All hail the paperless office! Early exponents of all-digital offices didn't count on printers getting so darned good at being all-round office busybodies. The latest models from the likes of Epson, HP, Canon and Brother can scan, copy and fax, print double-sided and superfast in A3 sizes and even in colour, plus they can be used by phones and tablets. Some can even be controlled from the other side of the world.
However, there are key questions to remember when choosing an office printer. Is speed a priority, or is low-cost more important? Do I need colour and exacting quality, or will mono, draft quality prints suffice? Will staff need to print remotely?
Whatever decisions you make will restrict what can be done in the future, so it's worth thinking about the needs of the office both generally and for specific teams. For instance, a team of magazine designers will have no use for a cheap mono laser printer, while an A3 colour inkjet is overkill for an office that prints only invoices and letters.
Laser or inkjet?
Laser printing may sound much more exciting than inkjet technology, but you need to know the difference between these two competitors. They may often square-off in marketing blurb, but while laser is all about volume, inkjet focuses on quality. That's probably your decision made; large offices that need to print a very high volume in draft, mono quality – and as quickly as possible – should almost always choose a laser printer. However, do bear in mind that laser printers generally take up a lot of space, and that the toner cartridges are very expensive.
The more versatile inkjet printers tend to be slower, smaller, and can print in high quality, such as photos, posters and graphics. By far the best option for design-oriented offices that need to produce in colour, inkjet printers also tend to be better all-rounders.
Those are the traditional battle-lines for the two technologies, but there is increasingly a lot of crossover between the two.
Although not designed to be the workhorses of a large corporate office, the multifunctional printer is ideal for small businesses, small teams or for individual/home offices. Any printer that can print, copy and scan tends to be called a 3-in-1. Add fax and you've got a 4-in-1, which may or may not be useful, depending on (the age of) your company's client base. Adding fax usually entails an extra cost, and it's quickly disappearing from mid-range printers.
As well as choosing between an A4-only printer and one capable of printing in A3 (which are rapidly coming down in size and price), it's vital to know what else staff in the office need to print on. Some inkjet printers include a rear speciality media feed that can take A3-sized thick card and photo paper, or a media tray that can print on a CD or DVD.
Do you need a Wi-Fi printer? If printing from laptops, tablets and smartphones is important, yes you do. While most of the major manufacturers offer specialist apps for printing from smart devices, it's wise to choose a Wi-Fi printer that's compatible with both Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print, thus ensuring that most people can print from their phone or tablet.
However, such printers are mostly designed for hassle-free printing of photos from phones, so are perhaps best avoided in large offices, though they may be just what a team or a micro-business needs. Ditto cloud-powered features, which are becoming increasing popular. Some wireless printers are able to log-in to accounts on Evernote, Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive to print documents and photos stored in the cloud.
Many printers now have cloud options for remote printing. As well as being able to be controlled through a web browser on, say, a laptop being operated by a member of staff working away from the office, printers are increasingly being assigned their own email address. That can be really useful for remote workers, such as sales teams, who can forward a contract to a printer via email and pick up the hard copy later from the office.
However, this only works well if there's someone to monitor and collate the printer's output back at the office, where the printer is, and may not be suitable in large offices with shared printers. Some printers allow users to scan and send photos and documents to the cloud, too.
Saving paper and ink
Okay, so it might not be paperless, but using fewer sheets of paper and ink cartridges is easy. It also helps reduce those all-too-frequent occasions when the printer runs out of paper or ink, and everyone in the office treats it as if it's broken.
As well as the cost per page, a key feature to look for here is a duplex modulator (pictured above), which instantly guarantees double-sided printing, thereby halving the need for paper by anyone printing only in ink-saving draft formats for proof-reading, or back office filing. That way, if someone accidentally prints the internet, it will only take 68 billion sheets.
Just as important is a paper tray that handles at least 250 sheets, while it is possible to find printers with extra paper trays that add another 150 sheets or so. Such printers can be useful if staff need to print in two distinct sizes, or on specific stationery such as letterheads.
While wireless printers can print from several computers, and any printer can be connected to a print server and shared between staff from there, for large offices the best choice is a printer that can connect to a local area network (LAN).
Called network printers or Ethernet printers, these workhorses of large offices – whether inkjet or laser – can still be wireless, and usually boast high data transfer speeds. With their own static address on a network assigned, such printers can theoretically be used by anyone in the office on the same network.
However, care should be taken when setting up access to printers on individual machines – consider limiting employee access to an inkjet capable of issuing archival-quality, colour A3 prints that few in the office will actually need for work purposes.