Why Choose an Inkjet Printer?
The top performers in our review are the HP Officejet Pro 8740 All-in-One, the Gold Award winner; the Canon Pixma MG7720, the Silver Award winner; and the Brother Business Smart Plus MFC-J5520DW, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing an inkjet printer to meet your needs, along with detail on how we evaluated and ranked the top 10 multifunction inkjet printers.
Printers may not seem like the necessity they once were, but make no mistake about it – when you need to get a hardcopy of something, nothing else will do. An inkjet printer can meet all of the printing needs for a household or small business, particularly when you need to balance high-quality document printing with a low cost of ownership. Inkjet printers are a cost-effective printing solution, with affordable high-yield ink cartridges and refills, and are available with a variety of user-friendly features. And while the most inexpensive inkjet printers are sold with an eye toward selling expensive ink cartridges, the printers reviewed here feature more reasonable prices and we’ve calculated out just what those refills will cost per page.
Once upon a time, inkjet printers could be easily defined and divided based on functionality – standard monochrome or color inkjet printers were for printing documents, photo inkjet printers were for printing glossy high-resolution images, and multifunction or all-in-one printers offered printing along with scanning, copying and fax capability. These distinctions have all but disappeared as mainstream printers now tout all or most of these capabilities as a matter of course. In fact, finding a consumer inkjet printer that doesn’t have a built-in scanner requires some real hunting these days. Multifunction features like built-in flatbed scanning, copy, or fax capability add a lot to the overall value of a printer. Wireless connectivity – whether it’s a Wi-Fi connection to your home network or wireless printing for phones and tablets – is another defining feature that has gone mainstream.
For a blend of high-quality printing, ease of use, and an array of useful features, modern wireless inkjet printers check off all the right boxes without costing an arm and a leg. The best multifunction printers deliver high quality document printing, built-in scan, copy, and fax capability, and the sort of durability usually reserved for purely business-oriented products. For more information about these devices, check out our articles on inkjet printers.
Inkjet or Laser Printer?
Trying to decide whether you need an inkjet or laser printer? While both options will print your documents, there are significant differences in the up-front expense, the overall cost of printing, and the range of printing options available. Both options can be quite cost-effective in the right circumstances, but for most home and small office users, inkjet printing offers the best mix of affordability with a wide range of user-friendly features.
Inkjet printers tend to far more affordable up front, but might cost a bit more to operate. Inkjet printers use liquid-filled ink cartridges, and printer ink is notoriously expensive. Laser printers are more expensive to purchase. They use powder-based toner cartridges instead of ink, and the pricing tends to be cheaper on a per-page basis, but you’ll need to do a lot of printing to balance out the cost of the printer versus the cost of printing.
For low to moderate print loads, ranging from a few pages a month to a few hundred a week, inkjets tend to offer a better balance between the cost of the printer and the cost of printing. And while there are still differences at high print volumes of several hundred pages a day, printing isn’t much more expensive with an inkjet printer, especially when taking into account affordable high-capacity ink cartridges, which greatly reduce the cost per page.
Inkjets also offer better color printing, both for documents and photos. While the monochrome document printing that laser printers excel at may be ideal for an office environment, most home users will want their one printer to handle all of their printing and document needs – from documents to photos and printing on everything from envelopes to cardstock – as well as scanning, copying and the occasional fax. For that sort of versatility, multifunction inkjet printers are the better choice.
InkJet Printers: How We Tested, What We Found
Because they combine physical production, multi-function designs, and networked and wireless connectivity, modern printers are some of the most complex consumer electronics products on the market today. It can be difficult to figure out what’s important when glancing through the product description and specifications offered by most retailers.
To find the best inkjet printers available, we first combed through the dozens of multifunction inkjet printers on the market, looking for models that offer both inkjet printing and additional functions, like scanning, copying and fax capability. We also narrowed down the selection by requiring wireless connectivity. When the average household includes not only desktop and laptop PCs, but also smartphones and a tablet or two, wireless connectivity isn’t just a nice convenience, it’s a necessity.
Finally, we looked at price. While there are many printers on the market that fall well under the $100 mark, these same printers tend to have the worst cost-per-page ratio, with manufacturers selling the printers as a loss leader to drive ink sales. While ink will be expensive in any instance, there is a clear difference in the cost of ownership between sub-$100 printers and those that have a higher suggested retail price.
From this selective list, we picked the ten best inkjet printers, which were then either loaned to us by manufacturers as test units, or which we purchased independently. (Companies had no input on our testing, and our results were not shared with any manufacturers prior to publication.) Because new printers usually come with smaller “Starter” ink cartridges, we also procured full-capacity ink cartridges for each printer to assure that our testing reflected normal printer use. Our testing involved printing regular documents on plain printer paper, of the sort that you would get at any OfficeDepot or Wal-Mart, while photos were printed on a name-brand glossy photo paper.
