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What are the must-have features in today's inkjet multifunction printers? The most important ones involve connectivity and paper-handling options.

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The Big Picture

What are the must-have features in today's inkjet multifunction printers? The most important ones involve connectivity and paper-handling options.

A personal printer will always have a USB connection for use with one computer. Any forward-looking machine these days should also have integrated Wi-Fi, for sharing in a home among several wirelessly connected computers. An Ethernet connection isn’t necessary unless you have that kind of network.

Just as important, the printer should be able to handle print jobs that come from your smartphone or tablet, or that are emailed from a remote device. HP’s ePrint is the longest-established approach from a printer manufacturer, using email as the transmission method. Google Cloud Print operates similarly and is one of the two major third-party options available. Apple’s AirPrint is the other; it works locally (rather than over email) when an AirPrint-enabled device finds an AirPrint-compatible printer. All the major printer vendors now have their own apps to address smartphone- and tablet-based printing. A quick check of a printer’s specs will confirm whether your mobile devices are covered by its apps.

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The HP Envy 110

The Specs Explained

Two-sided printing is a cost-effective feature because it saves paper. Duplex prints take a little longer to come out, and the duplexing mechanism makes the printer slightly larger. Assisted manual duplexing, where onscreen or control-panel prompts show you how to refeed the pages so you can print on the back, is a consolation prize; but it's a hassle compared to automatic duplexing, especially for long documents.

An automatic document feeder (ADF) eases the scanning or copying of multipage documents, and one that can scan both sides of a page is even more useful. (Some scan both sides simultaneously, while others scan each side in succession. The latter process is slower and might result in a few more jams.) Multifunction printers with ADFs chiefly target small-office users, while those aimed at home users tend to have just a simple flatbed scanner. If you’re a home user who scans a lot of documents, though, don’t hesitate — get a model with an ADF.

The number of sheets your printer can take in its tray should far exceed the number of pages you print per day. A personal printer typically holds 100 to 150 sheets of paper in a tray, usually with no upgrades available. Some models come with two trays, so you can load plain paper in one and photo paper or other media in the other.

Paper is happiest when it’s flat and covered, so a printer with a drawer-like tray is optimal. Open paper-loading areas expose the paper to dust and spills; and if the feed is vertical rather than horizontal, paper may bend if it sits there too long.

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The Canon PIXMA MG3160

Buying Tips

Ink costs always matter. For a personal printer, getting a model with separate ink cartridges is always a good start, because then you replace only the colours you need. Unified colour cartridges (with all three colours in one cartridge) force you to replace all the inks when any one colour runs out.

Another rule of thumb: The lower a cartridge's capacity, the higher its cost per page. Any ink cartridge with a page yield of 200 pages or fewer is likely to be expensive. Go above 300 or 400 pages, and it should be economical.

The ink cartridge’s capacity should fit your usage rate. A lower-capacity cartridge might be a reasonable buy if you print just a few pages per week, for instance, and few or no photos (photos use tonnes of ink). But if you print a lot — a few dozen pages per week, or a fair number of photos — look for higher-capacity cartridges to keep your costs reasonable.

Divide the cost of the cartridge by its page yield to get a cost per colour, per page. A personal inkjet printer should have a cost per colour page of 24 cents. Anything below that range is a great deal; anything above it is starting to get expensive.

Many personal printers and some business printers come equipped with small displays on their front control panels, to aid in selecting menu options or showing printer status. While the typical display might consist of one or two lines, higher-end and photo-oriented printers might have a full-colour LCD, anywhere from 1.5 inches to 8 inches in diagonal width — all the better to view and edit photos directly from the printer. In general, a display that tells you something in words is preferable to one that requires you to interpret the blinking and colours of a few lights. Colour LCDs enhance the experience by offering better graphical capabilities and more room to show options. A few displays are also touch-sensitive.

Printer touchscreens are getting bigger, more common, and more sophisticated. Though some people might miss the positive feedback of pressing a real button, touchscreens feel more natural to most people, and they can reduce button overload by showing only the controls that you need at any time.

Regular A4-printing Inkjet multifunction printers (MFPs) can cost as little as $80 or as much as $600. What can you expect in your price range? Naturally, you get what you pay for; but don’t overbuy, either. If you don’t print or scan much, a lower-end unit that does a little of both might meet your needs. If you print more than two dozen pages a week or scan multipage documents, make sure that your MFP can handle the workload, with appropriate features, and moderate to low ink costs.

You can purchase a new inkjet MFP for $100 or less, but you’ll have to put up with slow performance and bare-bones features — and you may not get Wi-Fi. The ink costs will most likely be high; you should try to find a model with separate ink cartridges, but unified colour cartridges will be more prevalent.

If you buy a $200 inkjet MFP, you'll get a better range of features and capabilities, with most models having automatic duplexing and high-yield ink options. You will also enjoy adequate printing speeds, and Wi-Fi should be standard.

At $300-400, models start offering more or better features, especially for small offices. Multifunction inkjets in this range will have much improved speed and paper handling, as well as more networking features and better control panels — with cool features such as touchscreens, colour displays, or wide-format capability.

Move to $400 or above, and you'll find models with generous feature sets and capabilities. Most will be designed for a small or home office, but trophy home models are also available.

Our parting note about multifunction printers is that they cannot multitask, at least not at the inkjet level. A printer that's constantly churning out jobs can't stop to make a copy or to scan to PDF. So if you do a lot of any one thing, even printing, consider buying a dedicated machine for that function. However, for most home, student, and small-office users who want a printer that can also do a few other things, many inkjet MFPs are available that can quite nicely fit the bill.

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Melissa Riofrio

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Topics: laser, inkjet, Printer, buying guide, buyer's guide, buyers' guide
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