What to look for in a cheap printer

office printer changing ink

Printers must be among the most unloved computer accessories. We've all had experience of printers jamming at crucial moments, ruining prints with streaks and smears, and ripping us off with sky-high cartridge prices.

The truth is, you get what you pay for. A great many printers these days are sold for less than £50, so it's hardly surprising if they're not perfectly reliable. And because the manufacturers make little or no profit on selling their hardware so cheap, we can't be too shocked when they hike up the price of ink.

Whether you're after a robust small business printer, or just want a machine to make a hard copy of the occasional email, we'd recommend you steer clear of such bargain-basement printers. They're just not worth the frustration.

What should I look for in a cheap printer?

A printer on a table

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It used to be that a printer's only job was printing, but single-function printers are now – in cheaper price ranges, at least – a rarity. If you don't intend to do much scanning then you can consider the function a nice bonus, but it's always worth investigating the speed and quality of the scanner. And that doesn't mean simply comparing the advertised specs, as a unit with a very high claimed resolution could churn out speckly, drab scans.

If you want to digitise multi-page prints then an automatic document feeder is well worth having, as it saves you the hassle of having to manually load each page in turn. Obviously this won't work so well for double-sided originals, unless your chosen printer has a duplex ADF, like the Canon Maxify MB5350.

Any printer with a scanner will also offer a photocopy function, so you can easily make copies at the press of a button. Many contenders also offer a fax function: nowadays this probably isn't something you'll need for personal use, but if you work from home it could be very useful.

Are inkjets still cheaper than laser printers?

It used to be that inkjet printers were for individuals, lasers for businesses. Nowadays a colour laser can be cheaper than an inkjet - and some inkjets are faster and cheaper to run than their laser rivals. In short, the stereotypes of these two different printer technologies are now out of date; it's best to focus on practical factors such as speed and print quality.

The only caveat to note is that laser printers generally can't be loaded with glossy paper, so if you're interested in occasional photo printing, an inkjet will give you more versatility.

Do I need a wireless printer?

Most modern printers will connect to your router over Wi-Fi, so they can be positioned anywhere in your home and accessed from any device. Failing that, you can normally use wired Ethernet. It's also possible, of course, to connect via USB and share the printer within Windows, although this means the host PC has to be switched on for you to be able to print.

When it comes to cloud services, Apple's AirPrint lets you print directly from an iPad or iPhone, while Google Cloud Print enables the same capability from Android devices and Google apps. If that sounds useful to you, check for compatibility, as these services are supported by most printers but not all.

Does the printer need to have a UI?

A hand using a printer's touchscreen

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To help users browse the functions on offer, most low-cost printers out there now offer a simple LCD screen. Additionally, it makes it extremely easy to configure scan settings and other functions if the screen happens to be a touchscreen, which in many cases it is.

However, not all interfaces offer the same functionality. We found, for example, that it was easy to use the Brother MFC-J5620DW’s clear touchscreen interface, but found it difficult to understand the Ricoh Aficio SP C250SF’s various buttons and web interface. Make sure you try out a printer’s interface before you buy it, especially if you’re buying one in person.

What size printer tray should I look for?

While some printers are intended for lighter use, others are designed to handle large amounts of paper.

For example, the Epson WorkForce WF-2630 can hold a maximum of 100 sheets of paper in its fold-out tray. In contrast, the Canon Maxify MB5350 offers users two 250-sheet cassettes. The benefits of this include that you won’t be reloading pages as frequently and you can also switch on a job-by-job basis between, for example, unheaded and headed notepaper.

Manual trays enable users to load up a single sheet of special stock, such as envelopes or labels. It’s also important not to forget to double check the size of the output tray. An example of this is the HP Envy 5540, which will overflow after just 25 sheets, which could be problematic if you’re printing out 26-page reports.

Understanding running costs

A hand collecting paper from a printer

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It’s always important to keep the device’s running costs in mind, and in order to understand this you’ll have to look at the ongoing price of keeping the printer supplied with ink. It’s not always easy to compare this metric across different models. For example, although high-capacity cartridges may appear expensive, they could be much better value than cheaper, but smaller, supplies.

Armed with all this information – and our speed and quality results for each printer – you should be able to choose the right printer for you, and avoid making a mistake which could, over the course of several years' ownership, prove very expensive.

Darien Graham-Smith

Darien began his IT career in the 1990s as a systems engineer, later becoming an IT project manager. His formative experiences included upgrading a major multinational from token-ring networking to Ethernet, and migrating a travelling sales force from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95.

He subsequently spent some years acting as a one-man IT department for a small publishing company, before moving into journalism himself. He is now a regular contributor to IT Pro, specialising in networking and security, and serves as associate editor of PC Pro magazine with particular responsibility for business reviews and features.

You can email Darien at darien@pcpro.co.uk, or follow him on Twitter at @dariengs.