Multi Functional Printer Buying Guide

Buying a copier, printer, or multifunction product (MFP) has never been more complicated. In the past, a copier simply sat in the corner of the office and made copies. Today, they're an intelligent, complex part of your information network...

Connecting to enterprise networks offering many sophisticated features and capabilities, purchased through multiple channels, including systems integrators customised to meet business needs through software applications.

Assessing your needs

The first step is understanding your typical monthly volume-the total output of pages your machine will print and copy over the course of a given month.

How do you determine your monthly output volume?

Bills for your service agreement and print shop provide a good snapshot of your current usage; so does a look at your current copier's meter. Some copier companies use network management utilities that can tell you all the prints, copies, faxes and/or scans sent from the network to your copier or printer. Many dealers also use devices that audit your volume. However, audit tools can sometimes miss devices such as small printers.

Monochrome or Colour

Over the last few years, the market for colour has exploded. The price of colour copiers has come down offering more product choices, lower acquisition and "click costs," greater speed, and quality that competes with copy/print shops.

Today's copiers and printers also offer control over colour privileges, greatly enhancing your ability to enforce cost control. To decide if colour is the right choice for you, try and project your colour output needs over the next few years. Remember to include colour output from printers, as well as outsourced jobs and existing colour copier products. Very often there is an opportunity to save money by retiring printers or migrating printer colour output to a larger multi-functional product since printer cost per colour page output is generally higher. Of course, you need to consider many issues when you balance a distributed vs. centralised approach to output as well as copier vs. printer based MFPs.

While colour is cheaper than it was, it isn't free. If your colour volume is low and/or you work in an office environment where controlling colour output costs is difficult, or your strategy for output calls for a monochrome "work horse" to drive your costs as low as possible, you should focus on monochrome devices.

Keep in mind that some colour MFPs today also offer colour scanning capabilities and colour fax options, though these capabilities will come with higher price tags.

Once you have a sense of your volume needs and how much of that is colour or monochrome, you can begin to decide what types of devices can serve that need.

Printers vs. Multifunctional

While small businesses may only need one MFP, most companies use a variety of machines for their output, often placing different devices based on the needs of a particular department or workgroup.

A Graphics Design department may need a colour copier-based MFP that can match Pantone colours, handle ledger-size paper and create finished booklets. Accounting may be able to handle all its requirements with a monochrome copier/printer. The sales department may need colour scanning capability. The CEO may require a small printer in his office to print draft correspondence and e-mails..

Print audit assessment

Many dealers now offer a service called a print audit, in which they monitor/audit usage and then make a recommendation based on those specific needs. This can save money over the long run by uncovering waste, as well as give the dealer the ability to recommend specific solutions based on your actual machine output and location (for example, it might prove cost effective to replace several desktop printers with a single networked device).

If you are responsible for replacing the products your company uses today, step back and look at your unique workflow to determine the right allocation and location of products and features to meet your company's unique requirements.

The decision you make-copier vs. printer based MFPs -and whether you select a few large devices in a central location, many products distributed throughout the office, or some combination of the two, will impact more than your acquisition cost and output costs.

Media requirements

How many paper sources are there and what is their capacity? Do you need a bypass tray, which can generally handle paper weights and types (e.g. envelopes) that can't be fed through the main paper drawers? Do you need adjustable paper drawers to handle different sizes of paper, such as A3 or A4 paper? Do you need your product to handle very heavy paper weights or overhead transparencies? Make sure your product has a paper capacity that is large enough so it won't run out of paper several times a day, and handles the media you need to print/copy to.

Job Management

Can several jobs be set up at once or even programmed into memory if they are done repetitively?

Can jobs be interrupted so another job can be completed before the original job is resumed? Is it easy to set up sets, go from one- to two-sided output, reduce/enlarge originals and output, or preview jobs to reduce waste (and can these jobs be programmed/remembered)? Does it offer accounting features for cost control and allocation? Does it offer toner saver modes and energy saver modes, default to duplex and have other environmental and cost-saving features?

The hard disk drive also has an impact on job management features. The drive lets users store digital documents directly on the MFP, which is especially convenient when storing documents that are printed or copied often, such as presentations and forms.

The higher the hard drive capacity, the more documents can be stored. Also make sure you have enough Random Access Memory (RAM) to process copy and print jobs without interruption. If you find the machine pausing too often when processing large or detailed copy jobs, chances are you need to upgrade the RAM.

