Although many inkjet printers have low prices that may seduce you, be aware that their maintenance costs can run higher than those of laser printers. Inkjets gobble up ink, so if you print volumes of high-density, multicolored graphics, you'll need to replace color cartridges quite frequently. Fortunately, many of the new inkjets come with ink level indicators to warn you when ink is running low. Some models even calculate how many more pages can be printed before cartridges need to be replaced. The Lexmark 5700 and Compaq's IJ200 are two printers that have onscreen icons that report ink status.
How about computer compatibility? Some of the new inkjet printers are compatible with older PCs. Okidata's Okijet 2500, for example, can be hooked up to a 386 PC if it's loaded with Windows 3.1. Just make sure you have enough memory: Software drivers for most inkjet printers require 5MB RAM and 5MB of hard-drive space on your computer.
The type of paper you use with an inkjet has a direct effect on printed results, particularly with graphics. Some inkjet manufacturers sell special paper for photos, transparencies and other needs. Canon, for example, offers banner paper, greeting-card stock, high-gloss and water-resistant paper, fabric sheets and T-shirt transfers, as well as dozens of specialty inks.
In addition to the features explained already, here are some terms you'll encounter when shopping for an inkjet printer:
Cartridge. This replaceable tank holds the ink. Most color inkjets have dual-head or multihead cartridges with black and color chambers. Compaq's IJ200 single-head design requires the user to install either a color cartridge or black cartridge, depending on your needs. The company's more sophisticated IJ700 and IJ900 have dual-head designs, so you don't have to keep swapping cartridges. The Okijet 2500 is among the models with individually replaceable cartridges for each basic color --yellow, magenta, cyan (greenish-blue) and black--eliminating costly refills.
Paper feeder. Most models provide a feeder that holds at least 30 sheets of paper, or 10 sheets of transparencies, envelopes or card stock. Usually, the higher the printer's price, the larger the feeder. All models also allow for manual feeding; most greeting cards, T-shirt transfers and index cards require manual feed.
Printer driver. This program translates the language of a software application to that of the printer so the two can communicate data.
Resolution. Used to define clarity and sharpness, it's a measurement of an image's dpi. Although logic says that the higher the dpi, the more precise the resolution and the better the image quality, Hewlett-Packard claims that its thermal process, with a resolution of 600 x 600 dpi, is every bit as crisp as competitors' inkjets with much higher resolutions because of its control and placement of dots.
Finally, before buying, ask for a demonstration on both plain and glossy paper. While you should check for smears, poorly placed dots and dull tones, you'll probably be surprised at the high-quality color printing these small inkjets provide for just a few hundred dollars.
Most inkjet printer manufacturers sell at least two models in a series, with upgrades available for networks, higher speeds, extra printheads or cartridges. Our chart features the base model in each series. See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.