The Fine Print

from Technology & Learning

How schools can get the best value for their printer dollar.

Printers represent a big chunk of school districts' IT budgets. Unlike computers, however, most of the money schools spend on printers isn't on the machines themselves but on keeping them serviced and filled with toner, drums, and paper. Here are critical questions to ask before you buy.

1. What are your printing requirements?
Before you wrestle with issues such as "inkjet vs. laser" or "purchase vs. pay-per-page," determine your school or district's printing needs. It's not just a matter of figuring out how many classrooms you need to serve, but how each will use its printer. Will they be pumping out copies continuously, so that page-per-minute speed and laser capacity are paramount? Or will they only use the printer occasionally, allowing you to consider a lower-cost inkjet model?

The Lexmark T640 prints 35 pages per minute.

2. What's your need for speed?
When buying printers, one acronym persists: PPM. Short for pages per minute, PPM is the best indicator of how much, or how little, a printer can do for the money."Speed is important for a teacher who needs to print 30 to 40 progress reports at a time," says Nancy Sintic, district technology coordinator for the 4,200-student Ashtabula Area City Schools in Ashtabula, Ohio. "Such high-volume users can't afford to wait for reports that take two minutes per page to print. In contrast, classrooms that print single images every now and then don't need to pay a premium for speed. Another point to consider is how long it takes for a printer to produce its first page. A 60-PPM printer isn't much help if it takes 30 seconds to get the first page out!

3. What kind of quality are you looking for?
A second printer acronym that will dog you is dpi, or dots per inch. DPI describes how good the printed image will be in terms of its resolution. "Just remember that the more dots per inch, the more detailed the image printed," says Sang-Woo Kim, printer specialist at CDW-G. "This is why buying a 4,800 dpi printer to only produce documents doesn't make sense; 600 dpi will do." He adds that some manufacturers have designed their printers "to print at 600 dpi and still produce quality 4,800 dpi [images] by interpolating the dots," optimizing image detail and printing speed.

What about color? Well, since color printers use multiple toner cartridges, they cost more to operate per page than monochrome (black on white paper). So unless you really need color printing, stick to monochrome.

4. Inkjet or laser?
"In our school district, we don't have inkjet printers," says Sintic. "The cost of inkjet toner cartridges combined with the inkjets' low-duty cycles makes laser printers a more economical choice, even in color."

Kim agrees. "There are places for low-volume inkjet printers such as human resources offices, but in general laser is the better choice for schools," says Kim. "It's a matter of volume and cost per page, especially when it comes to consumables such as toners and drums."

A second consideration is the printer's duty cycle, the number of pages a printer can handle on a monthly basis without overheating or wearing out prematurely. The rule of thumb is to estimate how many pages per month each user location requires, add some extra pages to be safe, and then buy printers that can handle those duty cycles.

5. Purchase or pay per page?
Until recently, Ashtabula Area City Schools purchased its printers outright, then paid to keep them supplied on a per-school basis. However, the district has recently signed a deal with Blue Technologies, "where we pay them on the basis of how many pages we print monthly, and they do the rest," says Sintic. That means that Blue Technologies provides the printers, fills them with toner and paper, services them, and replaces any printers that fail.

The HP LaserJet 9040 can print 300,000 pages per month.

[W]e won't have to cope with capital purchases and unexpected repair costs," says Sintic. "We hope to make it much easier for our principals, who are given fixed annual printing budgets, to manage their costs."Will pay-per-page work for your school? It all comes down to money: Work out the costs for both purchase and pay-per-page scenarios before deciding.

James Careless is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada.

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