How to buy the right printer for you

Printers aren't the sexiest of gadgets. We know this. But the fact remains that more and more people are choosing to print out their digital photos as well as using the things for letters, contracts and other documents. So, if you want to know how to avoid the pricey ink trap and make sure you're getting the most beautiful snaps for your frames then read on.

Rule 1: Work out how much you'll use it

This is both the hardest thing to figure out and also the most important at the same time. In fact, if you get this bit sussed, you're pretty much home already. The trouble is that it's hard thing to estimate because it's not worth paying attention to while you do it. In fact, you're most likely only going find out the answer after it's too late and you've already made your purchase. So, as dull as it might sound, if you can have a good estimate at this now, it'll save you a fair bit of money and trouble in the long run.

Rule 2: Cheaper printers have more expensive ink

You might have only paid £30 for the hardware in some sale or other but chances are that a cheap printer will cost you more in ink cartridges over time whereas replacements on a more expensive piece of kit will work out better as time goes on. So, based on the calculation of how many pages you think you'll be printing each month, you'll have some idea of how often you'll get through cartridges. Lots of brands these days say on the packaging just how many sheets they'd expect you to get out of them. Combine that with your printing frequency and you'll have some idea of how much you'd expect to pay in refills over each year. Factor in the initial cost of the machine and you'll see at what point it might be worth going for a higher spec printer.

Rule 3: How long do you intend to keep your printer for?

The majority of printers these days - certainly those towards the bottom end of the market - are actually quite future proof as far as performance goes. The reason is that most of the important technology is in the cartridges which house the print heads themselves. So, each time you change the ink, you're effectively buying whatever new printing upgrade the manufacturer has been working on even if your machine is three years out of date. The exception here is that some printers have permanent or semi-permanent heads - that is to say that to some degree the print head technology is in-built, so bear in mind that these other machines might not last quite so long. On the plus side, their ink replacement is considerably cheaper, so they're an excellent option for those who can't stomach the cartridge game.

Rule 4: Lasers are not necessarily the best

Most home user probably would opt for an ink jet anyway but even if you really want to spend some cash or you're a small business trying to make the right choice, don't just presume that you'll get more for your money with a laser printer. The major advantage of them is that they're fast but if you only print a couple of sheets at a time then remember that a laser printer will have to warm-up first before it goes into action. They've got significant;y quicker at this over the years but many ink jets will beat the less high tech laser models over a page or two. On the other hand, if you're going to be calling for 20 sheets at a time, then a laser's probably the right call.

Another issue is that lasers won't necessarily offer more accurate colours over all parts of the spectrum as a high end ink jet might. So, if printing photos is the reason for your purchase then make sure to read the reviews carefully if you really are sold on the idea of these bigger, faster machines. On the cartridge side, you won't have to shell out for a new one quite so often but you will be looking at a fair old wedge when you do. Quite a good compromise if you're unsure of which type to go for are often the prosumer type ink jet machines often referred to with names like office jet and such. They're generally quicker and more economic with the ink provided you use them on a regular basis.

Rule 5: Use the right refills

One option to make you're ongoing printer use cheaper is to go for non-brand printer cartridge replacements or even have your empties filled back up again. By all means give this a crack but bear in mind that you're rolling the dice here. A printer cartridge is a very fine tuned and specific piece of kit and only those produced by your hardware manufacturer are designed to get the best results from your machine. Some non-brand replacements are reliable but many aren't. Of 2,000 people surveyed by HP who had tried alternative cartridges, 50% of them said they were unsatisfied and wouldn't try it again. Now, it might be that the other 50% chose a better label but it could also be that pot luck.

The ones to be most careful of are the refill services. Ink cartridges contain quite a few subtle parts which will very often be worn out by the end of their natural cycles. Trying to squeeze a second batch of ink out them might well cause lower quality results, leaks or a total failure. Even if your refill or non-brand cartridge does print accurately, tests have also shown that most of them have ink with 50% less permanence than the ones specifically built for your machine. That is to say that their printed colours will fade far quicker over time.

Another thing to keep your eyes out for are extra large cartridges and printer packs. It's just a question of a buying in bulk mentality. These deals will offer you a lower cost per page but just make sure that you're going to use them up within the best before dates.

Rule 6: Use the right paper

There's a holy trinity of printing between the machine, the ink and the paper and if any one of them is out, there's a chance that you won't get good results. Fortunately you don't have to be quite as specific with paper as you do with the ink and there'll be a number of brands which your printer manufacturer recommends. Photo quality paper is the one to pay most attention to. If you are going to print your snaps, then you'll be peeved if they're anything less than what you can get down the shops so, it's not really a place to scrimp. That said, they often come in grades equivalent to “good”, “better” and “best” so try a few and see which reaches the right price/quality point for you. One piece of advice for all printing is to make sure that your paper is 80gsm thick or over – if you require your documents to have an aesthetic value, that is.

Rule 7: A printer is a subscription

Most dissatisfaction over printers is caused by the bill shock of the cartridges. The problem is that people just aren't in the right mind set when they buy them. You've got to see the purchase of a printer much like a mobile phone where there's an initial outlay to consider as well as an equal, if not more significant, running cost. Pick the subscription model that suits you the best. Are you happy paying little and often or would you prefer to shell out in bursts? You might consider a cheaper printer more like a 12 month contract where as a better model you'll need to keep for a longer period of time to really reap the economic benefits.

Rule 8: Do you need a printer at all?

Of course, the ultimate PAYG model is not to buy a printer at all. There's plenty of web services and high street shops which provide very reasonable and guaranteed quality photo printing services. Then you've no need to worry about an initial outlay or storing another piece of hardware at all. If you just need the odd document off the line, then there's almost an internet cafe on every corner that'll churn them out at 10p per sheet. In the long run, it'll probably work out more expensive but if you really don't need a printer that often, then it's probably best not to buy one at all.