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How To Buy
A printer's speed is linked to its price. Printers that cost $500 or less usually print 4 to 6 pages per minute. Other important statistics include time to first page (how soon the edge of the paper appears out of the printer) and return to application (how soon the printer lets you return to work at your computer). Manufacturers often don't quote these figures, so bring your stopwatch and try printing the same file on a number of different printers.
Expect resolutions of 600x600 dots per inch. Some printers use LED technology rather than laser for "laser-class" or "laser-quality" printing at a lower price. Often, these printers provide 1200x300dpi, which works fine for text-only documents. It may result in streaky-looking graphics, however.
If you want to do more than print the occasional business letter, make sure your printer can handle a wide variety of sizes and media types. A straight paper path reduces the chance of jamming. Printers in this class offer a manual feed and a 100- to 200-sheet-capacity input tray.
Printers in this class run the memory gamut, offering anywhere from 128KB to 1MB. Low on-board memory may indicate that the printer is a Windows-only, host-based model that relies on the PC's memory and processor. Some companies also use software technologies to use memory more efficiently.
Some laser printers include drivers to support a wide range of operating systems, including DOS and Windows 3.x, 95 and NT. If you have legacy applications, you may need this multiple-OS support. Other units are Windows-only and won't support printing from the DOS prompt.
High-quality laser printing has become so affordable that a laser printer now rivals an ink jet as an option for home and small-business use. With a budget of between $300 and $550, you can probably find a printer that will provide the paper handling, print quality and speed to meet your home and business needs. Most printers in this category use a PCL (Printer Control Language) driver, although some may offer PostScript support as an option. The PCL driver is a bit slower because it puts some of the processing burden on the printer.
Printer manufacturers quote a duty cycle for a certain number of pages per month, so think about how many pages you'll be printing and make sure you get a printer that can keep up. If you think your demand for printing will grow, ask about upgrade options, such as additional memory or paper capacity.
Some printers also come bundled with software, such as printing or Internet utilities.