Scanning

Many copier-based MFPs include a basic scanning capability. This lets users convert paper documents to electronic files that can be placed on their PC desktops, or to the machine's hard disk, or sent to an e-mail, fax, or to a URL address (which allows people to access the document without having to download large files to their computers).

This is very useful for archiving, sharing and transmitting files, especially those that contain graphics, handwritten text or other non-text elements. Fax capability is also included with some MFPs (though it's usually offered as an option). If you intend to use your MFP for a lot of scan-to-e-mail jobs, you'll also want LDAP support. This allows the MFP to search the corporate intranet for specific e-mail addresses when users scan documents. Without LDAP capability, the device can only scan to addresses stored in its address book, or manually entered at the control panel by a user.

Ethernet connectivity is typically included. Some devices also offer USB connectivity, which lets users make prints of documents by plugging into a USB port on the machine. Wireless connectivity is sometimes available as an option.

Additional considerations

Typical upgrade options include additional paper sources, finishing capabilities, high-level print controllers and security features such as hard disk drive encryption.

A popular way to increase paper capacity is to add a large-capacity tray which provides 1,000 or more sheets from a single drawer, so users don't have to constantly resupply paper for large jobs. You may also want add additional paper drawers so that you can keep a variety of paper stocks loaded to handle different kinds of jobs. For example, one drawer might hold inexpensive draft paper, while another holds high-quality presentation paper and a third holds legal sized paper. If your MFP can't handle envelopes through its main paper drawers or bypass tray, it might also be worthwhile to add a dedicated envelope feeding unit if one is available.

Finishers are also useful options for output that needs to be stapled, folded, and/or saddle-stitched to create booklets. Other finishing options include:

A Cover Interposer-- which automatically inserts cover sheets on booklets; A Post-Process Insertion Unit-- which allows users to add pre-printed material, photographs or other media that can't be put through the heat and pressure of a copier); and a Mail-bin-- which automatically sorts copies or prints into different bins, making it easier for users to find their own jobs without having to sort through a stack of other documents.

Graphics-intensive and high-volume printing environments often find it useful to add an optional high-level print controller for advanced functionality such as colour matching capability and job ticketing (which helps keeps track of different jobs in print shops).

Finally, if your company does specialised scanning, you will probably want to augment your MFP's basic scan function with specialty scanning products that allow increased capabilities. For example, users can customise a control panel so that one button might read "scan to legal department", another "scan to archive" or still another enabling optical character recognition (OCR) that allows users to search scanned documents for specific words or phrases.

Network Security

For many businesses network security is a critical issue. First, you'll want to be able to control who uses the MFP, and what functions (such as colour) each user is allowed, by using network user authentication. This requires users to log into the network by using their company-issued magnetic access card, or via biometric (fingerprint) authentication, or by typing in a password, either at their desktop PCs or at the MFP itself, so no one who shouldn't be using the device has access.

Network authentication can set up an additional layer of security by only allowing certain IP addresses (such as branch offices) to connect to the MFP. Other potential security issues can be addressed with products that encrypt, erase or overwrite data, or that insert secure watermarks or even black out text on unauthorised copies.

Document Management Solutions

Document management solutions are another critical area, since they're used to manage, manipulate and track all documents and processes sent across the network. Not only can the right solutions streamline workflow for all users, but they can also prove helpful to the IT department by automating numerous processes that might currently be done manually (such as creating exportable usage logs).

Most solutions are sold as options, and many are industry-specific, designed to serve the specialized needs of, say, law firms, educational institutions and medical practices.

Management information and control

These utilities are crucial to IT operations because they let administrators monitor the copiers, printers and MFPs on the network, as well as assign and limit user rights (such as colour privileges). Some utilities even allow administrators to install and upgrade print drivers remotely, without having to leave their desks.

Another factor to consider is the type of feedback provided to administrators (and to users) by the MFP.

If toner is low or a copier has a paper jam, can the MFP automatically notify someone that there's a problem?

If the problem is minor, do jobs stop until the paper is replaced, or can they be routed to another copier or printer on the network?

And, if there's a problem that the IT department isn't able to fix, how fast can the dealer get it resolved?

Copier-based MFPs generally include service contracts with dealers who send their own technical staff when required, while small desktop printers might look like a bargain in comparison but might also consume much more of an IT technician's time on a day-to-day basis.

