What Is the Right Printer for

Now that you understand the basic technologies, let's step back and analyze what kind of printer you really want and/or need. Consider the following questions:

■ Do you want your photo printer to also do text and general documents? If yes, then steer clear of dedicated photo printers. Instead, consider a general-purpose inkjet or color laser printer.

■ How big are the pictures and documents you plan to print? Snapshot printers are great for making traditional 4"x6" photos. But if you want a variety of sizes, almost every other technology can output to at least 8"x 10" paper. If you need tabloid, poster, or larger prints, check out specialty printers or professional printing services.

■ How many prints do you make a week, a month, a year? If you print out no more than a few hundred sheets a month, then almost any technology will do. However, if you plan to crank out lots of prints on a regular basis, you'll need a solidly built, high duty cycle printer, which will cost more. Depending on your answers to other questions, it might be a heavy-duty inkjet, a color laser, or a phase change printer. Or, you might be better off using a commercial print service.

■ What will you do with your photos? If you need to insert them into business presentations or newsletters, you'll want inkjet or color laser. If you plan to exhibit them as works of art or show them off as photos, you'll want a photo inkjet, dye sub, or other specialty photo printer. If speed and convenience don't really matter that much or you don't need the best image quality, an inexpensive inkjet may be adequate for your needs.

■ Is photo quality more important than cost and convenience? Your answer to this is probably: it depends on how costly, how high the quality, and how difficult and time-consuming it is to use. But for top photo quality, don't settle on color lasers, phase change, or dual-purpose inkjets. Buy a photo inkjet, dye sub, or photo snapshot printer.

■ How much does speed matter? Laser printers and phase change printers are the fastest, able to output 3-24 8.5"x 11" color prints per minute. Dye subs are relatively slow (because they require 3-4 passes), usually taking 2-4 minutes per 8.5"x 11" print. Inkjet speed is directly related to how much you are willing to spend. Inexpensive inkjets may take 5-6 minutes to output a single 8.5"x 11" print, while better inkjets can do the job in one-third that time.

■ Are you willing to spend a little bit more on the printer, to spend less on the consumables? Generally, the less you spend up front for a printer, the more the consumables will cost. However, dye subs are the exception here, both being expensive to buy and requiring expensive consumables.

■ Would you rather leave the printing to someone else entirely? If yes, then consider using an Internet or retail print service. Or, as a compromise, check out the new self-serve kiosks.

Keep your answers to these questions in mind as you read the rest of this section about the different kinds of printers. They will help you select the right printer for your needs, interests, photography preferences, and budget.

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