Best colour printer for occasional home use?
December 1, 2020 7:36 PM   Subscribe

I already have a laser printer, black ink only, that fulfills 98% of our requirements. But I still want to spoil myself with a colour printer, for use in personal projects or printing up the occasional photograph. What do you suggest?
posted by uans to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This is very hard because inkjets do the best job for photographs, but they do not handle "occasional use" well. The ink dries up, and you have problems. A color laser printer will survive infrequent use much better, but generally are not very good for printing photos.

If you do want an inkjet photo printer, this RTings article is a good starting poiint.
posted by primethyme at 7:43 PM on December 1, 2020 [7 favorites]

If you can handle delayed gratification, for small, infrequent jobs it may be cheaper to use an online photo printing service that mails your prints to you. In non-pandemic times, office supply stores have printer shops that will print your files for you (or are self-serve).

If you don't care about adding to your power bill, and have space you don't mind filling up with a techno-brick, a used Tektronix/Xerox Phaser is great. They're just old and huge and balky and burn power to keep the wax hot and get very angry every time you turn them off (because they have to reheat the wax). On the plus side, they don't crust up and fail like inkjets! (NB: I used to date someone who had a relative who refurbished the things, which is how I came to have several over the years).
posted by Alterscape at 8:11 PM on December 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

Printer tech here. The Tektronix/Xerox Phasers that use the wax sticks make absolutely dynamite looking prints, but are also prone to clogged nozzles, particularly when using generic ink sticks. I have seen customers waste full loads of ink sticks on cleaning cycles trying to clear a clogged nozzle. And clogs tend to be more likely with age. When they are running great, they make amazing prints for a reasonable operating cost. But when they have a problem, they are costly (in time and consumed supplies) to fix. You also can't write on top of these prints with most types of pens, if that matters.

If photo quality is really important, inkjet is going to have an edge over laser. Normally, I'm not one to recommend inkjet printers, but for very occasional use, it can make sense because with laser printers, you've got a substantially higher initial equipment cost to overcome, and especially if you're only doing a few prints per month, it will take forever for the lower operating cost of a laser to balance out its higher price.

There are two main types of consumer inkjet printers. Those that use (normally two) all-in-one ink cartridge/print heads. Usually one for black, the other is a tri-color (C/M/Y) or photo color cartridge. These cartridges have a foil printhead as part of the cartridge; every time you replace the cartridge, you replace the (black, or color) printhead with it. This type of printer naturally has a slightly higher operating cost, but it's my recommendation for occasional use. Buy the cheap generic cartridges off amazon. If a cartridge gets ruined from disuse, so what. It was cheap. What you're most likely to deal with is ink crusting on the print head; this is easily remedied by popping the cartridge out (which is why I recommend this type) and running it under some warm water until the nozzle clears. Reinstall the cartridges, run a cleaning cycle, and 99% of the time you're fine.

About half of HP's printers use this design; I would recommend Canon over HP, both for printer build quality and cost of consumables. Find a printer you like, and check if you can get generic inks for that model before you buy.

The other main type of consumer inkjet printer uses ink tanks, and a semi-permanent print head. These are typically four (or five, or more) separate ink tanks (black, cyan, magenta, yellow, maybe photo black, and possibly light cyan, light magenta, etc.) these are cheaper to run, and for the printers with more inks installed, their wider gamut does a dynamite job on photos. But, they are still susceptible to clogged nozzles from disuse, and because this type of printer's printhead is difficult or impossible for the average user to remove and clean, it's not a great choice for occasional use. You'll burn a lot of ink running cleaning cycles to clear clogged jets. Please do not ever use generic inks on this type of printer. On the previous type, where the print head is part of the cartridge, if you get a clog, just replace the cartridge. With this type using ink tanks, if you get a clog, it is an order of magnitude more difficult to remedy, and if the print head gets truly clogged, you may be replacing the printer for lack of cost-effective parts. It's just not worth it.

