I have a schizophrenic approach to money management. I will eat a bagel with peanut butter for dinner two nights in a row, then blow $10 on a fancy deli sandwich for lunch. I will scour Filene's Basement for $5 tights to wear with my $200 boots. I am even tempted to get a $99 color inkjet printer to go with my spiffy $2,500 PC. It all boils down to priorities. I don't need a great printer, merely a decent one. Just as the tights I wear under my boots are a private affair, most of the printing I do at home is for my eyes only.
Turns out plenty of folks feel the same way. More than 8 million people took home sub-$100 printers last year, according to research firm Gartner Group Dataquest. Many get them free after rebates or as a giveaway when they buy a new PC.
Are they worth it? To find out, I ordered the latest $99 printers available from Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Xerox. Then I tested them for ease of use, speed and--most important--print quality on everything from e-mails and memos to photos and cartoons. Hundreds of printouts and several desperate calls to technical-support staff later, Epson's Stylus Color 777 and Xerox's DocuPrint M750 were my favorites, although neither was perfect.
The first photos I printed on the Epson were so rich and clear that I was sure it would be the undisputed winner. On e-mail and other text, the type was clear and dark with a glossy sheen. I soon realized, however, that the prints looked good only on the special paper Epson included in my reviewer's kit. When I printed color or black text on ordinary office paper, the letters were speckled and fuzzy, as if too much ink had soaked into the paper.
And that's the dirty little secret of inkjet printing: the machine is cheap, but using it can cost a fortune. Unlike laser printers, whose powder-like ink works great with ordinary paper, inkjets' nozzles eject expensive liquid ink that looks its best only on specially coated paper. On a laser printer, ink-and-paper costs average just 2[cents] a page. With an inkjet, the price per page starts at 5[cents] for black text on plain paper, then skyrockets to more than $1 a page for color photos on glossy paper.
The Epson is probably the best choice for me, since I don't use my home printer often enough for the higher price per page to add up. Also, I'm willing to trade only so-so quality on ordinary printouts for the option of resume-quality text, dazzling photos and homemade greeting cards.
But if you need an affordable workhorse for everyday homework or research, Xerox's M750 is the smartest choice. Of the five printers I tested, its text on ordinary paper was consistently among the best, even on envelopes. As for speed, it was either the fastest or second fastest on every task, topping out at 9 sec. per page. It was also the only printer tested that had a covered paper tray for keeping out dust and hair. Photos and graphics weren't nearly as good as they were with the Epson, but they weren't bad.