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To quote a popular web comic, printers were sent from Hell to make us miserable. It seems to me that printers are the only technology left from which consumers are still willing to accept mediocrity. Printer manufacturers have trained us to expect to pay more for ink than we did for the printer, to throw out half-full ink cartridges because they’re expired or non-genuine, and to throw that printer out and get a new one in a year or so. But does it have to be this way? Not necessarily. Below are 3 tips for buying an inkjet printer. If you have any additional advice to add, please leave a comment and I’ll update the post.

1. Don’t Buy from a Manufacturer that Chips Their Ink Cartridges

How printer manufacturers don’t have a class-action suit against them for this practice is beyond me. HP, Kodak, and others began installing chips on their ink cartridges many years ago. In theory this practice adds value by allowing the cartridge to communicate it’s ink levels back to the user. But as it turns out most printers, either by accident or by design, will report lower ink levels than actually exist and then refuse to print because it thinks a cartridge is empty that actually contains plenty of ink.

Chips can also relay information to the printer such as expiration dates and manufacturer information. If the cartridge is still usable but past the expiration date, the printer may refuse to print. If an off-brand cartridge that is otherwise compatible reports that it was manufactured by the wrong company, the printer may refuse to print.

The best solution is to just buy a printer that doesn’t use chipped ink cartridges. At this point many Canon and Brother inkjet printers still employ a plastic, chipless ink cartridge. HP, Epson, Lexmark, and Kodak are all notoriously awful when it comes to their chipped ink cartridges, and their lack of sympathy/rebates when they fail to work.

2. Don’t Buy the Cheapest Printer on the Shelf

The past few years have brought us a fleet of sub-$50 printer options that, at first, seem like a really great deal. Until you open the box and realize that there is no cable, no ink (or starter ink cartridges that only print a few pages). Then when you go to buy those supplies, you realize that the ink costs more than the printer. That should be a huge red flag right there.

Don’t bother with these printers. They’re built cheap and built to make the manufacturer windfall profits on ink sales. By no small coincidence these are also the printers that tend to have a lot of issues with expired and non-genuine ink cartridges. A general rule of thumb that I follow is that $100 will get you a good inkjet that will last you several years.

3. Research Before You Buy

When you’ve got a research paper due in 24 hours and your printer starts flipping out, it’s easy to cruise to your local office supply and buy whatever they have available. But the information to make an informed decision is at your fingertips, so take the time to check their stock online, then check the printer models you’re considering against user reviews both on the supplier’s site as well as competing and third-party sites. For example if you plan to buy at Best Buy, check user reviews and ratings at Amazon, Staples, and Walmart as well. There are plenty of good inkjet printers on the market, but the best printer isn’t always the one being pushed by the store.

4. Bonus Tip! Buy a Printer with a Paper Tray

Others may disagree with me on this one, but through 15 years of inkjet printer use I’ve found printers with a vertical paper feed just don’t work. Every once in a while they’ll feed your paper correctly, but more often than not they take no paper or entirely too much then promptly jam up. You’ll find yourself playing all sorts of games to make these things work, like removing the paper and putting it back in the feed, or putting a magazine behind your paper to make the pile large enough to catch the feed belt.

These paper feeds usually work on gravity, which apparently isn’t well understood in the field of printer manufacturing. Make your life a little easier and buy an inkjet with a paper tray or paper cartridge as they’re sometimes referred to. They tend to work more consistently than top-fed printers.

Update:My friend Dan at 3dollarbicycle (site is no longer active) made another money-saving suggestion: Get a black-and-white laserjet and print your documents for mere pennies per page. I’m a fan of the Xerox Phaser 3250 myself. Excluding the price of the printer itself, a page on the Phaser 3250 will cost you about 2.5 cents. Dan mentions that it’s far more economical to print your documents in black-only and leave the color printing to Walmart. Thanks Dan!

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