The Best Business Printers for 2020
Just as there are many different types of businesses—from one- and two-person small-office/home-office (SOHO) environments to enterprise-level, multiuser offices and workgroups—there are loads of business-oriented printers designed to serve them. In terms of output quality and reliability, today’s printers (and the software that drives them) are mature, dependable devices. Whether you’re in the market for a simple $50 machine for printing and copying the occasional document from your home office, or a high-volume $3,000 workhorse for churning out thousands of pages each month, you can worry less about buying a lemon (which sometimes was a thing, years ago) and concentrate more on finding an office appliance that best matches your needs and budget.
Poor print quality, paper jams, and other such frustrations are largely a thing of the past. Today’s reliable printer and scanner technology lets you concentrate more on creature comforts and saving money: factors such as monthly output volume, paper input capacity, usability features, and running costs. Trying to decide how well a printer will serve your business needs entails evaluating each of these attributes, starting with some of the more important and obvious: Do you need the ability to print and copy in color? Will a single-function model do, or will you need an all-in-one (AIO) printer that can make copies and scan documents and photos? These are the key questions, so let’s take them in order.
Should I Get a Monochrome Printer, or a Color Printer?
Most often, color pages are more attractive and carry more impact than their black-and-white counterparts. And color, when used properly, helps emphasize and convey the content contained within your business documents more clearly. On the other hand, certain types of documents don’t benefit from color, and using it in these scenarios is little more than unnecessary expense.
For instance, many front-counter scenarios (such as, say, tire-shop receipts, or visit recaps and patient instructions from a doctor’s office) don’t call for color. With text content dominant, these applications instead require sharp, easy-to-read black text—and since the customer or patient is often waiting, usually they need it fast. Monochrome documents are also usually more efficient (or at least less expensive) at distributing information in-house in memos and reports.
When used properly, though, color makes an impact, not only conveying your message more clearly and dynamically but helping to put your best foot forward when you’re trying to impress potential clients. And, of course, it’s all but essential when producing your own brochures, flyers, and other marketing material in house.
The drawback to using color is that, depending on your content and your printer, each color page can easily cost you three to five times as much as a monochrome one, or more. As you’ll see coming up, though, over the past few years, most printer makers have introduced machines that print all types of documents, both monochrome and color, at much lower running costs.
Should I Get a Single-Function Printer, or an All-in-One?
Just as important as whether to choose a monochrome or color machine is whether to buy a single-function, print-only device or an all-in-one (AIO). Also known as a multifunction or MFP device, an AIO printer also can copy, scan, and (in some cases) fax documents. Most AIOs couple the printer with a flatbed scanner that facilitates the additional imaging functionality.
There are many environments, such as those front-counter scenarios I mentioned earlier, where the ability to copy and scan is not only not required but counterproductive. You wouldn’t, for example, want your busy front desk printer taken out of service—while your customers are waiting—while your employees are making copies. Sometimes, all you need is a printer that prints, and paying extra for features you don’t need doesn’t make sense. That said, however, most offices and workgroups require at least some document copying and scanning, and therefore opt for AIOs.
The first distinguishing characteristic of an AIO is whether it couples its flatbed scanner with an automatic document feeder (ADF) for handling multipage documents without user intervention. When copying or scanning multipage documents, the simplest and cheapest AIOs, lacking an ADF, require you to place pages on the scanner bed or platen one at a time. Conversely, with an ADF, you simply place a stack of pages in the feeder and let ‘er rip—clearly a big convenience if you’ll often scan or copy multiple pages at one time.
ADFs themselves also come in two different flavors for handling two-sided multipage documents: manual-duplexing and auto-duplexing. With the former, when the machine finishes scanning the first sides of the stack of pages, you need to flip the stack manually and place it back in the ADF to scan the other sides. Auto-duplexing does this for you.
The nuances of the ADF are a bigger and bigger deal the more advanced and expensive the business printer. You’ll also see two kinds of auto-duplexing ADFs: reverse duplexing, and single-pass duplexing. The distinction here is simple. Single-pass ADFs have two scanning sensors, one for each side of the page, that allow the machine to scan both sides of two-sided multipage documents simultaneously. (That’s as opposed to scanning one side, reversing or pulling the page back in, and then scanning the other.) While single-pass duplexing is faster and presents fewer potential points of failure, making it a more desirable technology, my experience testing many ADFs indicates both methods work well and get the job done.
Should I Get an Inkjet Printer, or a Laser Printer?
Traditional wisdom is that laser printers are faster, more reliable, less expensive to use, and have better output than their inkjet counterparts. But the truth is that these arguments are no longer entirely valid, and haven’t been for some years. In fact, depending on what and how much you print, inkjet machines are often superior. Let’s look briefly at each contention.
