What does an all-in-one printer do?

The purpose of an all-in-one printer

An all-in-one business printer is a useful tool for both the office and the home computer room. Knowing what features to look for when considering a new all-in-one printer purchase can allow you to purchase a unit that will be more suited to your needs. Some printer features benefit all of the printer's functions, while others make an individual function, such as faxing, more productive.

Basic printers are simple and inexpensive enough to be nearly disposable. However, higher-quality printers offer a range of extra features to improve their versatility. For small to medium-sized businesses or entrepreneurs with a home office, one multifunction printer can replace several other office machines. While this poses a risk -- if it fails, you lose everything -- in practice, good 5-in-1 printers are durable enough to serve for years and can be inexpensive enough to replace easily.

In the past, you'd need a printer, fax machine, copier and scanner to do the things a single all-in-one business printer could do. Aside from actually printing, these multi-functional printers offer a range of other features that give them the title of "all-in-one." Wireless models don't even need to be physically connected to your computer to communicate with it.

Buying a new printer for your small or mid-sized business might seem like a relatively straightforward task until you realize the vast number of options associated with the decision: Should you opt for a standalone printer or one of those all-in-one machines? Inkjet or laser? Colour or monochrome? Do you need collating, two-sided printing, or large input trays? What about wireless?

Many small and mid-sized businesses today are opting for laser printers for large volume jobs, as opposed to an inkjet they might have at home for the occasional photo printing. At the same time, the multifunction printers can also handle scanning, copying, and faxing.


The top of a 5-in-1 printer is a flat lid, covering and protecting the glass platen of a flatbed scanner. Windows, Mac and Linux computers all have software for scanning, and major applications such as Microsoft Office and Open Office/Libre Office scan directly into a document. The printer's manufacturer might also supply a standalone scanning program with the printer or as a free download, providing additional features. The ability to scan invoices, business letters, books and other hardcopy documents can be invaluable, saving physical space and ensuring easy retrieval. It's especially useful for incoming faxes that must be signed and returned to the sender.


Although faxes are less important with the rise of email and instant messaging, they remain a useful method for sending original documents. Modern plain-paper faxes are essentially laser, or inkjet printers with telephony added, so incorporating fax capability into a multifunction laser or inkjet is straightforward for the manufacturer. A 5-in-1 printer can scan and send original documents, like other faxes. It can also fax a document directly from a computer, eliminating the need for a printout. Faxes can also be sent from the printer itself, by placing a document on the scanner platen and dialling the number manually. The printer must be connected to a telephone line.


Multifunction printers are also highly capable copiers for low to moderate usage. Copiers scan and print a document, and any 5-in-1 printer can do that with aplomb. If your business needs copying capability, but can't justify the cost of leasing or purchasing a full-time photocopier, a multifunction printer might fill that gap. Inkjet models are typically intended for low-volume copying, while laser machines will support higher copying volumes and their toner is usually cheaper and longer-lasting than inkjet ink. Higher-end models support duplex printing, the ability -- like a standalone copier -- to copy both sides of a page at once.

Network Printing

The only thing better than having a powerful, versatile printer for your computer is having a powerful, versatile printer for everyone's computer. Multifunction 5-in-1 printers are designed for network connectivity, giving designated computers on the network access to their features. Printers with an Ethernet connection can be added to a hardwired network, or connected through a router. Other printers are designed for wireless networking and can connect through the 802.11 g/n protocols, just as your laptops do. In a small business, one multifunction printer can serve everyone, or it can provide non-printing features to several people who have basic printers for ordinary print jobs.

All-in-one printers have become increasingly popular, especially in smaller organizations, where desk space and technology investments must both be maximized. However, the myriad models, features, and functions can prove bewildering when researching and selecting an all-in-one printer (also known as multifunction machines). From features -- such as flatbed scanners and resolution -- to functionality -- printing, copying, scanning, and faxing -- there's much to think about when making a purchase decision.

Consider these things when you're evaluating your choices.



The first question to ask when researching an all-in-one printer purchase is what functionality the device must provide. Besides serving as a printer, all-in-ones typically include scanning and copying capabilities and in some cases, fax technologies.

