For frugal consumers, there is an obvious appeal to buying a multifunction printer: It can save on the cost of numerous visits to a copy center or separate machines that would otherwise crowd a home office. The best cheap all-in-one printers can copy, scan, and in some cases fax, as well as print, without costing much more than a stand-alone printer. We've researched the latest models and longstanding favorites, sorting through expert reviews and hundreds of user comments to determine which budget printers stack up to the demands of both everyday home use and small businesses with modest needs. With starting prices under $100, all our picks are inkjets, not laser printers, but they're all compact enough to sit on a desk or small table. They provide a range of connectivity options and features that appeal to consumers looking for high-quality text and photo printing, ease of use, and convenience in addition to a low price tag.
Choosing a Cheap All-in-One Printer
When shopping for a cheap all-in-one printer, assess your needs before making a selection. Some machines excel at printing text while others handle photos especially well. Any multifunction printer should be able to print to an array of common paper sizes, such as letter and legal, but many machines also print more unusual options such as A4, B5, and A6. Most users don't need a built-in fax or automatic document feeder, but you can find an all-in-one with those options at a competitive price. And no longer does a cheap printer have to plug into a computer. Today's models have wireless connection options and support for mobile devices.
Our research identified several cheap multifunction printers that meet users' expectations for value and performance. At the thrifty end of the market, printer heavyweights Brother, Canon, HP, and Epson hold dominant positions. We particularly favor two models that consistently produce excellent photo prints, the Canon Pixma MG5720 (starting at $69) and the Epson Expression Home XP-430 (starting at $60), which also has a wide selection of connection options. The Canon Pixma MG6820 (starting at $80) and HP OfficeJet 4650 (starting at $68) are two other good budget options.
The Brother MFC-J485DW (starting at $60) has a nice set of features at a low price, but its painfully slow performance turns off many buyers. The HP Envy 5540 (starting at $72) prints photos quickly, but its slow document printing and need for frequent ink replacement make this printer a less desirable option.
Of course, even the best cheap multifunction printers are not perfect in every dimension. At a budget price, you have to accept some weaknesses in performance or a lack of certain features. Low-cost all-in-one printers are generally slower than pricier models, especially when printing photos, and color document printing may not reach professional quality. High-end multifunction printers generally boast more built-in memory and much larger paper capacity. Bearing brand names such as Ricoh, Xerox, and Samsung, these upscale machines are designed for business use and deliver far more in the way of features and performance than a family, student, or home-office user would need.
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Multifunction Printer Reviews: What We Considered
In researching our picks, we favored multifunction printer reviews from sources such as CNET, PC Mag, and PC World, who put the machines through a variety of tests. These reviewers are experts at determining the quality of the output. Because they're familiar with so many models, they know what kind of performance and features to expect from a budget machine. We also read through reviews from consumers to get their firsthand perspectives on printers they've purchased. This sort of commentary became invaluable when evaluating a model like the Brother MFC-J485DW, which is widely available on shelves at Best Buy yet garners little expert feedback. It was primarily through the extensive commentary of scores of owners that we discovered that this printer, although pretty impressive on paper, provides users much less -- particularly in terms of convenience -- than they bargained for.
Text and Photo Printing.Although all-in-one printers can copy, scan, and sometimes fax, it's clear from multifunction printer reviews that most users rely on them more for printing text documents and photos than for any other purpose. That being the case, for both users and experts, print quality is the defining characteristic of a good budget multifunction printer, or MFP, as they're often called. A device that meets the mark produces sharp text that's easy to read, regardless of font size, as well as photos that are bright and crisp, with accurate color.
