When your printer is up for renewal, the good news is that prices are falling fast with a 20% drop in 2005 showing just how competition is driving sales. However, you will be faced with a minefield of information to circumnavigate before you can even think about landing a bargain.

Speed and quality are probably the most important factors, while colour is the fastest growing printer segment driven by a combination of falling prices, faster speeds and demand for in-house colour printing.

Analyst firm IDC predicts that the colour printer market will double by 2009. While colour was once a luxury that few businesses would consider as an affordable office solution, the new breed of printers cost less to run with cheaper consumables such as colour ink cartridges and falling costs per page.

Expect to pay around one pence for a black and white page, and six pence for a colour page.

Choosing the right printer for your business is critical – and complicated. Prices range from the deceptively low entry-level price of inkjet printers for as little as £100 (although these are renowned for punitive running costs with low cartridge page yield and high ink replacement costs) to £1,500 for a top of the range laser printer.

Laser offers faster print speeds, high-quality black and white, as well as colour printed documents, and competitive laser consumable costs, including the added benefit of individual colour and black cartridges.

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

It is always worth assessing your current usage by conducting a quick print audit of average pages printed per month, A4 or A3 requirements, and colour usage. Take a long-term view and consider the potential growth of your company.

Expect to allocate one printer to every eight to 10 users, with faster products in departments such as marketing and sales that produce lots of presentations and mailings.

If you are outsourcing work to copy shops, it is now usually cheaper to bring these jobs in-house, especially for printing stationery and tailored promotional brochures.

There is less wastage and no limitations on print runs or penalties for small orders.

While colour is dominating the market, you will not want your staff running off colour documents or images without controls. Make sure that your new printer has good administrator features so you can limit colour usage, either by user or group, or even by document type.

These features are available on many models and are designed for use by laymen, as opposed to IT specialists – an important point to consider.

COLOUR AND MONO

Colour is undoubtedly where the future lies and the latest technology such as wireless printing, media card slots and improved paper handling features are being developed for colour models.

The printer vendors are obviously keen to push colour as it increases their margins on consumables, but remember that the best business printers do offer mono and colour simultaneously.

It is also possible to disable the colour on a printer if you do not need colour now but want to future-proof your purchase.

SPEED VERSUS QUALITY

Laser produces a high-quality finished product at the best speeds. Inkjets may look like a cheap alternative but beware the exorbitant consumable prices, as these will eat up your print budget.

Key points on your printer shortlist should be ease of use, total cost of ownership translated into cost per copy and taking into account consumables, print quality and speed.

There is nothing more frustrating that setting up a new network printer only to find that users are waiting ages to collect documents.

Falling prices mean that you should be able to pick up a good quality laser printer offering 20 pages per minute for around £500, while a top quality business printer running at up to 35 pages per minute costs around £1,000.

But remember that speed has to be balanced with quality; test out a selection of frequently printed colour documents and look out for clarity and crispness of the text and sharpness of colour.

Consistency of colour output is another great measure of a printer as you will not want long print runs fading out midway through a job.