Multifunction printers are gaining ground. The ability to print, scan and copy with just one device sounds like a dream come true. Yet what kind of quality do all-in-one printers really offer in their individual functions? It’s getting more difficult to find printers that just print.

Manufacturers are focusing, instead, on multifunctional devices that can also scan and copy. And prices continue to drop on these all-in-one devices. Yet it’s important to look beyond the purchase price and think about the print costs as well.

There are decent entry-level ink jet devices available for around 60 dollars, says Dirk Lorenz from the German consumer testing organisation Stiftung Warentest.

Consumers can expect devices in this class to perform the three basic functions, as well as in many cases offering a USB camera port and an integrated card reader plus a 2.5-inch preview display. The digital camera’s storage card is used to store scans or print out photos directly. That saves the need to turn on the computer at all.

For around 20 to 30 dollars more, many manufacturers also offer devices with a WLAN module to allow for wireless printing from laptops and other computers in the household or office. The advantage: fewer cables around the computer and the printer can be placed beyond the immediate range of the desk.

Those willing to invest 90 to 150 dollars receive larger displays of up to five inches and front or auto document feed, fax functionality and high-quality duplex printing.

The resolution also strongly improves with the price: The Epson Stylus Office SX620FW (from 160 dollars) offers 2400 dpi scanning, earning it top rankings in a test by online portal Druckerchannel for the sub-200 dollar price class.

All of the devices in the lower and mid-range price segment produce comparable print quality, says Sven Lucht from Etest Hardware, a hardware portal.

“The printing technology is pretty mature in all of the devices,” Lucht says. In many cases, the very same printing innards are being used. Differences tend instead to come in print speeds or paper feed, explains Schahin Elahinija from Epson.

The OfficeJet 6500A from HP, for example, takes six seconds to print a page of text of good quality, according to a test by Germany’s Computer-Bild magazine. The magazine declared the 130-dollar model its winner.

Lorenz sees the entry-level devices as a reasonable choice for those who print infrequently. They are certainly acceptable for office work. Florian Heise, director of the test lab at Druckerchannel, warns about hidden printing costs, however.

“A page of text can cost between 2.5 and 6.4 cents, while a colour page in letter-sized format can cost from 42 cents to 1.22 dollars,” Heise says. As a rule of thumb: the more expensive the device, the pricier the printing costs.

When making a purchase, the rule to remember is this: think for the long term and not just about the purchase price. Otherwise the decision can come back to haunt you if things get busy and the printer is extraordinarily slow or lacks key functions.

“Extremely cheap combo-devices are often delivered with ink cartridges with little ink,” Lucht explains. In some cases, a mere 200 pages is enough to drain them and require replacements.

Print costs can be reduced by using individual cartridges, Elahinija notes. If one colour is used more frequently — such as for a logo used on every page — then it’s possible to replace just that one empty colour.

Users who want to print photos can also opt for an all-in-one device, Heise says. “All current multifunctional devices can now print photos of a quality comparable with prints from a lab.” More demanding amateur photographers looking for a broader colour pallet or full bleed printing should instead look for specialised photo printers, Lucht says. Yet caution is advised: Many of the cheaper models work with inks that do not hold up well against time.

That means colours that fade faster and blur more easily if the photos are touched after printing.

On the whole, there’s no disadvantage from a print standpoint in using the combo-technology. “The printing innards are on the same level as normal ink-jets,” Lorenz says. And if a multifunction device costs as much as a printer and scanner from a manufacturer, then it’s usually the same components inside, says Uwe Vieths, a hardware expert at Computer-Bild.

The all-in-one devices are less effective when it comes to scanning, the experts warn, although the scan quality is sufficient for household use, says Vieth. That said, don’t expect high-quality scans from these devices. The technology is too simple. An exception is the Canon Pixma MP990 (starting at 320 dollars), which can also scan slides.