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The Best Printers for Back to School

Being able to take online classes is great. You can show up to lectures in your pajamas and send in your assignments by email, without having to use those fiddly “pencil” things.

But most students still have to show up for class, preferably wearing something more than pajamas. And those of you who still have to do that will probably appreciate being able to type up and print out your assignments. So here they are: The five best printers for college students this school year. (High schoolers, don’t worry; we’ve got you covered too.)

HP Deskjet F4480 ($53) and Canon Pixma MP 495 ($58)

These two are basic, no-frills all-in-ones. And by that I mean they include both a scanner and fax machine. I’m not sure anyone really uses or needs a fax machine anymore, but you may find a scanner handy sometimes, even if you aren’t an art major. It’s a lot better for showing someone online what a paper or flyer looks like than taking a picture of it.

HP’s Deskjet printers get a lot of bad reviews online, and their drivers and other software don’t always play nicely with Windows. They work more or less seamlessly with Ubuntu and Mac OS X, though, and the one I have has served me well, even if it runs out of ink fast.

Meanwhile, Canon’s Pixma printers get better reviews, but a lot of the modern ones seem to be loaded down with hard-to-understand features. This one looks pretty basic, though, making it a good choice for those who don’t have time to read the instruction manual.

Kodak ESP C310 ($79.99)

Kodak? Are they even around anymore? As it turns out, they are, and the former film company is now making printers. (And suing the pants off of people in totally different markets, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

So what does the ESP C310 have going for it, besides its built-in scanner? Easy: The lowest cost of ink for an inkjet printer. And being able to print photos straight from your camera’s memory card is handy, too.

HP Photosmart D110a ($69.99)

Why a Photosmart, especially when the Deskjets often get bad reviews? Two words: Photo printing. And not just photo printing, but photo printing from anywhere, even from the web without needing a PC. (That’s not to say other printers can’t print photos, but the ones that are designed for it, like this one and the Kodak, usually do it better.) Plus, the Photosmart works with wireless networks and with Apple devices over AirPrint … or you can email pictures to it to print them out, and have them ready for you when you get back to the dorms.

Brother HL-2270DW ($149.99)

Finally, we have a laser printer, for those of you who need to print reports just a little bit longer than two pages. For that matter, you could print out the whole web as you read it, and put it all in a binder. Whatever floats your boat! I used to print mountains of pages to read and consult later, thanks to my fast laser printer. And while my smartphone obviates some of the need for that now, it’s pretty hard to mark notes and corrections on its screen.

Like most cheap, entry-level laser printers for college students, this one’s black-and-white only. But that’s what it’s for: It does one thing, it does it fast, and it does it well.

Whatever printer you end up with, I hope you have fun at school this year!

Setup is fast: Just install the driver, ink cartridges, and connect the printer via USB 2 or Ethernet. It ships with a full set of nine 80-ml cartridges. Compared to their other A2-size printer–the Epson 4800–the 3800 weighs half as much, only 43 lbs, and has approximately a 30% smaller footprint. To achieve this, concessions were made, for example: There’s no roll paper feed–the 3800 uses only sheet paper from 4×6″ to 17×22″ and it has no paper cassette tray for bulk loading. The 3800 has a solid feel except for the light and flimsy plastic extension panels on the front paper-output tray. It has three paths for loading paper: a top auto-sheet feeder that can hold up to 120 sheets of plain paper; a rear manual single-sheet feeder for heavier stock; and a front manual single-sheet feed for media up to 1.5mm thick.

When using the front paper feed, the printer’s footprint is enlarged for clearance in the back of the 3800. Tip: In the Page Set-Up dialog, select the correct paper size and feed path or you’ll have difficulties getting a print. Prints are beautiful–both color and black-and-white prints pop–because of a combination of an excellent set of canned ICC profiles, new screen technology, maximum resolution of 2,880 dpi, and a minimum 3.5-picoliter droplet size. Prints are rich in detail from shadows to highlights; deep rich blacks (Dmax up to 2.3) set off a wide gamut of accurately produced colors; color gradients are smooth without visible banding; and there’s no visible bronzing and metamerism.

Epson’s driver includes an advanced black-and-white feature that produces a deadon, neutral-grey tonal range with no visible color casts. The company should be applauded for automating switching between matte and photo black inks…but the process isn’t instantaneous. The two inks share the same line and the flushing process takes 2 minutes going from photo black to matte and 3 minutes from matte to photo black. Ink wasted during the process is 1.5 cc and 4.5 cc, respectively. If you switch a lot, this could be a concern. I deliberately switched cartridges frequently and the 3800 performed flawlessly. Still, it’s best to organize running as many matte or glossy jobs at one time.

Epson includes the wonderful LFP remote-panel software with the printer, which allows you to download new firmware, track how much ink was used on each job, and run utilities including a power clean, without using the control panel. The 3800 prints beautifully but it’s relatively slow, for example, a 13×19″ print set took 7 minutes at 1,440 dpi and 5 minutes at 720 dpi. Performance-wise, the Epson Stylus 3800 is better suited for a small, low-volume, fine arts/graphic studio than a busy, high-volume production environment.