Best Cheap Multifunction Printers
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
If you're a frugal consumer, there is an obvious appeal to buying an all-in-one printer: It can save you the cost of numerous visits to a copy center or separate machines that would otherwise crowd your home office. Cheap multifunction printers can copy, scan, and in some cases fax, as well as print, without costing much more than a stand-alone printer. All the models in this price range are inkjets, not laser printers, and are compact enough to sit on a desk or small table. With starting prices under $100, they appeal to home users and businesses with modest print needs.
Cheap Multifunction Printers Buying Guide
Our research identified several cheap multifunction printers that meet users' expectations for value and performance. At the thrifty end of the market, printer heavyweights Brother, Canon, HP, and Epson hold dominant positions. We particularly favor the Canon Pixma MG6320 (starting at $70) and the Epson WF-2540 (starting at $75), which includes a fax machine. The Canon Pixma MG5420 (starting at $79) and the Brother MFC-J450DW (starting at $80) are two other good budget options. The HP Deskjet 2540 (starting at $50) may be affordable, but it's missing some key features.
Even the best cheap multifunction printers are not perfect in every dimension. At budget prices you have to accept some weaknesses in performance or a lack of certain features. Lower-priced all-in-one printers are generally slower than pricier models, especially when printing photos, and color document printing may not reach professional-quality levels. Higher-end multifunction printers generally boast more built-in memory and much larger paper capacity. Bearing brand names such as Ricoh, Xerox, and Samsung, these upscale machines are designed for business use and deliver far more in the way of features and performance than a family, student, or home-office user would need.
When shopping for a cheap all-in-one printer, assess your needs before making your selection. Some machines excel at printing text while others handle photos especially well. Any multifunction printer should be able to print to an array of common paper sizes, such as letter and legal, but many machines also print more unusual options such as A4, B5, and A6. Most users won't need a built-in fax or automatic document feeder, but you can find an all-in-one with those options at a competitive price.
What We Looked for in the Specs
Wireless Connectivity.It used to be rare to find a wireless multifunction printer for less than $100. Now all the models we researched boast wireless capabilities. If your household has more than one computer, wireless enables everyone to use the printer at once from anywhere in the home. Connecting to a home network was a real hassle in the past, but nowadays reviewers say it's pretty easy to connect a wireless all-in-one to a Wi-Fi network. You can also connect most multifunction printers to a PC by plugging in a USB cord. Ethernet connections are less common in all-in-ones. The only models we picked that have Ethernet ports are the Canon Pixma MG6320 and MG5420.
Separate Color Ink Cartridges.Frugal shoppers will no doubt be concerned about the cost of printer ink. How much you spend on ink depends in large part on the type of printing and copying you do, but the ink system also affects cost. Some all-in-one printers, the HP Deskjet 2540 among them, have only two ink cartridges: one for black and one for color. If you run out of one color within that color cartridge, you have to replace the whole thing, even if there's still plenty of the other colors left. All-in-ones with more color cartridges are more cost-effective than those with only one color cartridge. Most of our picks use a combination of one black cartridge and three color cartridges. The Canon Pixma printers have additional cartridges intended for high-quality black-and-white photos.
Another way to save on ink costs is to buy "high-yield" cartridges. These have about twice as much ink as regular cartridges but cost only a little more. For example, a standard black ink cartridge for the Brother MFC-J450DW costs $15 from a source such as Office Depot and has a maximum yield of 300 pages. A high-yield ink cartridge for the same printer has a maximum yield of 600 pages but costs only $25, a savings of $5 over two standard cartridges. All of our picks have high-yield ink cartridges available.
Automatic Paper Handling.A printer with automatic duplexing can print on both sides of a page to help save on paper costs. With the exception of the Epson WF-2540, the models we recommend support automatic double-sided printing. Other automatic paper-handling features may make a difference to some consumers, particularly business users dealing with higher volume. Most cheap multifunction printers have a flatbed scanner where you open the lid and lay flat a single page you want to copy or scan, be it a document, photo, book or magazine page, driver's license, or what have you. But some all-in-ones have automatic document feeders that churn through multiple pages without the user's intervention. So-called ADFs aren't particularly common in budget models, but two that include this convenience are the Epson WF-2540 and Brother MFC-J450DW. The HP Deskjet 2540 has no such features.
Mobile/Web Printing.A wireless printer should provide a number of options for remote printing. All the models we recommend are compatible with Google Cloud Print, as well as Apple's AirPrint, which lets users print directly from an Apple device without installing any printer software. Many all-in-one manufacturers have additional apps available for printing documents from a smartphone or tablet. Examples are the Epson Connect app and Brother's iPrint & Scan. The Canon Pixma MG6320 and MG5420 and the Brother MFC-J450DW also print from cloud storage services such as Evernote.
