Back in 1997, Dilbert creator Scott Adams coined the term "confusopoly" a market in which would-be shoppers are bamboozled with a huge range of similar options, leaving them overwhelmed and unable to make a smart purchasing decision.
At the time, Adams was principally talking about the mobile-phone market, which even now remains bogged down by a bewildering range of deals and tariffs. But the idea of a confusopoly will be equally familiar to anyone trying to choose a new printer. We're talking different features, different speeds, different print quality and, of course, different running costs. It's a lot to take in and if you make the wrong choice, you could be left pulling your hair out over shoddy prints, dire performance and a rapidly mounting ink bill.
Frankly, this isn't a state of affairs that the industry should be proud of. Personal inkjets have been with us for more than 30 years; lasers for even longer. The market ought to feel a lot more mature than it does. Compare the laptop market: sure, not all portable PCs are created equal, but a cheap and cheerful purchase can normally be relied on to get the basic job done. Wouldn't it be nice if the same could be said for printers?
It doesn't help that running costs really are an unknown quantity. While ISO page yields provide a useful benchmark for comparison between different printers, it's impossible to predict how many mono and colour pages you'll personally burn through, and hence how your total cost of ownership will stack up. There's also no guarantee that ink prices won't change down the line, turning your low-cost printer into a bum deal.
You'd be forgiven for throwing your hands up and picking a printer at random. But if you end up with one of the many duff choices out there, you'll resent it every time you hit Print. This isn't a market where you want to play the odds.
Thankfully, you don't need to; high-quality, low-cost printing is achievable. Skip over the bargain-basement models and be clear about your priorities, because no printer will magically suit everybody. But the right one will give you years of fuss-free service and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you've beaten the confusopoly.
This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 262
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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.