The big printer selling companies (HP, Brother, Epson, Lexmark, Dell, and Canon) are constantly employing every technique in their arsenal to make more money, as any business really should. In the consumer printing market, though, they make A LOT of money simply because they can gently manipulate the great many uninformed customers they have to purchase printers that will inevitably cost more for the consumer and increase their profit margins.
In the market today, printers exist in two forms: laser (toner) and ink. As I've worked with customers and helped them buy products that meet their specific needs, I've noticed a nearly all-encompassing misunderstanding or downright ignorance of laser printers and their respective pros and cons. Though normally associated with business and professional printing needs (for their economical and efficient output!) laser printers are often the best choice for home users as well. Simply put, laser printers are very high-ouput (the lowest-yielding black toner cartridges are rated for 2,000 pages at a 5% page coverage, the industry standard, as compared to some of the highest-yielding black ink cartridges rated at <1,000 pages) and cost more than ink upfront. However, the cost to print each page is usually lower with toner. It is important to note that toner cartridges will save you money with black printing only. Color laser printers get very expensive because the quality is, frankly, awesome. For those who need to print documents for work or school, or who simply don't care if their prints are in color, laser printers will cost more upfront but save you money in the long run. They are the clear choice if you don't need color.
The price for a laser printer can be between $100-$500 and more, but anything more than $200 is probably excessive and wasteful. The cartridges can be as low as $50, usually closer to $80, and sometimes more than that. Keep in mind, though, that you may not replace your toner cartridge more than once a year, and can spend similar amounts replacing multiple ink cartridges. Also, please always remember that when you are buying cartridges, whether it be ink or toner, the prices are generally relative to how much ink/toner there is in the cartridge. The higher the price, the more inside. There are certainly small variations, but if you see a higher price for a cartridge be aware that you are simply paying more for more ink/toner, not paying more for the same thing.
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If the people who don't need color printing capabilities are one major segment of printer purchasers, then those who are buying printers entirely to print pictures and other color-needed documents are another. For color printing at home, ink printers are much more fitting. Unless you are going to have very heavy color-printing needs, or require the highest quality, color laser printers are simply too expensive to be viable for home use.
Ink printers have become increasingly differentiated over the last couple of years. The design of the cartridges is always changing, as well as the engineering of the printers. Years ago, color cartridges came as one unit with three colors (cyan, magenta, yellow) all within it. More recently, every company has been slowly moving to designs that sell each color cartridge individually. While both have their technical graces and pitfalls, the bottom line is either should service you equally. Always pay attention to price! I will constantly repeat this: forget about the printer, the cartridges are what you buy over and over. Look at the price and page yields for the cartridges for various models, and base your decision accordingly. This should be easy enough through any big chain store's (Wal-mart, Staples, etc.) e-commerce site, usually displayed clearly with the product.
Ink printers can cost as little as $20-$50 and rise to $100-$200, depending on the functions (scan, copy, fax, wireless, etc.). Cartridges are all over the map. For models taking one black and one tri-color cartridge, each can be under $20. They can also be as much as $50 each. Don't be fooled by the prices alone, look up those page yields! The models that take multiple color cartridges, the cost is simply spread out over each cartridge. The black one is generally similar in price to the black cartridges of the tri-color printers, and each color cartidge will likely be around $10 each. Most companies make high-yield, or XL cartridges, with increased prices reflecting the extra ink. Just for some clarity, an HP 60 black ink cartridge retails for, depending on the source, about $15. It holds 6 milliliters of ink. An HP 56 black ink cartridge usually retails for about $35 and holds around 20 milliliters. (Prices estimated for simplicity -- you can find all kinds of prices online, so excuse discrepancies, just making the point).
(READ THIS for great tips on saving money on your ink which, for some reason, none of my customers ever use).
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There are things to be prepared for with any of these purchases as well. For laser printers, many of them use a component known as a "drum" that the toner cartridge is inserted into, and this usually needs to be replaced every 7-10 toner cartridges. They usually cost a bit more than the cartridges themselves and would definitely be an inconvenient occurrence if you are unaware of it. There are ways around this; for example, HP makes many laser printers with the drum built into the cartridge. You never have to bother with buying a replacement drum. Of course, this is built into the pricing, but still hardly impacts the economic advantage of toner cartridges for those suited to use them.
Ink cartridges have their own nuissances. Generally, because of the simplicity and actual differences in physical properties of ink and toner, there are many more faulty and defective ink cartridges than with toner. Ink is a substance made to dry very fast, so if unused for some time the ink inside a cartridge can dry and harden, and thus clog the cartridge (at which point, most people assume their cartridge is empty and purchase another). The part that clogs is known as the "printhead" and it is what actually meets the paper and artfully fills it with text and images. Tri-color cartridges (the ones with three colors in one unit) and the corresponding black ones have the printheads on the cartridge, so clogging problems are easily solved by replacing the cartridge (these cheapskate companies are usually surprisingly good about sending replacements if you are having issues, under certain circumstances). The more modern design with multiple color cartridges is built with the printhead inside the printer. This is a difference worth noting. These printheads don't defect often, and the printers are equipped with automatic cleaning procedures engaged whenever you replace the cartridge (you can also initiate these yourself through your printer's menu). However, though these preventative measures do help, you can still have problems with either overuse or underuse (and replacing printheads is simply not worth it as the price of printers continues to drop) and each time a cleaning procedure is done it uses a small amount of ink, which adds up over time and results in you buying more cartridges. How coincidental, right?
For the purposes of purchasing a printer for straightforward use, these tips should keep you from doing anything you'll regret, or at least regretting anything unexpected. When in doubt, research, and don't buy. Then, look around some more. As I've said, I've helped many customers with this decision, and dealt with many more who come to realize how much money or time they could have saved by not having chosen that particular printer. You also may want to read about the printers you should NEVER buy...
Honestly, people generally seem pretty upset when they realize the printer they purchased will have them broke before dinner if they want to get new cartridges. This results in them usually deciding to throw the one they have out a window and go buy a new one, armed with this new knowledge. Don't do that. And if I may opine one final time, unless you are a student or a proffesional with ongoing and important printing needs, you will not likely print as much as you think, or see all that much value in being able to do so months or years down the line. That said, save yourself what money you can, and don't let flashy looking printers with fancy, jargon-sporting features get you too excited for a product most people can live without.
Most importantly, be informed!