To get color printing at a budget price, inkjet MFPs are the only option, and while they lack some of the precision of laser printers for small text, they generally perform quite well when printing dark, clear text in standard sizes. The expert reviews we consulted had few complaints in this regard, and some reviewers were quite impressed with the text output from the inexpensive printers we recommend. The two Canon Pixma models, the MG5720 and MG6820, are said to produce client-ready documents that would satisfy most home business owners. Even printers that failed to impress us in other ways do well on this front. For example, Top Ten Reviews included the HP Envy 5540 in a comparison test and found that the print quality of business documents is well above average for cheap MFPs, with text that's very sharp and readable, even when using small fonts, and color graphics that are second to none. Unfortunately, the HP Envy 5540 is slow to print those documents.
Photos printed by the models we researched generally look pretty good as well, with lively colors and vivid detail. To get the best results, make sure the brand of photo paper you use matches the brand of printer you have, experts say. Printer manufacturers design their inks and papers to maximize quality when used together. For photo quality, the Canon printers again top the list. A Computer Shopper reviewer calls the Canon Pixma MG5720's photo quality truly impressive, with vibrant, accurate colors, and sharp detail -- the best among MFPs in this price range.
Surprisingly, the Canon Pixmas don't have the highest print resolution (measured in dpi, or dots per inch) among our top picks. That honor goes to the Epson Expression Home XP-430, which touts a pretty robust 5760 x 1440 dpi, as opposed to the Canons' 4800 x 1200 dpi. It just goes to show that high resolution shouldn't be a deciding factor in the purchase of an all-in-one printer. Experts say the dot size, shape, and placement play a role in how sharp a printout looks, and companies perform tests based on their own standards, so it's very difficult to determine whether you're comparing apples to apples when looking at printer resolution from two different manufacturers. Also, the type of ink and paper used can affect how text and images appear on the final page.
Copying and Scanning.As with printing, copying and scanning quality seems to be consistent across the best budget all-in-ones, although experts focus less attention on these two functions. The quality and speed of copies and scans should be on par with the print output. Text should be defined and dark, and colors should be true and rich. Scanners with higher bit numbers are generally able to "see" more color nuances and capture images with less noise. Consumers reviewing the Epson Expression Home XP-430 on Amazon were impressed with the quality of the scans coming from its 48-bit hardware, although the lack of an automatic document feeder (see below) can make the process of scanning multiple pages a bit tedious. Many consumers posting reviews on Amazon. also admire the scans from the 24-bit HP OfficeJet 4650, which they say are "crystal clear."
Speed.While the quality of both documents and photos earns praise from experts and consumers for almost every printer we reviewed, the speed of some printers was often panned. One metric that printer manufacturers like to fudge is the number of pages per minute, or ppm, a printer can spit out. Specs usually display the ppm for printing text at the lowest quality setting (draft quality), using only black ink. It's not uncommon to find cheap all-in-one printers that claim print speeds of 24 ppm or more. But for higher quality settings or color, the speed plunges to about 10 to 12 ppm for text and 3 to 4 ppm for graphics, or perhaps even slower.
In reviews on Best Buy.com, shoppers complain about how slowly the Brother J485DW prints documents, as do several consumers who posted reviews on the Brother website. More than one user claims that the printer takes as long as two minutes to put out a single sheet of black text. The HP OfficeJet 4650 is also relatively slow. Computer Shopper testers found that it averages only 1.4 ppm for business documents including graphics. However, the exceptional quality of those documents may very well be worth the wait.
According to PC Mag tests, the Canon Pixma MG6820 is one of the faster printers around when it comes to photo printing, taking only 52 seconds to serve up a great-looking 4 x 6-inch shot. Its speed when printing documents is a little bit slow, at 2.6 ppm, but certainly acceptable for most light home usage. (The Canon Pixma MG5720 prints a 4 x 6-inch photo in 54 seconds and averages the same speed as the MG6820 for documents.)
Interestingly, manufacturers including Canon have begun listing printer speeds in images per second, or ipm, as opposed to ppm. This metric, like ppm, is approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and many say ipm provides a more accurate standard for comparison across brands. It's based on the number of pages of a specific set of documents, containing both text and graphics, a printer can produce (at an ISO-defined default speed) in one minute.
