Buying a Color Printer

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There’s something compelling about seeing your work in print. That holds true even as more creative work ends up on a screen instead of on paper. The appeal of print is why a color printer is a standard purchase for many design studios.

But as fewer jobs are print-based, a color printer gets used less often, and that can lead to costly problems. In some cases the best solution may not be to own your own printer. If you think your studio needs a color printer, these questions can help you choose wisely.

What’s the color printer for?

Why do you want a color printer? Generally, creative professionals get a printer for the following reasons:

  • Basic color. You want to print presentations, proposals, snapshots, signage, images for mood boards, color prints of web pages, or reference photos for drawing, painting, or sculpture. You don’t need maximum color precision.
  • Color critical. You want sharp, high-quality prints of your photography, graphic design, or illustration for your portfolio; or you want to be able to proof color prepress jobs. For these purposes, it helps for the printer to have full support for color management and custom profiles so that the colors in your prints are rendered precisely.
  • Large prints. You want to make prints much bigger than you can with a typical office or photo printer, for exhibition or sale.

With your answer in mind, the next thing to think about is whether your use of a printer will be regular or occasional.

How often will you use the printer?

A sometimes overlooked factor is how often you’ll print. In the past, desktop printers were used fairly often. But we just don’t print as much as we used to. Instead of printing hundreds of pages for fax machines and overnight mail, we email PDF files. Rather than printing multiple copies of photos to mail to a group, we upload to an online photo gallery. Instead of printing transparencies for a presentation, we plug our laptops into digital projectors.

Because of those changes, desktop printers today may sit idle for days or weeks. For inkjet printers, idleness can be costly. Ink nozzles can easily dry up and clog. The only way for many inkjet printers to clear the clog is by forcing ink through the nozzles. And as you probably know, inkjet ink is very expensive. If you can’t clear the clog, you may have to junk the printer and buy another one.

The photographic print quality of a color laser printer is usually not as good as an inkjet printer. But a laser printer is much more forgiving of infrequent use, partly because a laser printer uses dry toner. If you expect to print infrequently and the quality of a color laser print meets your needs, consider a color laser printer.

How do you want to connect to the printer?

The conventional way to connect a printer is with a USB cable. But many printers now have Ethernet ports and Wi-fi; you can connect one to your network router instead of your computer. Networking your printer is a good thing if you want to be able to print from any computer or mobile device on your local network. And networking the printer means it won’t tie up a USB port on your computer.

Ongoing expenses: The printer purchase is just the beginning

All color printers have consumables: Paper, and color cartridges. Over the long term, you’ll pay more for the consumables than for the printer itself.

Small, cheap inkjet printers have very small cartridges that don’t last very long before you have to buy another one. This expense adds up fast. If you make lots of color prints, it’s better to buy a printer that uses much larger inkjet cartridges because they cost less per ounce of ink. It may seem more painful to buy a $600 printer instead of a $100 printer, but if the $600 printer uses larger ink cartridges, it will cost less to run. But be sure to take into account how much you’ll have to print before the lower ink cost offsets the higher up-front cost.

A color laser printer toner cartridge may print hundreds of pages, many times more than an inkjet cartridge of a comparable price. So again, color laser printing may lower your costs if the print quality satisfies your requirements.

Not printing much? Take extra care if it’s an inkjet

The clogged inkjet nozzles I mentioned earlier can happen if it’s been a while since you printed something. Clogged nozzles result in visible ink gaps that ruin prints. To avoid this, add a weekly reminder to your calendar to run a nozzle check. A nozzle check prints a pattern to help you spot clogged nozzles.

Nozzle check pattern

A nozzle check pattern with gaps indicates clogged nozzles (top). A complete pattern indicates no clogs (bottom).

But a nozzle check doesn’t move much ink through the lines. To do that, print a photograph or two after your scheduled nozzle check.

If you buy a printer that uses pigment-based ink, the pigments may settle over time. If you tend to go months between cartridge changes, remind yourself to agitate (shake) the cartridges every few weeks. To do this, put the printer into its cartridge replacement mode so that you can remove each cartridge, gently shake it, and then put it back in.

Another potential headache exists with some popular Epson printers that deliver two black inks through one print head, using a switching system. Like many high-end inkjet printers, one black ink is optimized for glossy paper, and the other is optimized for matte paper. But the black ink switching system may fail after a few years. The repair is so costly and involved that many people decide to buy another printer. It may seem counterintuitive, but the switching system is more likely to fail if it’s infrequently used. It was designed to be used frequently. Once again, less printing can cause more problems.

Because I bought this type of Epson inkjet printer, I created a weekly reminder for nozzle checks, and a monthly reminder for a black ink switch and cartridge agitation.

Reminders to do printer maintenance

So what should you buy?

If you expect to use a printer daily, your focus is on per-ounce cost of ink. If you classified yourself in the “color-critical” category (in “What’s the color printer for?” above), lower your ink costs by buying an inkjet printer that uses large cartridges or a refillable ink tank. If you’re a “basic color” user, consider a color laser printer to lower your per-page costs even more.

If you buy an inkjet printer and later realize that you don’t print very often, avoid problems by setting reminders to perform regular maintenance and prints to keep that ink moving.

If you want to make large prints, inkjet is the way to go. Several inkjet printer models can print up to 44 inches wide (they cost thousands of dollars), but you won’t find color laser printers that big. The massive cartridges for large format inkjet printers result in much lower per-ounce ink costs compared to the tiny cartridges in a US Letter/A4 size inkjet printer. But the expense of the large printer and ink cartridges is justified only if you make a lot of prints regularly.

If you’re not looking forward to the long-term costs and maintenance of owning an inkjet printer and you only need occasional photo prints, there is another option: Let someone else worry about all that stuff! Instead of buying a printer, send your files to a good online photo printing service.

Conrad Chavez is a Seattle-based writer and photographer, and is a frequent contributor to and InDesign Magazine. You can find out more about Conrad at his website,
  • Crunch Hardtack says:

    Never knew that infrequent switching of black inks on Epson printers may cause that function to fail prematurely. I have the 3880 model on which I do a nozzle check a couple of time a month. Thanx Conrad!

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