The best cheap photo printer
With the page I wrote some time ago about cleaning inkjet printers, I often get emails from people with printers that are having problems and looking to buy a new one.
As a photographer and print maker, I’m very fortunate in getting to test large printers from the major manufacturers.
However, these are all pretty big machines, and more to the point, not cheap.
What about cheaper, smaller printers?
In general, as printer price goes down, functionality and image quality decreases, whilst overall ink costs rise.
The bad news…
Cheaper Printer :: Low Ink Costs :: Print Quality
Pick any two features (only)
That’s it. If you want a good printer, then you need to buy a good printer.
In general, if you spend more on the printer, then the ongoing ink costs go down and the print quality rises.
What about cheaper inks?
If print quality is important to you, then you should be printing using ICC colour profiles. The profiles supplied these days by the major manufacturers (and many paper suppliers as well now) are capable of producing good results.
If you use 3rd party inks, then it is quite likely that the profiles won’t work quite so well.
Now, some suppliers of inks will offer profiles and a profiling service – this is a good sign.
There is nothing wrong with using good quality 3rd party inks, if you understand the colour management implications.
Beware of the attractions of continuous ink systems (CIS). These are mostly sold to people with an incomplete knowledge of their print costs and the concept of TCO (total cost of ownership) – they are of benefit to some people, but probably nowhere near as many as buy them.
Other suppliers concentrate on price – this in general is aimed at those worrying about ink costs – if you are that worried about print costs, then I’m going to suggest that either you are not worried about print quality, or have fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of the Pick any two (only) comment above…
So, your 5 year old £75 printer died…
So, it lasted for 5 years. There’s a reason that even extended warranties rarely run beyond three years. Cheap printers are essentially not repairable and designed for relatively light use. They are all going to work out relatively expensive to print on, even if you’ve been using 3rd party cartridges or ink refills.
Where to go?
I’ve looked at options for high quality black and white printing elsewhere, but for colour printing (photos, artwork, graphics) there are a vast range of colour printers, from a wide range of manufacturers.
Print quality is actually fairly uniform amongst them all – but remember that these are printers aimed at people who have no idea of colour management, and to whom ‘print quality’ is a pretty ill defined term.
A few photo printer tips…
Let’s consider some of the technologies and functionality you may want.
Individual models change very rapidly in this area, which is one more reason we only tend to review the larger printers here.
Inkjet or dye-sub
For small prints, just like the photolab, you might want to look at a dye-sublimation printer. These are limited to fairly small prints and need very specific media. Examples include Canon’s Selphy line.
I include them for completeness sake, since by far the majority of photo printers you’ll find are inkjet printers.
Are you looking for an office printer too? If so, then look for the ‘All in one’ printers, which often include a scanner/ copier and fax. These printers are typically limited to A4 or letter sized paper as a maximum.
Number of inks – For higher image quality, look for printers with individual cartridges for each colour ink. The more ink types the better, when it comes to photos. Worst of all would be printers with one colour and one black cartridge – actually just three colour cartridges (Cyan, Magenta and Yellow (CMY)) is probably even worse.
Wireless – we have network sockets all over the place, but for home use, it may be easier to connect your printer via a wireless connection.
CD/DVD printing – along with invoices, our main use for a small printer.
Editing – seriously, you’re editing photos on a printer? Not a feature aimed at the image quality market. This is for snaps. Nothing wrong with that, but I thought you said print quality was important?
This is actually one of the surest indicators of better print quality and usually slightly lower printing costs. Some A3+ models also offer roll paper support, which is good for panoramic images, but if you think it’s good for saving on general print costs, then I’d suggest that you’ve not much experience of how much of a pain, 13″ rolled paper is to handle.
At 13″ width and above, you’re into the sorts of printers I test and review, so have a look at what I’ve written and feel free to ask for any additional info.
Sorry, but print quality comes at a price…
I wrote this short note after feeling a bit bad about telling another person who had taken the trouble to ask, that cheap printers were relatively expensive to run, if print quality mattered.
There are such a wide range of general purpose printers, that even if I did review a few, the reviews would be out of date almost as soon as I’d written them. Models also vary round the world, so a printer in the US might not even be available here in the UK.
Basically, if you want to print good photos, then I’m going to suggest that you look at printers larger than A4/letter size.
If you want a smaller printer, then look towards some of the consumer review sites, such as Which in the UK (costs money to join though) – they test things like this for a living ;-)