Tips for Buying a Small Business Printer

by Paul Mah

You need to buy a printer for your small business. Great, but what kind: multifunction, inkjet, laser, color? These tips will help you choose the appropriate printer to meet your needs.

Despite the growing acceptance of digital documents and email, the small business printer remains an essential piece of office equipment. Part of the reason is that many vendors may not be sufficiently IT-savvy to work with online portals or even email. And more often than not, these businesses require the use of paper documentation as a mandatory part of their workflow.

Unlike large enterprises that can adopt an aggressive “adapt or forget about doing business with us” approach with their vendors, small businesses have no option but to continue working with them. This means that even forward-looking SMBs that have streamlined their operations to eliminate paper still need some type of small business printer.

With this in mind, we offer these tips for choosing the right kind of printer -- multifunction, inkjet or laser; color or black and white -- for your business.

When to Buy a Multifunction Printer

The first question to ask prior to buying a printer is whether a multifunction printer is more suited for the tasks you have at hand. For instance, small branch offices or retail outlets constrained by a lack of space may be better served with a multifunction device, which have a smaller footprint, and thus take up less floor or desk space.

Moreover, it also makes sense for offices without onsite IT staff to use a multifunction printer rather than having half a dozen different appliances; this also makes it easier to contract maintenance to an external vendor and reduce management complexity. You can read about the specific considerations for buying a multifunction printer in the article, Small Business Guide to Multifunction Printers.

Of course, buying a dedicated printer makes sense for organizations with a heavy print volume, or for companies that don’t do much scanning, photocopying or faxing. If that’s the case in your business, read on.

Making the Choice: Laser Versus Inkjet Printer

In general, laser printers are generally acknowledged to be much cheaper than liquid-based inkjet printers when it comes to operational costs, though detractors argue that the use of third-party refillable ink systems renders Inkjet printers competitive. However, doing so typically voids the printer’s warranty, which is hardly recommended for the majority of businesses out there.

For now, be aware that the business model of inkjet-printer manufacturers targeting the low-to-mid-end printer markets entails recouping their profits from the sales of consumables.

Of course, inkjet printers are not without their advantages. For one, you can buy them at very enticing promotional prices – often as low as a hundred dollars. That lets very small businesses get started with a minimal capital investment, upgrading only when business picks up. Also, inkjet print quality has improved substantially over the years to the point where it's generally very good.

On the downside, the print heads on inkjet cartridges may clog over prolonged periods of inactivity, though you can usually solve that by replacing the print cartridge or print head.

On the other hand, laser printer toner fuses with the surface of the paper resulting in output that's practically waterproof. Note that while most small business laser printers incorporate the drumhead inside a disposable cartridge, higher-end models may require occasional drum replacements, which adds to the overall cost.

An Important Consideration for Color Printing

Regardless of whether you purchase a small business inkjet or a laser printer, if you want to add color to the mix, you face yet another round of decision making. Specifically, you need to consider the type of print system the printer uses.

Does the printer use a single cartridge, or does it use a system with individual cartridges for black and the primary colors? The former costs less to manufacturer, but it results in waste should a particular colored-ink run out faster than the others. As you can imagine, printers with separate cartridges for each color tend to be more expensive.

Some small business printers may have a dedicated black cartridge and a second one containing the primary colors in separate partitions. Businesses that print predominantly in black-and -white, but dabble in the occasional color printouts will benefit from this type print system. Ultimately, the correct choice depends on the printing needs of individual businesses.

Print Volume and Paper Capacity

Though never publicized, all printers have a manufacturer-rated life expectancy. Hence, it's crucial that you make an accurate estimate of your company's printing volume, and then compare it against the expected page-production life of a printer. This will help you decide whether a printer is cost-effective to repair when its mechanical parts wear out.

Closely related to the expected lifespan of a printer is the capacity of its paper tray and paper-handling capabilities. Note that more advanced printer models may come with additional paper trays or receptacles for loading odd-sized paper, envelopes or even cardboard-type paper that's too thick for the internal tray.

Print Speed

A printer's print speed is an important consideration, and is usually calculated in (printed) pages per minute (PPM). Unfortunately, it is also surprisingly difficult to obtain an accurate assessment from the rating as most printer manufacturers measure the speed while printing plain text in draft mode or a similarly unrealistic resolution.

When buying more than one printer, don’t rely on the manufacturer's PPM rating. Instead, test a short-listed model using files that your company actually prints on a regular basis to decide if it's fast enough for your needs.

Do You Need Duplex Printing?

Duplex printing -- printing on both sides of a paper -- is an important feature for businesses that want to reduce paper waste. While it won’t help when printing packing lists or other documents that are strictly one-sided, it can nevertheless provide substantial savings when printing other documents such as invoices and press releases, for example.

The downside is that only higher-end printer models tend to incorporate duplex printing, which may price them beyond the budget of some small businesses.  

Networking: When to Go Wired

The popularity and increasing proliferation of Wi-Fi printers makes it worth noting that large print jobs may take longer to complete over a wireless network. This is due to the inherently slower effective throughput of Wi-Fi compared to wired Ethernet networks. If your company requires high volume printing, or deals extensively with high-resolution print jobs, pass on wireless printers and stick with wired Ethernet.

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 Tuesday Jul 31st 2012
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