Granted, laser technology—which applies toner to an entire page in one fell swoop—is inherently faster than the way most inkjets apply ink to paper, with a relatively small printhead moving back and forth, laying down line after line. Medium- to high-volume inkjets typically top out at about 25 pages per minute (ppm), while comparable laser machines are often 10ppm to 15ppm faster. Higher-end, high-volume laser printers achieve print speeds of 50ppm or more (as do HP’s PageWide laser-alternative inkjet printers, whose fixed printhead arrays don’t travel back and forth across the page). But 25ppm is plenty fast enough for most business environments.
Aside from raw speed, are laser printers more reliable? There was a time years ago when some inkjet printers tended to be more prone to paper jams, clogged nozzles, and inferior output. But those days are over.
As to whether inkjet printers are more expensive to use than lasers, while there are exceptions, that hasn’t been the case for some time now. Indeed, so-called bulk-ink or bulk-consumable inkjets, most of which use large refill bottles or bags instead of small cartridges of ink, can be far less costly to use than their laser rivals. I’ll talk about them in greater detail in a moment.
Also, it’s important to note that inkjet printers tend to use significantly less electricity than comparable lasers. In busy print environments, where the printer remains active, churning out page after page all day, that’s an extra, if hard-to-quantify, “consumable” you could save money on with an inkjet.
Finally, there’s the biggest misconception of all, that laser printers as a rule produce better-looking output than their inkjet competitors. Again, there are always exceptions, but this hasn’t been cut-and-dry for quite a while. Where laser printers have always excelled, and to some extent still do, is in printing text or typesetting. Inkjet printers, on the other hand, usually print superior graphics, especially photographs.
This is not to say that laser printers don’t print well. It’s just that in many scenarios, due to years and fortunes invested in research and development by inkjet manufacturers, inkjets have made great strides. In addition, most inkjet machines can print borderless document pages and photos, a finishing technique known in the document-design industry as “bleeds.” Laser printers, on the other hand, must leave about a quarter-inch of margin all the way around the edge of the paper. When used properly, bleeds make your photos and other marketing materials look more professional.
One aspect in which laser printers’ toner output does prevail over inkjet output is the fastness or durability of the printing. A laser print typically lasts longer without cracking or fading, and is not prone to smudging or streaking if exposed to moisture. That’s an advantage in environments where the longevity of hard-copy records, such as medical documentation, is important.
Should I Consider a Bulk-Ink Printer?
Until recently, the per-page cost of consumables (ink or toner) was based primarily on the print-volume expectation and price of the printer. Lower-end machines with relatively low volume ratings cost more to use than higher-priced, higher-volume ones. Nowadays, while you can still find plenty of printers that follow that model, several major printer manufacturers are offering alternatives—what we call “bulk–ink” printers.
These technologies (Brother’s INKvestment Tank, Canon’s MegaTank, Epson’s EcoTank, and HP’s Smart Tank Plus and Instant Ink) deliver running costs that are a mere fraction of the traditional replacement consumables model. (HP also recently debuted its Neverstop brand of monochrome laser printers that, instead of delivering replacement toner in costly cartridges, stores it in reservoirs inside the printer that you fill from inexpensive containers—$16 per refill or 0.6 cent per page.)
Of the bulk-ink brands listed in the previous paragraph, EcoTank, MegaTank, and Smart Tank Plus are all cartridge-free technologies. Instead of pricey cartridges that often contain their own expensive printheads and electronics, these machines also store their consumables in internal tanks that you fill from inexpensive bottles.
All three technologies deliver similar running costs of about 0.3 cent per monochrome and 0.9 cent per color page, with an exception being Epson’s recent, small-business-focused EcoTank Pro brand, which offers both black and color pages for about 2 cents each. EcoTank Pro marks a change from the earlier bulk-ink model, which was to charge a premium (as much as three to five times the cost of a comparable cartridge model) for a consumer- rather than business-class printer with an uninspiring feature set and mediocre volume and capacity ratings.
Though they still cost three or four times as much as comparable non-bulk-ink printers, EcoTank Pro machines deliver the volume, capacity, and features most small offices require. So do many Brother INKvestment Tank and HP Instant Ink models—cartridge-based designs that aren’t quite as penny-pinching as other bulk-ink printers, but cost less to buy.
In any case, unlike a few years ago where your running-cost options were limited, today it’s much easier to find a printer with per-page costs appropriate to your printing and copying needs, though it may require a little more research up front. That’s where our reviews come in.
What Do I Need in Paper Handling, and Print Volume?
