A single question confounds many of the millions of college students as they return to campus in the next three weeks:

Inkjet or laser?

But this year, choosing between the rival printer types is no easy decision. The heated competition in the computer peripherals space, combined with mass acceptance of the technology, has driven prices lower than they've ever been before.

"I remember paying more than $1,000 for a laser printer, but now we're seeing them for under $300 -- that's a hell of an investment for a laser that could last you six years," says Dan Gookin, author of PCs for Dummies.

Under $300? Some laser printers cost less than $200.

Two months ago, Samsung debuted the ML-1430 laser printer that prints 15 pages per minute at 600 dots per inch at a price point of $199. Six weeks later, Minolta joined the under-$200 club with the debut of its PagePro 1250W, a Windows-compatible printer that prints 17 ppm at 1,200 dpi. Hewlett-Packard, Brother and Lexmark all have laser printers for under $300.

Inkjet printers are even cheaper. H-P and Lexmark both offer a variety of entry-level inkjets at $49, while Epson and Canon price their entry-level at $79. Four years ago, Gookin says most inkjets cost more than $150, but today there are scores of inkjets with price tags below that price tag -- Lexmark alone has a dozen different models.

While both printers are extremely affordable, each has unique advantages and hidden costs that are easily overlooked.

Laser: The Heavy-Duty Value Proposition

Laser printers may be more expensive than inkjets, but they're a better value overall because of a cheaper cost of ownership. Laser printers take toner cartridges, which can print thousands of pages before needing replacement, while inkjet cartridges often last a couple hundred pages at best. Over the life of the machine, those costs add up.

Consider the following: An Epson Stylus 820 inkjet printer costs $100 and requires two separate ink cartridges, a $24 black one and a $20 color one. According to manufacturer specs, the color cartridge lasts for 220 sheets while the black cartridge lasts for 370 pages. Including the price of the machine, it costs 65 cents to print a full-color page and 39 cents a page for monochrome.

On the other hand, an H-P 1000 LaserJet costs $250 and requires a single toner cartridge that costs $65 and lasts for 2,500 pages. Despite its higher price tag, H-P's LaserJet has a cost per page of just 13 cents -- far better than Epson's Stylus.


Low-Cost? Not Necessarily
Sure, inkjets have cheap price tags, but heavy printers will find that costs add up in the long run. "Inkjets use the old Gillette model of giving away the razors, but charging a lot for the razor blades," explains Dan Gookin, author of PCs for Dummies.
Printer Price Cost of Ink Total Cost Pages Per Cartridge* Cost Per Page
Black Color Black Color Black Color
Canon BJC-85 Portable Color Bubble Jet 299.99 39.95 48.49 388.43 3,000+ 4,000+ 13 cents 10 cents
Canon S200 Color Bubblejet 67.15 7.69 19.79 94.63 150 270 63 cents 35 cents
Epson Stylus C60 Inkjet 79.98 28.99 24.19 133.16 600 300 22 cents 44 cents
Lexmark Z55 Inkjet 129.98 31.99 37.99 199.96 600 450 33 cents 44 cents
Epson Stylus C80 Inkjet 148.98 30.79 35.97 210.56 870 420 24 cents 50 cents
Lexmark Z25 Color Inkjet 79.98 31.99 34.99 146.96 410 275 36 cents 53 cents
Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 350C 335.99 31.99 31.99 399.97 485 313 82 cents $1.28
Hewlett-Packard 5550 Color Inkjet 149.98 34.99# 184.97 400# 46 cents
Source: Staples.com, OfficeDepot.com, TSC Research. * -- Number of printable pages at 5% coverage. + -- Number of printable pages at 15% coverage. # -- Cartridge includes both color and black inks.

"It all comes down to what a student needs," says Larry Leslie, senior vice president of Hewlett-Packard's personal printing unit. "If they have to do a lot of printing, then a lost-cost laser is a really good solution for them. Laser printers are great for big papers."

Inkjet's Technicolor Glory

But inkjets have one advantage that lasers don't: they can print in color.

With the rising popularity of digital cameras and CD burning, the ability to crank out color photos or a custom-designed CD labels are attractive features that lasers can't match.

Ink cartridges are costly, but consumers can stretch their lifespan by printing out draft-quality documents and using other features designed to conserve ink.

"The typical consumer, like a college student, might use two to three ink cartridges a year," says Jeff Willard, director of marketing for Lexmark's consumer printer division. "It's not like they're a small business and popping them in once a week. In this case, the low acquisition price is more important."

Over the course of a school year, let's say you need to replace both ink cartridges on the Epson Stylus 820 three times. All told, the cost of ownership for the Epson would be $232 -- $18 cheaper than the H-P 1000 LaserJet, plus you'll have the ability to print color.

