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.
Some 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.
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.