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Choosing the right multi-function printer

Multi-function printers have come a long way from the compromise it once was for consumers with very tight budgets. Helen Bradley samples a range of multi-function printers from entry level to seriously expensive, and what you need to know to make the right choice.

Multi-function devices are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. This time it’s not just the traditional consumer base or SOHO customers embracing the technology. Now MFDs are a feature in professional offices, workgroups, and design houses where they’re busy copying, faxing, printing, collating, and even folding and stapling documents.

One look at these machines and you’ll realise that they’re a force to be reckoned with, and are no longer the poor man’s alternative to buying several high quality dedicated machines.

MFDs combine a range of functions in the one machine and can print, scan, copy and many still include the ability to send and receive faxes. The obvious benefit to using an MFD is in space saving – instead of three or four machines you have one which performs the task of four. You also have less to worry about in terms of installing and updating device drivers and stocking consumables as an MFD uses just one set of each.

On the training side, users only need to learn to use one machine rather than four. When considering cost, if you pool the money you would spend on individual scanners, faxes, printers and copiers you can generally buy a quality MFD for much less than the total cost of four individual machines. On the flip side, if one part of the MFD breaks down, the scanner for example, you’re instantly without at the very least a scanner and copier.

If you’re in the market for an MFD it’s important to consider what you need the machine to do. While price is a consideration it should never be the sole consideration. “Less than 20 percent of the ongoing costs are for the initial hardware and software investment,” says Heidi Cohan, of IT and office products marketing specialist Brother Australia. “So, at Brother, we recommend that an SME complete a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) analysis before buying any machine. SMEs should consider the cost of the MFD from initial purchase through deployment, maintenance, support, management, and ultimately to retirement.”

When comparing MFDs, look at the rated speed of each as well as what the speed relates to, and remember that these values are typically an upper value so you can expect to experience slower speeds in a working environment. For example, speed ratings generally don’t include the time it takes to send the document to the printer or to scan the document you plan to fax. Speed is typically quoted in pages per minute or ppm and there will be separate values quoted for black &white and colour. As there is no standard for calculating speed, each manufacturer calculates it a different way so it’s unwise to use quoted speed as much more than a ballpark maximum.

Printing and scanning resolutions are important too. Resolution is a measure of the quality of the printed output and the scanned input. Expect printer resolutions to be in the order of 600 x 600 dpi (dots per inch) and scanning resolutions to be in the order of 2400 x 2400 dpi (without interpolation, or resampling by creating missing data). If you plan to do a lot of scanning, look for an MFD with an automatic document feeder allowing you to feed a number of pages into the scanner at once in a hands-free operation. Also consider options such as scanning directly to different formats, such as TIFF, PDF and Word files, so the documents you’re scanning don’t need extra handling before being opened in your software. If you plan to convert the scanned text into editable text, you will need OCR (optical character recognition) software, which will often be included with the scanner.

MFDs are available as laser or inkjet technology with inkjets nearly always being colour machines, and lasers being either monochrome or colour. It’s vital that you consider the cost of consumables for your MFD as consumables will typically amount to many times the cost of the machine over its lifespan. Look for an MFD that has separate colour cartridges so you replace only the colour cartridge that is empty rather than replacing a combination cartridge each time a colour is depleted. When evaluating ink or toner cartridges determine the price and how many pages the cartridge can print, and then divide pages into price to get a per page value–it’s a more accurate comparison than price alone.

Some MFDs are capable of high quality photo printing and will use six colour cartridges and include a card reader and a graphic LCD screen allowing you to download and preview images from your camera, and print without using the computer’s resources.

Avoid having to repeatedly refill the printer by ensuring that the paper trays contain sufficient paper for one or two days’ printing and incoming faxes. If the paper runs out, ensure there is sufficient memory to store incoming faxes so they aren’t lost. If you regularly print onto different paper types such as A5, A4 and foolscap or envelopes, ensure the printer can take multiple cartridges so those papers are instantly available. Some MFDs can print CDs using a special tray and onto thick media using a manual load straight-through bypass paper path to reduce the amount of bending the paper is subjected to.

Connecting to a Network

If you plan to use the printer on the network, a network aware MFD with its own NIC (network interface card) can be configured as a node on the network and won’t require a host computer to be always turned on. An MFD can include some combination of Ethernet, wireless and Bluetooth connectivity in addition to a USB port.

When evaluating MFDs, estimate the number of pages you print each month and ensure that the printer is rated for that usage. Typically inexpensive printers will print only a few thousand pages per month whereas more robust and expensive machines are rated for heavy-duty use of 50,000 or more pages per month.

If security is an issue, look for an MFD with inbuilt security options. For example, some printers can store incoming faxes and print tasks until a pin number is entered allowing you to put printing on hold until an authorised person is present to pick it up. In addition, because colour printing is expensive, some printers can be configured to require a password or pin number to be entered before a colour print job can be sent to the printer.

Other things to look for are extras such as the ability to scan direct to email or fax, and a printer able to tell you either by a visible warning or an email that it is running short of consumables or is in need of maintenance. The more expensive network MFDs are more likely to include these features than those at the less expensive end of the market.

With the advent of Windows Vista, ensure that the MFD you’re purchasing comes with current drivers for all the operating systems you currently use and which you may use in the future.

Price wise, you can expect to pay anything from $100 to $20,000 or more for an MFD depending on the features it has and your special requirements. When purchasing a lower priced MFD, price itself should be less a consideration than the cost of consumables as you’ll pay more for these than the MFD and, by spending a little more on a device that has less expensive consumables, you may save money over its lifespan.

In an office situation you may consider buying one MFD for each workgroup so that the machine can be situated close to its users or you may buy a more fully featured one to place centrally for everyone to use. What is best for your office will depend on what functionality you require and how much you can afford to spend on purchasing and maintaining the machine.


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