In our evaluation, we focused on five central concerns that should be at the top of your mind when you shop for a printer: output quality, printing speed, cost of ink, paper handling and versatility.
Output Quality: Print, Scan and Copy
The most important concern in printer shopping is the most basic – how well does the printer put ink on the page? All the fancy features in the world won’t make up for a shoddy print job, whether it’s for a school project, a work presentation or preserving memories with a photo.
When testing a machine's print quality and speed, we put the printer through its paces with a collection of nearly 80 pages of test documents. We examined and compared these printed samples to evaluate print quality, looking for common print errors like streaking, voids in the ink and misaligned colors. The array of documents we used were designed to test not only document printing, looking closely at text and graphics, but also photo printing, with a set of high-resolution images at different sizes.
While some printers produced better results than others, they nearly all produced what we consider to be acceptable results. For the family that may be printing everything from work documents to homework assignments, most of the printers on the market will offer “good enough” print quality – the text is clear and legible, there aren’t many glaring inking errors, and both text and graphics look fine. A few printers, however – those we marked with A grades – offer better readability at smaller text sizes, have few (if any) errors, and offer better-than-average document or photo printing.
We tested scan and copy quality through a slightly different process, using high-resolution test images to test scanning resolution, detail capture and color consistency for both scanned versions and physical copies. Scan quality tests rely exclusively upon the built-in flatbed scanner found on each machine, while copy quality is influenced by both scan quality and overall print quality.
Speed: Print Without the Wait
All things being equal, you’ll want a printer that not only produces high-quality prints, but also prints them out at a good speed. However, the fastest inkjet printer won't produce the best print quality, so you might want to ask yourself which is more important for your own needs, as speed and quality often counterbalance one another.
We printed dozens of pages of test samples, clocked from the moment the print command was issued until the final page was ejected from the printer. By printing the same documents using the default settings for each printer, we compared print speed across the several models we tested. We then divided the total time by the number of printed pages to find an average time per page, which we used to calculate a page-per-minute (PPM) rating. This process was used for both black and white documents and colored documents, while photo print speed was determined by timing the printing of several 4 x 6 photos in a batch and finding the average time for each photo.
Operating Costs: Small Savings on Ink Add Up
You also want a printer that’s economical to use, and ink can be one of the major costs to consider. Many cheap inkjet printers are sold at a discount, with manufacturers making up the difference through high ink prices. Ink is notoriously expensive – even when reasonably priced – and understandably so. Printer ink is a highly engineered liquid, made to meet very demanding specifications for print functionality and color quality, all packaged into a compact little cartridge that will produce hundreds of pages for pennies apiece. Moreover, the cartridge you buy for ten or twenty bucks often has the printhead built in, fully replacing the central functional piece of an already complex device.
To help you gauge the cost of owning a printer over time, we’ve looked at the ink refills available for each printer and worked out the average cost per page. Manufacturers report the average page yield per cartridge, based on industry standard testing. In general, the lower the cost per page, the more economical the printer will be in the long run. Based purely on the manufacturer pricing, we found that the units we reviewed cost an average of 15 cents per page using standard ink cartridges. However, individual retailers will often offer lower prices, reducing these costs.
Don’t get too greedy for a deal on ink, though. While third-party cartridges and refilled cartridges are available for much less than those offered by the manufacturers, there are several potential problems tied to them, including shoddy printing, a worn-out printhead and sub-par inks that can damage the printer. Even using these other inks can void your warranty, so don’t be too hasty to save a buck.
Manufacturers do take steps to reduce the overall cost of printing, offering high-capacity ink refills, generally with a higher price per cartridge but a lower price per page, as low as 10 cents or less. A few manufacturers go even further. Both the HP Officejet Pro 8740 e-All-in-One and the HP Envy 5540 All-in-One can reduce ink costs thanks to HP’s InstantInk subscription service, which delivers discounted ink by mail as you need it. For most users, the price of the subscription will be much more affordable than buying the same ink cartridges without it. If you want one of the most economical inkjet printers, look at the Epson Expression ET-2550 EcoTank, which uses refillable ink reservoirs that you refill by hand with ink sold in bottles. Refilling them is a tad inconvenient, but the cost per page is drastically lower than with expensive cartridges.