Display.Many budget multifunction printers now feature an LCD menu screen, not just buttons and flashing lights. Some even have a touchscreen that works like a tablet. The HP Deskjet 2540, by contrast, has a tiny LCD that displays only icons and numbers, such as the number of copies you wish to make or number of pages you wish to print. At the other end of the spectrum, the HP Photosmart 7520 (starting at $125) boasts a 4.33-inch touchscreen with access to web apps.
What We Ignored in the Specs
Memory Card Support.An all-in-one with a memory card reader lets users insert a camera card into the machine and print photos without the help of a computer. It's a convenient feature that shows up on most of our top picks, but we don't consider it essential. Consumers who do a lot of photo printing can look to the Canon Pixma MG6320 or MG5420 or the Epson Expression Home XP-410 (starting at $70) to print directly from a memory card.
Scan/Print Resolution.A high resolution (measured in dpi, or dots per inch) shouldn't be a deciding factor in the purchase of an all-in-one printer. Experts say the dot size, shape, and placement also play a role in how sharp a printout looks, as do the type of ink and paper you use. Additionally, companies perform tests based on their own standards, so you don't know if you are comparing apples to apples when looking at printer resolution from two different manufacturers.
Multifunction Printer Reviews
In researching our picks, we favored multifunction printer reviews from sources such as CNET, PC Mag, and PC World, who put the machines through a variety of tests. These reviewers are experts at determining the quality of the output from an all-in-one. Also, because they're familiar with so many models, they know what kind of performance and features you should expect from a budget model.
Although all-in-one printers can copy, scan, and sometimes fax, it's clear from multifunction printer reviews by both users and experts that print quality is far and away the most important attribute. Reviewers rarely comment on the copying ability of these machines, and assessments of scanning and faxing abilities are also scarce. All-in-one reviews mostly focus on two aspects of printing: speed and quality. Our top picks excel at printing text in short order and, for the most part, produce lively, vivid photos. Where they stumble a bit, according to all-in-one printer reviews, is in the color graphics department. Colors may look a little dull, especially if you don't use the brand of paper that corresponds to your all-in-one machine.
High-Quality Text and Photo Printing.
Multifunction printers can do many things, but most users rely on them more for printing text documents and photos than for any other purpose. That being the case, print quality is the defining characteristic of a good budget all-in-one printer. A device that meets the mark produces crisp text that's easy to read, regardless of font size, as well as photos that are bright, crisp, and display accurate color.
Multifunction printers, in general, perform quite well when it comes to printing dark, sharp text. The expert reviews we consulted had little to complain about in this regard, and some reviewers were quite impressed with the text output from the inexpensive printers we recommend. A PC Mag expert tested the Canon Pixma MG5420 (starting at $79) and found that the text is so sharp it's easily readable even when using small fonts.
Photos and graphics printed by the models on our list generally look pretty good as well, with accurate, bright colors. However, you'll get the best results if the brand of paper you use matches the brand of multifunction printer you have, experts say. Printer manufacturers design their inks and papers to maximize quality when you use them together. A Digital Trends reviewer found that color graphics printed with the Epson Expression Home XP-410 (starting at $70) show accurate colors and look fantastic when printed on Epson paper, but on another brand, the colors appear dark and muddy.
High-Quality Copies and Scans.
As with printing, the copy and scanning quality seems pretty consistent across the best budget all-in-ones, although experts focus less attention on the performance of these two functions. The quality of copies and scans, as well as the speed at which they're produced, should be on par with the print output. Text should be sharp and dark, and colors should be accurate and lively. The Canon Pixma MG5420, for example, earns high marks from an expert reviewer at Computer Shopper for its ability to reproduce accurate color and sharp text when copying or scanning. Even pricier printers have their shortcomings, however. A PC World reviewer says the Brother MFC-J870DW (starting at $100) makes very sharp black-and-white scans, but color scans can show some shadows.
Speed.One metric that printer manufacturers like to fudge is the number of pages per minute, or ppm, a printer can spit out. Specs usually display the ppm for printing text at the lowest quality setting (draft quality), using only black ink. It's not uncommon to find cheap all-in-one printers that claim print speeds of 24 ppm or more. But if you prefer higher quality settings or need to print in color, the speed quickly plunges to about 10 to 12 ppm for text and 3 to 4 ppm for graphics, or perhaps even slower. In a test by PC World, it took the Epson WF-2540 (starting at $75) about two minutes to print a photo using the "best" quality setting, which is pretty slow. However, dropping the print quality down one setting sped up printing considerably without sacrificing much in the way of quality.
Multifunction printer reviews by experts reveal that most of our picks maintain a respectable pace. For example, the Canon Pixma MG6320 (starting at $70) shoots out monochrome pages at 8.4 ppm, according to PC World, which is faster than average under that site's testing parameters.