We may live in an age of email and the Internet, but the need for paper copies has never been greater. Computers generate so much printed material that the paperless office seems as likely as the cashless society. And there are so many printing options available to schools that the choice can seem confusing. But the golden rule when buying any printer is to ask: will it do what I want it to do?
The cheapest printers (some sell for well under Pounds 100) are known as dot-matrix and use impact technology whereby a series of pins strike the printer paper. Dot-matrix machines have a reputation for being noisy and producing crude text and graphics, but this is no longer fair. Dot-matrix printers are versatile - they can print on many different paper types and sizes - and have comparatively low running costs. What's more, dot-matrix performance has greatly improved, with some 24-pin printers offering "real letter" print quality and colour.
Inkjet printers dominate the British printer market, accounting for around 70 per cent of sales. Inkjets work by spraying ink on to paper. Technological improvements mean they can offer near-laser quality.
Most inkjets offer a print resolution of between 600 and 1440 dots per inch (dpi), giving crisp, clear print. Resolution matters, but don't buy a printer on specifications alone: let your eyes be the judge of print quality.
Colour printing is also offered by many inkjets, and there are two main types available. Some offer three-colour printing, whereby cyan, magenta and yellow inks are mixed to produce a range of colours including black.
Three-colour printers are often the cheapest colour inkjets, but the snag is that the colour mixing sometimes produces a greygreen black, and it can be expensive if you are only printing text (some three-colour printers have an optional black ink cartridge). A better option is the four-colour inkjet. This uses two ink cartridges - one for black ink and the other for colour.
Many inkjets now include photo-realistic printing. This uses special inks and paper to produce photo-like prints - the quality can be very good indeed. Some photo printers use six-colour printing (adding diluted cyan and magenta to the mix) to produce an even better quality.
he photo printing option adds comparatively little to the cost an inkjet, so it's well worth considering buying one with this feature. Lexmark's new 3200 Color Jetprinter, for example, offers 1200 dpi resolution and costs less than Pounds 150. It has an optional six-colour printing system, and can handle a range of media, including transparencies, envelopes and banner paper.
Epson's Stylus Photo EX (around Pounds 454) can reproduce photographs up to A3 in size and comes with a cut-down version of Adobe Photoshop, a program used for capturing and manipulating images. Hewlett Packard's DeskJet 1120C (Pounds 446) has three paper paths, making it easy to print to different media.
Bear in mind that these machines are slower than most dot-matrix and laser printers, which have a print speed of around eight pages per minute for mono printing and four pages for colour. They also use ink cartridges, which are costly and regularly need replacing. Photo printers can take more than 10 minutes to produce a single high-quality print and, again, they use expensive ink cartridges and paper. Colour cartridges can cost around Pounds 25 each, and some photo paper costs almost Pounds 1 per sheet!
A better option, if you can afford it, is a laser printer. Lasers use a technology that is similar to photocopiers. Their prices have fallen sharply in recent years: from a few hundred to several thousand pounds. Lasers offer the fastest print speeds - up to 30 pages per minute - as well as the best quality. Their ability to handle large volumes makes them ideal for schools that have networks feeding to one machine.
Epson 0990 133640
Hewlett Packard 0990 474747
Integrex 01283 550880
Lexmark 01628 481500
RM 01235 826000
Xemplar 01223 724200