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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
When I first came to Israel 13 years ago, I brought with me all my worldly possessions, as is the custom. Among those was a 300 dpi laser printer - quite an expensive gadget in those days.
I don't remember how much I paid for the thing, but I had owned it for awhile, repairing it a couple of times - buying a new one would have been out of the question, of course, because of the expense. It was so pricy, in fact, I remember having to leave a huge deposit at the airport after being told by the customs people that I would have to bring some paperwork to prove that I needed it for business if I wanted to get my money back.
And now? Printers are practically throwaway items! Did I say "printers?" - there ain't so such animal anymore. Nowadays, the only printers with decent output are part of "all-in-one" machines that include faxes and scanners, as well as three- and even four-color printing. Four-color printing - black, magenta, cyan and yellow - is the basis of commercial printing, which means that technically speaking and given the right kind of paper and binding, anyone can print the equivalent of a glossy magazine for barely $200 - on "paper," that is.
True, printers are more powerful and cheaper than they have ever been and come with a raft of features - but, today's printers are, for the most part, really and truly - flimsy.
Actually, the word "junk" flashed through my mind as I was writing the previous sentence, but that really wouldn't be a fair description because the major printer manufacturers obviously do pack a lot of high-end technology into their products. But there is no disputing that the typical printer is made out of the cheapest plastic, with feeble connecting pieces and shaky slots - all of which look like they will fall apart if you stare at them too long.
Compare these printers to the one I brought with me on aliya. I don't remember the brand, but I do remember it being solid - solid enough to make the trip in an airline luggage hold and survive to tell the tale. I dare you to try that with most of the printers you can pick up in Office Depot type places nowadays.
Of course, those cheap Office Depot printers are mostly of the inkjet variety - and that's where most consumers get confused. One of the most common beliefs (myths?) of the 21st century is that there is little difference between inkjet and laser printers, at least for the home user. Inkjets today feature as high as 1,200 dpi (dots per inch) printing - in color, mind you - and some even come with features usually found in professional/office printers, like duplexers. Most of these inkjets - nearly all combining all-in-one functions including printing, scanning and copying - are marketed as ideal home office or small office machines. They run as low as $100, with the most expensive usually hovering around the $300 level - and with manufacturers supplying seemingly endless models to fit every permutation of user need. You can choose from an amazing selection, and often end up paying a lot less than expected.
With competition in the inkjet market so tight, you can potentially get a lot for your money. But, of course, come corners have to be cut in order to deliver so much technology for so little, and often the fancy features come at the cost of quality and engineering. One way to save money on the manufacturing of inkjets is to make them of thinner, lighter plastic - which lets the manufacturer advertise the printer as "lightweight and flexible," but requires you to be extremely careful when handling.
On paper, laser printer specs look surprisingly similar to those of inkjets - similar DPIs, similar print output speeds, etc. As we shall see, however, those similarities can be deceptive.
Laser printer prices can vary wildly, with "entry level" monochrome models costing as low as $150 - one Samsung color laser printer sells for just $300 - and going up into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. The difference between the price points, of course, is in the feature set; laser printers contain their own internal processor, and the more memory, the faster and more efficient the printing. For a cool $2,600, you can be the proud owner of the HP Color LaserJet 5550n, which features 1200 dpi color printing and 26 pages per minute monochrome/color printing. And, of course, there are plenty of lasers with prices and features in between. Most - but not all - of the high-end lasers are far better constructed than even good quality inkjets, but I don't imagine most of us are planning to spend $2,600 - or even $600 - on a printer when there are cheaper inkjet, and even laser, options available.
If you're in the market for a printer, you'd do well to studiously compare the feature sets of the products you're considering - and perhaps even insist on trying them on for size in the store. One "feature" of inkjet printers that you might not have thought about is the high cost of consumables - i.e. the cartridges that contain the ink these printers use. Cartridges for most printers cost upwards of $20, which is considerably cheaper than a laser cartridge - but laser cartridges generally last far longer than those for inkjets. The statistic you want is the "price per page" - a number-crunching combination of the cost of ink and printer. "Cheaper" isn't always as cheap as it seems, as the story of the comparison test at http://tinyurl.com/zupgu will show you.
And, as if that weren't enough, some have accused manufacturers, especially HP, of engineering inkjet cartridges to expire before they are fully used. If you feel you haven't gotten everything you believed you should from HP cartridges, perhaps you'd like to join the class action lawsuit against the company that is being organized as we speak (http://tinyurl.com/fb7qs).
Then there's the "speed scam." Many inkjet printers list printing speeds of 20 or more pages per minute - but when you get them home and start printing, you notice that the hare you bought is more like a tortoise. That's because many of the printers (as noted in the "small print" nobody ever looks at) only prints at the maximum speed in the lowest "draft" quality setting - which is often barely readable and certainly unsuitable for distribution to others as the hapless fellow telling his story at http://tinyurl.com/k4ee3 belatedly discovered.
All this does not by any means translate to "inkjet bad, laser good."
I use an HP PSC 2410 inkjet which cost a few hundred dollars when I bought it (it's since been discontinued), and it's worked quite well for the past two years - unlike another HP all-in-one that I owned previously, which lasted about two months before falling apart. Alas, when you take into consideration all the factors involved - price, physical durability, features, cost of consumables - it's almost impossible to find an ideal printer, despite the huge selection available (I think there's a life lesson in there somewhere, too, but I'm not quite sure what it is).
What to do? Check out the feature sets, play with your potential purchase if possible, and read reviews. There are no hard and fast rules you can follow about what to buy or what to avoid, unfortunately.
For example, I've been working for the past few days with the Brother 425CN all-in-one machine (actually, it has six functions: fax, PC fax, scanner, printer, copier, and digital picture printer, which means you can just stick your camera's data card into the printer and output photos). For its $169 list price, it does have quite a few extras, including four-color printing and networkability (usually found only in higher end lasers). It also has 16 MB of RAM - and plugs directly into a Mac with no driver needed (I suggest using the driver installer CD when setting it up on a PC). It gave nice, speedy output for text pages, but wasn't quite as fast when printing color photos (to be fair, they were very "heavy" photos). All in all, you do get a lot for the money with the 425CN. The physical quality? Well, like I said, you can't have everything; it'll never replace my circa 1993 laser printer, but it'll certainly outlive some other inkjets I've had.