Instead of using expensive manufacturer-branded cartridges, you can save even more by using recycled or second-tier refills, which can cost half as much. You won't be alone -- last year, second-tier players accounted for 13% of the ink market, a figure expected to grow to 22% by 2005, according to Lyra Research.

Of course, there are color-capable laser-jet printers, but they are north of $800.

Multifunction Device: All For One Price

But the best choice might be neither. Over the past few years, peripheral makers have come out with multifunction devices that combine the functions of a fax machine, scanner, copy machine and computer printer into one stand-alone device.

"All-in-ones are perfect for the student with a wide variety of needs, especially those that have to do presentations," says Willard. "How many times do you wish you had a photocopier in your room?"

As their popularity has soared, MFDs have become surprisingly affordable as companies push to increase market share in this nascent sliver of the peripherals market. According to Gartner Dataquest, 1.3 million MFD units were sold in the first quarter of 2002 putting it on pace to break 5 million sold this year, topping analyst expectations by 500,000 units.

This summer, MFD prices have dipped below $100. Sharp's UX2200 MFD, which also prints in color, costs $99. Lexmark recently unveiled the X75 PrinTrio, which scans, copies and prints in color, with a $149 price tag. Brother, H-P and Compaq all offer entry-level MFDs for less than $200, but be warned, these devices can guzzle ink. (These are the inkjet models; MFDs also come in the laser-jet variety, but they are priced outside of the realm of most college-bound consumers and their parents.)

The Bottom Line

With hundreds of printers out on the market, choosing the right one can be overwhelming. A good rule of thumb: Lasers are good for students who need to print a lot of text, inkjets are good for students who don't print as much and want color and MFDs are for students who simply need it all.

And, economic recovery be damned, you don't have to buy anything. After all, most colleges have a plethora of printers ready and waiting in computer clusters. You're probably spending a fortune on soaring tuition. Why spend more money when you don't have to?


Back-to-School Buying Guide
While there are many excellent printers out there, here are a few of the best for college-bound consumers. The Lexmark X75 is your best bet, overall.
Best Multi-function Device
Item Lexmark X75 PrinTrio
Price $149
Features When printing from the computer, the PrinTrio spits out 11 ppm at 1200 x 2400 dpi. The copy machine cranks out 9 ppm for black-and-white copies and 4 ppm for color. It scans at 600 x. 1200 dpi. Easy to use photo manipulation tools built into the unit, which means you won't need software to remove red eye or resize photos.
Drawbacks High ink costs make cost of ownership an issue for heavy printers. Also, the FAX function isn't built into the unit. You need a PC to use it.
Ink/Toner Cartridge Black ink cartridge costs $32 and lasts for 410 pages. Color ink cartridge costs $35 and lasts for 275 pages. (Both assume 5% coverage.)
Cost per Page 36 cents, monochrome. 53 cents, color.
Best Inkjet Printer
Item Epson Stylus C60
Price $79
Features The stylus C60 is capable of spitting out black-and-white documents at 12 ppm and color documents at 8 ppm. The maximum monochrome resolution is 720 x 720 dpi, but its color resolution is 2880 x 620 dpi, perfect for high-quality photo reproductions. Easy to set up and use.
Drawbacks Uses a lot of ink, doesn't include a printer cable and doesn't have the best quality when printing in black-and-white.
Ink/Toner Cartridge Both the black and color ink cartridges are $29. The black one lasts for 600 pages, while the color one lasts for 300 pages.
Cost per Page 23 cents, monochrome. 46 cents, color.
Best Laser Printer
Item Minolta PagePro 1250W
Price $199
Features A combination of low price, high-resolution and speed makes this printer a winner. Cranks out 1200 dpi black-and-white documents at 17 ppm, making it the fastest personal laser in this class. Comes with 8 megs of RAM, standard, and is roughly toaster-sized, which makes it easy to find room for in a cramped space. Outperforms rivals costing twice as much.
Drawbacks New product, which means it may be buggy and difficult to track down at retail outlets. And it doesn't print in color.
Ink/Toner Cartridge Standard black toner cartridge costs $78 and lasts for 3,000 sheets. The larger high-capacity black toner cartridge costs $126 and lasts for 6,000 sheets. OPC Drum cartridge costs $105 and lasts for 20,000 sheets.
Cost per Page 13 cents, with standard cartridge. 7 cents, with high-capacity cartridge.
Sources: TSC Research, Staples.com, OfficeDepot.com, Manufacturers Web sites

As originally published, this story contained an error. Please see Corrections and Clarifications.

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