How to Buy Small Business Multifunction Printers

Updated on 07/11/2012. Original article posted on 9/15/2010.

Looking for the latest guidance on buying a multifunction printer for your small business? A lot has changed in the two years since we posted this piece. Be sure to check out our latest, most up-to-date article Small Business Guide to Multifunction Printers. We list and discuss the top six features small businesses should look for in a multifunction printer. Go on…check it out.

For years, we’ve heard about the coming of the “paperless office,” an almost Utopian world of digitized data where the clutter and expense of printed documents will be little more than memories of a bygone era.

But while the more efficient businesses may have moved beyond the days of overflowing file cabinets that hold an organization’s various documents and records, we’re still pretty far from the point where most small business organizations have managed to do away with printed documents altogether.

Helping us bridge the gap between the office of today and whatever the “office of tomorrow” ends up looking like are tools like multifunction printers, also called All-In-One (AIO) printers.

Multifunction printers let you not only print, but also scan, copy, fax, and perhaps even digitally store and send copies of your documents. But as with uni-tasking printers, AIOs come in a variety of configurations. Depending on your specific needs, equipping your office with one can cost you less than $100 or well into the thousands. It’s important to figure out just what your needs are, at least for today and ideally for the next few tomorrows.

Determining Your Small Business Technology Needs

Whichever multifunction printer you look at, certain features are just bound to be included. Models meant for office use — not at those multifunction photo printers marketed for casual use in the home — should function as a printer, document scanner, copier, and fax machine.

How well a particular model performs these tasks can vary. It’s always a good idea to read reviews of a specific model to determine its print quality and speed, how well the ADF (Automatic Document Feeder) feeds pages, and how faithfully it reproduces colors and images. After all, if you get stuck with an AIO that produces choppy text at a snail’s pace, grabs four sheets of paper at a time when you’re trying to copy or fax, and adds a yellow tint to everything you scan, all you’ve really bought is a big old paperweight.

Also important in buying multifunction printers is acquainting yourself with what’s out there and figuring out exactly what you want and need out of your next AIO printer. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Are you looking to connect your AIO to a single desktop or have it accessible across a local network?
  • Will you be printing a few pages per day, a few hundred, or a few thousand?
  • Will you be printing in color or exclusively in black and white?
  • If in color, are you looking to occasionally print decent-quality charts and graphs, or are you look for glossy images?

These are the basic questions you’ll need to ask yourself when choosing multifunction printers. And it doesn’t stop there, either. To demonstrate this, let’s take a look a couple of low-end options (price-wise, that is), a couple in the middle of the pack, and a couple at or near the top, just to give you a sense of what’s out there and what spending some more money, up-front, might buy.

Epson Workforce 320 multifunction printer; business printers
The Epson Workforce 320 inkjet multifunction printer.
(Click for larger image)

Low-End Multifunction Printers

You’ll typically find ink-jet multifunction printers at the lowest end of the price scale. These might seem attractive because of their low price tags, which can start at less than $100 for a model that can print a few pages per minute. But the price can scale up to the $300-$500 range for a networkable model that will at least claim to print a great deal faster.

At the time of article’s writing, models around the $100 mark are available from four of the biggest manufacturers of multifunction printers: HP, Canon, Lexmark, and Epson. Each comes with a flatbed document scanner/copier, has a small ADF and prints a few pages per minute (though it’ll claim dozens per minute at “draft speeds”).

Multifunction printers at this price level don’t offer automatic duplexing (double-sided printing), and they have a low duty cycle. Most of the models include some kind of networked printing, whether wireless or via Ethernet, though a few connect only via USB (the Canon MX320 and the Epson Workforce 320, for example, listed at $60 and $80, respectively).

These multifunction printers might serve the needs of home office users and/or small business computing environments that have minimal printing needs. But with even moderate use, the cost of printing supplies and loss of productivity will quickly make the initial price savings meaningless when compared to higher-end options.

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