Connectivity.It used to be rare to find a wireless multifunction printer for less than $100. Now all the models we researched boast wireless capabilities and support for mobile devices such as smartphones. If your household has more than one computer, wireless enables everyone to use the printer at once from anywhere in the home. Connecting to a home network was a serious hassle in the past, but these days, reviewers say it's pretty easy to connect a wireless all-in-one to a Wi-Fi network. You can still connect most multifunction printers to a PC by plugging in a USB cord. (The printers on our list are compatible with Windows operating systems going back to XP and recent versions of Mac OS X. Be sure to check the printer specs if you have an older computer. For newer operating systems, companies typically release updated drivers for download.)
A wireless printer should, ideally, provide a number of options for remote printing from mobile devices as well as computers. All the models we recommend are compatible with AirPrint, which lets users print directly from an Apple device without installing any printer software. Most also support Google Cloud Print. Many all-in-one manufacturers have additional apps available for printing documents from a smartphone or tablet. Examples are the Epson Connect app and Brother's iPrint & Scan.
Wi-Fi Direct lets users wirelessly connect directly to the printer with a smartphone or other mobile device without having to rely on a home network. All the printers we reviewed except the Canon models support Wi-Fi Direct in addition to normal Wi-Fi connectivity. (Canon has its own version of Wi-Fi Direct and can pair with enabled devices.) An all-in-one with a memory card reader lets users insert a camera card into the machine and print photos without the help of a computer. It's a convenient feature that we don't consider essential or necessarily worth extra money. Consumers who do a lot of photo printing can look to the Canon Pixma MG6820 to print directly from a memory card.
For consumers who want an affordable all-in-one with even more connectivity options, the slightly pricier Brother MFC-J885DW (starting at $100) is equipped with near field communication. Users with NFC-compatible mobile devices can simply bring them within inches of the printer to connect automatically. The Brother MFC-J885DW is also the only model featured here that has an Ethernet port, which is no longer common.
Color Ink Cartridges.Frugal shoppers will no doubt be concerned about the cost of printer ink. How much you spend on ink depends in large part on the type of printing and copying you do but also on the ink system. Some all-in-one printers, the HP Envy 5540 among them, have only two ink cartridges: one for black and one for color. If you run out of one color within that color cartridge, you have to replace the whole thing, even if there's still plenty of the other colors left. All-in-ones with multiple color cartridges are more cost-effective. Most of our picks use a combination of one black cartridge and three color cartridges. For high-quality black-and-white photos, the Canon Pixma printers add an additional black cartridge to the standard four.
Another way to save on ink costs is to buy "high-yield" cartridges. These often have more than twice as much ink as regular cartridges and cost less in the long run. For example, a standard black ink cartridge for the HP OfficeJet 4650 costs $16 from a source such as Office Depot and has a maximum yield of 190 pages. A high-yield ink cartridge for the same printer has a maximum yield of 480 pages but costs only $32, a savings of $8 over the equivalent of two and a half standard cartridges. Some other brands require bulk buys of at least two of the larger cartridges to make the savings significant, however. All our picks have high-yield ink cartridges available.
Automatic Paper Handling.A printer with automatic duplexing can print on both sides of a page to help save on paper costs. With the exception of the Epson Expression Home XP-430, the models we recommend support automatic double-sided printing.
Other automatic paper-handling features may make a difference to some consumers, particularly business users dealing with higher volume. Most cheap multifunction printers have a flatbed scanner where you open the lid and lay flat a single page you want to copy or scan, be it a document, photo, book or magazine page, or what have you. But some all-in-ones have automatic document feeders that churn through multiple pages without the user's intervention. So-called ADFs aren't particularly common in budget models, but two all-in-ones that include this convenience are the HP OfficeJet 4650 and Brother MFC-J485DW.