Really, though, my overall recommendation for people looking for a home printer is a Brother color laser. It'll be more expensive than an inkjet printer, but I still think it's worth it. Brother has really turned around their quality in the last few years, and they have a really good combination of reliability, value, and operating cost. The color quality is good, performance is adequate. You won't have to worry about ink crusting up, and especially here in the PNW where rain is common, you never have to worry about a rained-on print running and smearing. Generic supplies are available cheaply and are generally safe to use. Among low-end laser printers, you'll find some where there is a great disparity between b&w and color print speeds. Say, 16ppm black, and 4ppm color. It's usually around 4x. (Or, 20ppm black, and 5ppm color, etc.) When you see this great of a difference between black and color, the printer is using an intermediate transfer belt; in essence, it develops this belt four times (once for each color) and then this composite image is transferred to the page. It's slower, mis-registration issues are far more common, and those belts really drive up the operating cost. Look for a laser printer with near-parity between black and color print speeds.

For photos on a laser, invest in a package of nice, heavyweight semi-gloss or glossy photo paper for laser printers. Don't run inkjet specialty papers through a laser printer; they will likely melt and cause significant damage. Even the entry-level Brother color lasers will make very nice color photos with a good photo paper.

OKI promises low operating cost, and doesn't deliver. Hugely expensive supplies that rarely run rated life.

Samsung has good build quality, but even in their newest printers, the colors look subdued and muddy compared to other brands.

HP is... okay? But not great on build quality and supplies are expensive. They've been trading on their name recognition for far too long and have let quality and innovation slide.

Don't even look at HP's PageWide printers for occasional use. You'll spend a fortune on ink wasted on cleaning cycles. They need to be run hard and frequently to pay off.
posted by xedrik at 10:39 PM on December 1, 2020 [28 favorites]

HP. Got an HP Envy 5530 for $20 on an amazon sale and the last time I printed, well it printed. Not photo quality but it does not seem to dry out as bad as others.
posted by sammyo at 10:41 PM on December 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I concur on the online/local cvs/walgreens (if you have those conveniently available for same day pickup/service) photo printing services, the few projects Ive used with inkjet photopapers has faded to junk after a few years, but the quality and longevity of the ink process/paper/printing of the photo printing services surpasses what a home inkjet will be able to do.

Plus, as mentioned,,color inkjet ink costs stupid amounts, and do dry up if not used frequently.
posted by edman at 10:46 PM on December 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

If you are going to go for a laser printer then WireCutter recommend models from HP and Brother. I have the former and would concur. The thing does sit on standby waiting for anybody in the house to print - and draws about half a watt of power to do so. I am also an infrequent user and the extra cost of the machine over an inkjet may not ever pay off for me. What does pay off is reliability: I may not want to print very often, but when I do I normally want the print urgently and I don't want to have to take time to swear at an inkjet with blocked heads or annoying error messages about "empty" or "incompatible" cartridges. And I want, even less, to be the family tech support person dealing with these problems for others. If something is worth printing then it is worth printing to a decent quality and in a lasting way. So the premium is paid for gratefully in terms of reduced blood pressure and a happier existence.
posted by rongorongo at 2:07 AM on December 2, 2020

I also came here to say that the best printer for occasional photos is the one at the drug store.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:53 AM on December 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

That Wirecutter recommended Brother printer is by a huge margin, the worst printer I have ever owned. About 80% of the jobs I send to it fail with "out of memory" errors. Others print but while the first page will come out okay, subsequent pages come out all messed up. I ended up buying an older used HP laser printer and it works perfectly.
posted by Poldo at 5:36 AM on December 2, 2020

Self-link to explain why you should NOT get an HP product. I won't by another HP product based on this shitty behavior on their part.
posted by terrapin at 7:34 AM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Brother color laser … Generic supplies are available cheaply and are generally safe to use

Kinda. Some of the Brother lasers use chipped cartridges (most don't) so you can't always use generics. I wish I knew which models were like this to recommend the ones to avoid.
posted by scruss at 10:15 AM on December 2, 2020

Printers are huge PITA. I'd say spend the money getting photo prints at Walgreens or other shop, copes at Staples, or visit your library and print there. Many years in IT; I hate printers.
posted by theora55 at 12:15 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Just a heads up about buying a color laser printer.

I had to get rid of my Samsung color laser printer. Chemical smell off it after just printing a dozen pages was causing me headaches. Found out afterwards, it is common for color laser printers to emit a chemical smell.

I've never had this problem with a laser monochrome or inkjet. Now occasional color jobs get printed at a store.
posted by jacobean at 1:42 PM on December 2, 2020

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