Operating Costs: Consider the Usage & Lifespan
A printer’s monthly duty cycle – the maximum number of pages a printer is designed to print without failure – is another point that is important to consider. Printers are designed to handle varying levels of printing, from as few as 1,000 pages per month to as high as 30,000 pages. Whether or not you need to print hundreds of pages per day, it’s important to find a printer that is designed to meet your needs. A higher duty cycle rating is also a good indicator of durability, and while higher ratings are found on more expensive machines, these can be more affordable over time thanks to a longer usable life. Equally important is the recommended monthly usage. Where the duty cycle speaks to the printer's maximum capacity, the recommended usage represents what the printer can comfortably manage. Even printers rated to handle hundreds of pages per day will function at their best with fewer stresses placed upon them.
Paper Handling: Less Hassle, Better Printing
You also want a printer that is easy to use, with features that require few steps and little active maintenance. Simple things like how much paper can be loaded into the printer at once will translate into fewer “out of paper” messages. In our hands-on testing, it was clear that a larger paper capacity made it easier to print without hassle. While a single 100-page tray is standard, the best printers offer not only one high-capacity paper tray, but a second, as well, along with options for loading photo paper and other media.
Other specifics, like two-sided printing (called duplexing) may or may not be automatic. If you print often, and need two-sided printing regularly, the hassle of manually flipping each page will get old quickly. Additional features, like photo printing, automatic document feeders and secondary paper trays are also worth considering depending on how you plan to use your printer.
Versatility: Do More, Connect More Easily
A versatile printer doesn’t just print, it also offers built-in scanning and copying, simple networking options and wireless printing that works with your devices. Devices like phones and tablets will often have unique connectivity requirements, so be sure to check if the printer you’re interested in offers support for your brand of device, such as Apple AirPrint for iPhones and iPads, or Google Cloud Print for Android devices and Google Chromebooks. Even if these protocols aren’t available, most wireless inkjet printers also offer support for an industry-wide mobile printing solution, called Mopria, or even offer proprietary apps for printing and other functionality.
Each model of printer has its own design, so look through the specifications of a printer before you buy so you know what is included. Be aware that while many printers have all-in-one functionality with scanning and copying in addition to print, fax capability is often left off the list. The ability to connect a camera or USB flash drive directly to a printer without a PC also makes it much easier to get printing without hassle, but whether or not a printer will accept your camera or media card will vary from one model to the next.
What Else Is Important in Choosing an Inkjet Printer?
Less prominent concerns, while important to some, include photo printing, scan and copy quality, or easy access to support services. Our output quality scores heavily favor document printing, but many printers offer better photo printing than document printing. If you want to find a high-quality photo inkjet printer, any of the printers with an A or B rating offer good color reproduction and sharp detail, with A-grade printers nearing professional quality prints.
Scan and copy quality are especially important if you’re trying to reduce your office clutter. Digitizing records or duplicating pages from a book can be enormously helpful, but a scanner with poor detail capture can put a damper on things. Top-rated scan quality doesn’t merely offer sharp detail, it can digitally capture documents at higher resolutions than the printer can print.
You’ll also want a generous warranty with several avenues of support, be it through phone, online chat, or even through email or social networks. Automated support tools such as troubleshooting guides and online manuals are nice, but it helps to have several options for reaching a human being that can help you.
It’s unlikely that all of these elements will be of equal importance in your buying decision, but if you intend to print a lot of photos, scan and copy loads of documents, or print from several devices, they are certainly worth including in your decision-making process.
Best Inkjet Printers: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The Gold Award winner is the HP Officejet Pro 8740 e-All-in-One, a multifunction printer designed for small offices, which offers fast printing with consistently high quality. For the home or office that needs to print a lot of documents, it’s the clear winner. It offers reasonable costs per page, long-term durability, decent photo printing and an array of networking and mobile printing options.
The Canon Pixma MG7720 is our Silver Award winner, with the best combination of document and photo print quality of the units we reviewed. The printer's high resolution makes for great-looking prints, and it offers easy connectivity with all of your devices.
The Brother Business Smart Plus MFC-J5520DW is our Bronze Award winner, offering a blend of high-quality and reasonably fast document printing, along with convenient features like no-fuss ink cartridges, easy connections for cameras and storage, and several options for mobile printing.
Also worth mentioning are the Epson Expression Premium XP-830 Small-in-One and the Canon Pixma MG6821, which both produced the best photo prints of the bunch in our testing. If you want to produce hardcopies of photos for display or for scrapbooking, these are two of the best home inkjet printers to consider, and the photo quality they offer should put them at the top of your list.
Last but not least, if you’re more concerned with the cost of printing than with having the best print quality, you can’t ignore the Epson Expression ET-2550 EcoTank. While it ranked at the bottom for print quality and speed during testing, it offers the lowest operation costs of any printer on our list by a large margin. Costing just a penny a page, the Epson’s EcoTank design trades expensive ink cartridges for refillable ink reservoirs, and it comes with enough ink to last through months of frequent printing. While it’s not the most convenient approach, the savings are undeniable.