Buyers Guide: How to Buy a Laser Printer

By Drew Robb | Posted September 22, 2005

You're business doesn't have to be big in order to make a big impression. Armed with desktop publishing software, a digital camera and a color laser printer, even one person working from a home office can create professional looking promotional pieces. And many companies are making that choice. According to analyst firm Gartner, Inc. of Stamford, Conn., color laser printer sales in the United States are increasing twenty percent annually.

If you're looking to make a better impression for your business -- without blowing your budget – read these tips for selecting a laser printer.

Laser, Liquid or Solid
The first step in selecting a printer is to settle on which printing technology to use. While a few years ago companies were choosing between dot-matrix and daisy wheel printers, now the choice is between laser, ink jet and solid ink.

Laser printer technology is based on the process used to make a Xerox copy of a document. It was developed by in the 1930s by patent attorney Chester Carlson as an easier way to make carbon copies of patent applications.

A metal drum inside the printer or copier receives a static charge. A bright light -- shined against the paper to be copied -- reflects off the white parts of the paper and strikes the drum, demagnetizing the sections where the light hits. A finely powdered toner attaches to the still-magnetized areas of the drum (corresponding to the dark areas in the original document), and the powder transfers from the drum to the sheet of paper and melts onto the paper.

Laser printers use the same principle, but instead of the light reflecting off a sheet of paper onto the drum, a laser paints the image on the magnetized drum.

An ink jet printer takes a more direct approach. The printer contains one print head for each ink color. The print head typically contains hundreds of tiny chambers that the ink flows into along with a heating element for each chamber. When electricity flows to the heating element, it vaporizes some of the ink in the chamber, creating a bubble, which shoots a tiny droplet of ink at the paper.

Xerox released a newer printing technology a few years ago, which is sort of a cross between the ink jet and laser methods. Here, the printers use a solid, crayon-like block of ink. This ink gets heated, melts and flows though tiny holes on a print head at a rate of more than 30 million drops per second. But, rather than going directly onto the paper, the ink goes onto a heated drum and is then pressed onto the paper. Since it produces a smoother image than a laser printer, the colors can be more vivid.

“Xerox has made substantial cost reductions on its solid ink technology printers,” says Bryan Herbstritt, owner and chief IT consultant for R&B Web Solutions, a technology consulting firm in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Over the last two years we have seen a 25 percent reduction in cost of ownership.”

Ink jet printers have an advantage over the other printers in terms of their initial purchase costs. Manufacturers sell these devices at below cost, and then make their profit off the sale of the high-priced ink cartridges. (see Inkjet Versus Laser Printers). So, while an inkjet is cheaper to buy than a laser printer, over time it can be far more expensive.

“If you have any significant volume, more than 100 pages a month, you should consider a color laser printer,” says William Gott, president of Venture Marketing Strategies in Los Gatos, Calif. “A typical color laser, based on five percent coverage per color, is down in the neighborhood of ten cents per page, and some companies quote eight-to-nine cents per page. You can expect to pay twice or three times that much for inkjet copies.”

According to Herbstritt, it doesn't take long for those ink costs to add up. “If you buy a midline Xerox 8500 series laser printer rather than an inkjet, at 1000 pages a month you can expect to see a return on your investment in three to six months,” he says.

Another benefit: laser printers, both black-and-white and color, are faster and quieter than inkjets.

Color Versus Black and White
The next thing to consider is whether you want color or not. Color is undoubtedly attractive, and it can add to the value of sales presentations. In 2003, International Communications Research, a market research firm in Media, Penn., surveyed 1013 owners and managers of firms with fewer than 100 employees.

Seventy-six percent reported that they felt using color makes their businesses appear larger to clients, 81 percent said color gave them a competitive edge, and 90 percent said they felt color can help in attracting new customers. Of course, Xerox commissioned that survey, and the company is in the business of selling color printers and copies.

If you don't trust that survey because of its potential bias, just ask yourself whether you would prefer to own a color or black-and-white television set, and why. Fortunately, the price for color lasers has come down considerably.

“The volume is still growing at a significant rate and prices are coming down to where even small businesses can afford a good quality color laser or solid ink printer,” says Gott. “You can get an excellent printer for under $1000, and a number of them cost less than $500.”

Multi-Function
Do you want to purchase a stand-alone printer or would a multi-function printer (MFP) – one that also includes copier, scanner and fax capabilities– better suit your needs? Increasingly popular, multi-function printers, both in color and black and white, are replacing copiers and printers, particularly in small and medium businesses.

In Europe, for example, Gartner predicts sales of color MFPs will grow at a rate of 23 percent annually for the next four years. Prices start at around $300 for a monochrome laser MFP and $700 for color. While more expensive than a dedicated printer, they are cheaper than buying separate printers, copiers, faxes and scanners. The potential downside is sending all the document workload to a single device and having to wait to make a copy, for example, while someone else is sending a fax.

“The multifunction product is space-saving and economical in terms of purchase price,” says Gott, “but it may not replace a copier if you have a high volume of copying.”

What to Look For
Once you've settled on color or B&W, single or multi-function, you still have to pick the best item from over 500 laser printer models made by more than a dozen manufacturers including Canon, Epson, HP, IBM, Okidata and Xerox. Here are a few criteria to consider in making your selection:

  • Number of prints: Printers are rated at by the number of prints or copies they are expected to produce per month. Buy one that is designed to meet your workload requirements.
  • Print speed: You have two factors to think about -- the number of pages per minute (ppm) it prints, and how long it takes to start printing the first page. If you run a law firm, for example, printing out a single 200-page legal transcript would tie up an eight-ppm printer for nearly half an hour, while a 35-ppm printer would spit it out in under six minutes. If, however, your workload mainly consists of a large number of two-page letters, the amount of time it takes to print the first page can be more important than the ppm rating.
  • Resolution: Expressed in dots per inch (DPI), the higher the number of DPI, the sharper the image.
  • Expendables: The cost for toner cartridges can run much higher than the cost of the printer itself. “The number-one place where people go wrong on color lasers is they buy based on equipment cost and don't look at the ink prices,” warns Herbstritt. “The first thing they should look at is the price of consumables – some of the lower-price printers wind up having a high price per page.”
  • Paper size:Do you need to print 11-by-17-inch promotional pieces? Make sure the printer handles that size paper.
  • Networking: Some printers include networking capabilities, while others only off it as an optional add-on feature.
  • Paper trays: Does the printer have separate trays so you can have plain paper, letterhead and envelopes all ready to print at any time; or do you have to manually swap out the paper each time? Do the trays hold enough paper so you are not constantly refilling them?
  • Duplex printing: Can the printer print on both sides of the paper or only one? Some printers include it as a standard feature, some as an option and others don't offer it at all.
  • Supply availability:Can you get toner cartridges locally in an emergency, or do you have to order them? “Most manufacturers sell supplies online, but it's nice having the convenience of a local office supply store where you can buy supplies if you run out,” says Gott.

Finally there is the matter of where to purchase your printer. Herbstritt recommends staying away from the local office supply store, which will tend to have consumer-rated printers.

“Small businesses will be happier if they purchase a business-class printer from an authorized reseller,” he says. “It will better suit their needs and the cost of ownership will be lower than if they just go purchase something from a major chain store.”

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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