Financial considerations

Saving money may be your FD's highest priority, and right-sizing the printer, copier and MFP fleet for your office environment can result in a healthier bottom line. Instead of relying solely on purchase price, the smart FD will want to look at an MFP's total cost of ownership-in other words, what it costs not only to buy, but also to run the device over the course of its lifetime, factoring in servicing, replacement parts and supplies cost per page ("CPP")

If you buy the cheapest MFP you can find without considering factors other than price alone, that slight difference in price can be eaten up (and more) by a product that is less reliable, requires more user intervention, doesn't have a feature you use (such as finishing or colour capability) so that you still have to send jobs out to print shops, doesn't default to energy and resource saving modes (such as sleep mode, duplex mode, toner save mode, etc.). Being armed with information about your own company's workflow requirements can help you make more informed decisions about which products deliver the best value.

In one office, centralising operations ( for example, eliminating dozens of small desktop printers in favour of a single workgroup MFP) can also save money by eliminating the need to buy and store consumables for a wide range of brands and models. Add to that the ability to assign print and copy rights and colour privileges (and therefore reduce the potential for employees to use the copier or printer for personal business), and the potential savings can be substantial. In contrast, another company may find that a central copier serves the needs of some workgroups, but key employees (such as the CEO, design department, or finance) are more efficient using dedicated printers in their offices.
The FD might also consider the potential cost savings possible by "in-sourcing" jobs that were previously sent out to print or copy shops. A copier with a booklet finisher can produce employee handbooks as effectively as a print shop can, for example, and replacing a black and white copier with one capable of producing colour output can allow you to produce presentations in-house instead of having to outsource that type of job. Another source of savings that some businesses overlook is to keep the main paper tray stocked with inexpensive draft-quality paper, with most jobs printed or copied from that main drawer.

Service agreements

If you're buying a service agreement, does it cap costs? What happens if you go over your monthly volume cap? What happens if you don't meet your minimums?

Whether it makes more financial sense to lease or buy depends on your company's specific cash flow and tax situation, and the majority of businesses lease their copiers and MFPs. Talking to your FD will give you a better idea of whether buying or leasing is better for your business.

User requirements

Simply put, users want what they want-when they want it. Ask a worker what he or she likes best about the MFP and the answer will be as varied as the kind of work being done. For example:

"My MFP lets me scan to all three destinations I need with one push of a button."
"It remembers my jobs so I don't have to reprogram them."
"If I'm on the road, my MFP automatically sends my faxes to my e-mail box."
"When there's a paper jam, the control panel shows a picture of where it is how to fix it."

Is the MFP easy to use, so workers don't waste time trying to figure out how to program their jobs? What about the processes for changing toner, and paper, and for clearing paper jams? If a paper drawer has to be adjusted, can a typical user figure out how to do it correctly? Can users check the status of toner and paper from their desks before sending a large print job?

These considerations can directly affect a worker's productivity. Because of that, a copier or MFP that's difficult to use probably won't be used to its full potential.

Environmental & Other Considerations

Few businesses today ignore environmental issues, and because of that, most manufacturers of copiers, printers and MFPs have taken steps to ensure that their products are "greener" than ever before.

You also might want to ask your dealer or OEM what happens to your old equipment after it's been removed from your office. You can choose to recycle, remanufacture and recondition devices instead of simply throwing them into landfills.

Another consideration is the physical area where the printer, copier or MFP will be installed. In very humid climates, it might be necessary to keep a dehumidifier nearby to prevent moisture build-up in the paper and possibly the device itself. Excessive heat might also require extra air conditioning or ventilation.

Energy Star Compliance

You may want to consider products that are Energy Star-compliant to keep your electric usage low, and manufactured according to environmentally responsible processes (for example, RoHS compliance, or "Restriction of Hazardous Substances," keeps numerous toxic chemicals out of the MFP).

Automatic sleep modes, toner-save modes and duplex printing, copying and fax reception reduce the amount of paper and toner you'll use, and many manufacturers also offer toner cartridge recycling programs that make it simple (and often cheaper) to return spent cartridges instead of throwing them away. Noise might also be a factor to consider if the device is going to be installed within earshot of many workers.

Managed Print Services

An increasingly common alternative is managed print services. Under this type of arrangement, the customer's employees still do the copying and printing, but the service provider provides the service and supplies for the customer's entire fleet and may also provide the hardware.

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