Some businesses not only print a lot, but also print on different types and sizes of media. Your accounting person, for example, may need to print spreadsheets on legal-size or larger paper, while you produce your marketing material on premium glossy media or perhaps letterhead. Now and then you may need to print a sheet of labels or a company check. Or maybe your office just prints a great deal, and a machine with modest paper input capacity requires reloading the tray or trays too often. Downtime while your printer is waiting for paper, or taken out of service to reconfigure the drawer for different-sized media, is a drag.
These and other paper-handling issues can be worked out by paying attention to the machine’s input configuration and expansion options. Many printers come with, in addition to a main paper input source, a simple one-sheet override tray for printing one-off envelopes, forms, or labels. Some medium- and high-volume models come with multiple paper input sources, such as two drawers in the front of the chassis and a tray that pulls out from the back, thereby not only holding a relatively large allotment but making different types of media available without having to interrupt the print flow. A step up from that, many higher-end machines support paper-input expansion through add-on drawers and bins.
Input capacity is related to a printer’s volume, which manufacturers usually gauge on a monthly basis. The two most common measurements are the duty cycle (the peak number of pages the printer is rated for churning out each month) and the maximum suggested print volume (also expressed in number of pages per month).
Typically, these volume measurements are miles apart. When a machine’s monthly duty cycle is, say, 50,000 pages, the suggested monthly volume is usually 10 percent of that or less. When buying a medium- or high-volume printer, it’s best to let the suggested print volume be your guide. While a printer can run pegged out at its maximum duty cycle month in and month out, it will require less attention and last a lot longer if you hew closer to the suggested volume rating.
What Kind of Printer Connectivity Do I Need?
With the explosion of handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets, nowadays you have lots of ways to connect to your printer. The standard interfaces comprise two main kinds of wired connections (Ethernet networking, or connecting to a single PC via USB) and a whole bushel of wireless ones (802.11 Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth, Near Field Communication or NFC, Mopria, Apple AirPrint, and more).
Of this list of wireless standards, only Wi-Fi and AirPrint are actual local area network (LAN) protocols. The others are primarily peer-to-peer protocols that allow you to connect a handheld or other device directly to the printer without either piece of hardware being part of a LAN. NFC is unique among them, in that it allows you to connect to the printer by simply tapping the NFC-enabled device to a hotspot on the printer, usually on or near the control panel.
In addition to all these, most business printers and AIOs also support connectivity via several popular cloud sites, such as Google Cloud Print, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, and Evernote. Most of today’s business printers come with Ethernet (at 10Mbps, 100Mbps, or 1,000Mbps) and Wi-Fi connectivity, as well as a smattering of the other options listed in the previous paragraph. Ethernet is the fastest and most secure, and often preferable for office environments; Wi-Fi, which few printers lack nowadays, is highly convenient, as well as plenty fast enough for most uses.
If you need to position a printer away from a spot where you can run Ethernet cable easily, make sure the Wi-Fi function is included in the price. A few printers, especially at the business high end, may make you add it via an add-on hardware option, which may not be cheap. In any case, most of today’s printers also provide free downloadable apps that let you connect your smartphones and tablets over a wireless network.
What Kinds of Controls Should I Look For?
The wider the feature set—the more a printer or AIO does—the greater the need for a robust control panel or web-based controls. In today’s business printers, we’ve never seen a more diverse set of printer command options, from simple panels consisting of a button or two and a few status LEDs to tablet-size, customizable color touch screens capable of presenting separate configurations for individual users or departments.
In addition to executing walk-up functions, such as making copies or printing from cloud sites, these graphical control panels allow you to make security and other configuration changes, monitor and order supplies, and generate elaborate usage, security, and other reports. Similarly, and often more easily, you can also control, configure, and monitor most business printers via an onboard web portal that you access from your PC, phone, or tablet browser.
How to Choose the Right Size Printer for the Job?
Just as there are many different types and sizes of businesses, there’s a multitude of business printers with a dizzying array of overlapping capacity, volume, feature set, and expansion options. At PCMag.com, we divide printers and AIOs into three loosely defined categories based on how much work they’re called upon to do:
Entry-level or small office/home office (SOHO): These machines serve small, low-volume print and copy environments of five or fewer users, producing no more than a few hundred pages each month.
Midsize or small to medium business (SMB): These printers accommodate about five to 25 users in medium-volume print and copy environments, of up to a couple of thousand pages monthly.
High-volume or enterprise: Devices at this level are designed to crank out thousands of pages each month. Often part of a fleet, they offer staunch security options and are usually highly expandable, sometimes with multiple add-ons such as staplers, sorters, and high-capacity paper-input drawers and bins.
With the above information in hand, you’re ready to start narrowing down the dizzying number of single- and multifunction printer choices facing your business. The rest of this roundup below outlines our favorite business printers and AIOs of varying capacities, speeds, and sizes according to usage case. We hope they further your printer education and help you make the right choice, whether your company’s on the Fortune 500 or on the kitchen table.