and TCO themselves with a little effort. You need three pieces of information: page capacity of cartridges -- often, as noted, requiring some digging -- plus cost of cartridges and expected volume of printing.

multifunction small business printerEven if the cartridge page capacity specification is not uniform across all vendors and products, it provides some basis of comparison. Cartridge prices are available from vendor or reseller websites.

Divide the cartridge cost by page capacity for each cartridge and add the amounts to calculate total cost-per-page; then multiply by the number of pages you expect to print.

If you can't be bothered to do that, at least check to see if the printer -- if it's an inkjet -- can be loaded with high-volume ink cartridges. Higher-volume cartridges almost always deliver lower cost-per-page, Wegiel said.

Another rough guide is the price of the printer. "The higher priced the machine," he said, "the more likely it will deliver lower cost-per-page. But I would stress 'in general.'"

Small Business Printer Brand Preference

Resellers like CDW and Staples are naturally careful about not appearing to play favorites with suppliers, but tacitly admit that brand can be a guide to printer quality.

Hewlett-Packard remains the market leader in both laser and inkjet all-in-ones for small business, Wegiel noted. "And you can't get to the point of owning half the market if you don't stand behind your products. So HP is solid."

Canon and Epson have traditional strengths in imaging and both offer all-in-ones with superior image printing capabilities. Epson has also gone after the small business market with its WorkForce Pro line.

"Epson has done a pretty good job establishing itself as the clear number two [in inkjet]," Wegiel said.

On the laser side, Brother holds the number two position, he added. "They offer a great value proposition, good features and good overall economics. They're a pretty good contender against HP."

All of which is not to say that small businesses risk buying a bad printer by choosing a Lexmark, Samsung or Brother inkjet, Wegiel stressed.

But as Lichner noted, small business customers tend to buy brands they've been satisfied with in the past, which makes it difficult for the next tier of makers to wrestle market share from the leaders.

Other Small Business Printer Considerations

There are a few other selection criteria to consider. Duty cycle -- the vendor's estimate of the average number of pages before the printer wears out or requires servicing -- factors into TCO, Lichner pointed out.

Printer speed is important in high-volume printing environments, or where big jobs that can monopolize a printer -- documents with a large number of pages, for example -- are commonplace.

Choosing a printer with more memory or adding memory will also speed processing of jobs with a lot of pages or a lot of images.

Small businesses that want to buy as green as possible should be heartened by the fact that the top manufacturers have done good job of reducing their carbon footprint in manufacturing and shipping, largely by reducing raw materials and packaging, Wegiel said.

Lichner advised environmentally-aware companies to look for printers with an auto-on feature that significantly reduces power drain when the printer is not in use.

Both advised small businesses to start by analyzing their needs and to always focus on total cost of ownership rather than being seduced by low-priced models.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Nov 16th 2011
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