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2009 December 14 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Multifunction Printers Increase in Popularity

Just as personal computers have become more versatile over the years, so have printers. Multifunction printers combine printing with copying, scanning and faxing in one unit, and sometimes phone, voice mail, and e-mail sending functions as well.

Along with “multifunction printer,” another name for these all-in-one units is, not surprisingly, “all-in-one.” Still other names include “multifunction device” and “multifunction peripheral.”

Multifunction printers are particularly useful for the small office, home office, or home, where there may not be space for a separate copy machine, scanner, and fax machine. What’s more, there’s significant cost savings in buying one multifunction unit compared with multiple separate units.

Multifunction printers are taking market share away from single-function or stand-alone printers, and today they comprise 62 percent of all printer sales, according to the latest numbers by market research firm IDC.

Downsides in the past to using a multifunction printer still exist today, but are less of an issue. It used to be that you had to sacrifice functionality, not getting the same quality or feature set with an all-in-one that you got from individual units. Today’s multifunction printers have virtually bridged that gap, according to testing by Consumer Reports, though stand-alone scanners still do an appreciably better job at the specialized task of scanning film and slides.

The other main downside to multifunction printers is the risk of multifunction downtime. If the unit breaks, you’re prevented not only from printing, but also from carrying out all the other tasks that the unit makes possible. But many of today’s machines are so inexpensive, often less than $200, sometimes less than $100, that buying a new unit to fill in for the unit being repaired, or simply replacing the one that broke, can be an efficient way to go.

There are four main types of multifunction printers: general inkjet, photo inkjet, black and white laser and color laser. Inkjets print in black and white or color, while photo inkjets provide extra resolution and color fidelity for those who use the machine extensively for printing photos.

Laser devices cost more initially, but cost less in consumables per page printed and are better suited if you use the machine heavily or need lots of top-quality text. Color lasers cost even more but are useful for busy offices that require color for charts and graphs in reports and other business documents.

In PC Magazine’s latest survey, users were more satisfied with laser multifunction printers than inkjet multifunction printers. Traditionally, inkjet manufacturers have earned high profit margins from expensive replacement ink cartridges.

As a way of differentiating itself from other inkjet manufacturers, Kodak has recently introduced multifunction printers whose replacement ink cartridges cost less. For the Kodak ESP 5250 All-in-One, Staples sells a Kodak-brand color-ink cartridge for $14.99 and a black-ink cartridge for $9.99.

The Kodak ESP 5250, like a number of newer printers, can print wirelessly from any of multiple PCs in a Wi-Fi network, without having to connect it with a cable to a PC and have that PC turned on. Like some multifunction printers, however, it comes without faxing capabilities. The more expensive Kodak ESP 9 provides faxing.

In Consumer Reports’ most recent ratings of multifunction printers, Hewlett-Packard (HP) earned the most top spots, followed by Epson. HP makes some very good general inkjet multifunction printers, while Epson shines with its inkjets that are optimized for printing photos. The HP Officejet 6500 Wireless won Consumer Reports’ Best Buy award for inkjet multifunction printers.

The top multifunction printer vendors in terms of market share, according market research firm Gartner, are HP (40.0 percent), Canon (19.0 percent), Epson (14.2 percent), Brother (6.2 percent) and Samsung (4.9 percent).

HP received the top reliability score from users in PC Magazine’s latest survey. HP and Epson both received overall scores of A, with HP and Epson also the only printer manufacturers to receive top scores for “Buy again from this maker.” The two companies receiving the worst overall scores from users were Apple and Tektronix.

Canon, on the other hand, received the top score from users on reliability in PC World magazine’s latest survey. HP, Epson, and Kodak received average scores along with four other printer manufacturers. The companies receiving the lowest reliability scores were Dell and Lexmark.

Multifunction printers are very convenient, but if you’re printing a lot of snapshots or making a lot of copies, it can be more cost-effective to use a dedicated service, whether an online photo service such as Snapfish (www.snapfish.com) or your local copy shop.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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