Manufacturers, of course, face relentless pricing pressures. To help maintain competitive price points, they must frequently sacrifice the quality of print and scan engines when including other capabilities (such as fax services) within a unit. Thus, you should consider carefully those functions the all-in-one must provide within your organization. By selecting a unit with only required functions, and foregoing unnecessary functionality, you can reduce the unit's cost while increasing the likelihood that the features you do receive will be of higher quality.

Photo printing is another function that certain all-in-one printers deliver. If you must frequently print high-quality photos, be sure the model you choose supports photo printing. At a minimum, such models should support assorted photo paper sizes, including 4 x 6, 5 x 7, and 8 x 10 prints, as well as colour printing resolutions of at least 4,800 x 1,200 pixels.

Print engine

The second factor to consider when purchasing a multifunction machine is the device's print technology. Inkjet versus laser, that's the question.

Inkjet printers have many advantages. Replacement cartridges are less expensive than lasers. Inkjet machines, overall, are typically priced less. And they usually have a much smaller desktop footprint. Inkjets also typically accommodate a wider variety of print media.

Laser printers, however, have a few of their advantages. Print quality is typically better and more consistent, and their prints, over the long run, are usually less expensive. This is because inkjet cartridge life is but a fraction of that for laser printers. Lasers are also quieter. But they're almost always larger than inkjet counterparts.

Scanning features

Although some organizations only occasionally rely upon their all-in-one printer to scan documents, other firms depend on such devices to scan numerous multipage documents daily. Be sure to give your scanning requirements careful consideration.

If you need to scan multipage documents frequently, insist on purchasing an all-in-one printer that has a capable automatic document feeder. The ability to load several pages at once in the device's document feeding tray, as opposed to having to feed each page separately, will save considerable time each month.

Offices emphasizing scanning should purchase models that scan documents at high resolutions. They should avoid all-in-one models that can't scan documents at optical scan resolutions of at least 600 x 1,200 DPI (dots per inch) and 24 bits. The higher the DPI and scanner bit depth, the crisper and sharper those scanned images will appear.

If you regularly need to scan odd-shaped documents or photographs, seek device models that have a flatbed scanner. Otherwise, those odd-size items may have to be taped to 8.5 x 11 paper so you can feed them through a device's automatic feed mechanism -- a process that's both cumbersome and wasteful. Fortunately, many all-in-one manufacturers (including Brother, Epson, HP, and Lexmark) produce flatbed models that also feature automatic document feeders.

Print resolution

When print quality is the priority, pay special attention to the black and colour print resolutions the multifunction machine produces. Print quality is typically measured in DPI. The higher the number, the better.

Inexpensive inkjet printers typically produce 600 x 600 DPI black resolution, while other models produce even 1,200 x 1,200 DPI. Inexpensive inkjet printers' colour capabilities, meanwhile, often start as high as 4,800 x 1,200 DPI.

Entry-level laser printers' black print quality almost always outpaces that of inkjet machines. Lasers usually produce 1,200 x 1,200 DPI black resolution, at a minimum.

Laser printer colour quality can be misleading. While typically not as high as inkjet colour printing, laser systems' colour print resolutions of 1,200 x 600 are common, which should prove acceptable for most corporate needs. When you're shopping for a specific model, almost all retailers can provide test samples for your review.

One item important to note is manufacturers' strategies in listing all-in-one printer specifications. When manufacturers list a model's highest print quality, the rating they list is almost always generated using the printer's slowest print speeds.

Printing performance/duty cycles

Print speeds are important in almost every office. Whether an organization needs to regularly generate lengthy multipage reports or frequently print just short forms for customers, print delays and slow page performance can prove frustrating and costly (especially in the form of lost opportunities).

Entry-level inkjet and laser printers boast speeds of 20 to 30 pages per minute for black pages. Colour printouts take longer to produce, particularly on inkjet machines.

However, keep in mind that manufacturers usually list an inkjet's draft mode print quality when listing maximum pages per minute. Laser printers usually produce higher quality printouts faster. Further, manufacturers typically list page per minute totals after the first page prints; most laser printers generate the first page more quickly than inkjet printers can.

Duty cycles, too, must be considered. A machine engineered to manage 2,500 printouts per month will require more frequent cartridge changes and likely sustain a shorter service life if it's used in an environment in which 5,000 or more prints a month are required. Carefully match a device's production with its estimated recommended monthly volume or duty cycle rating.

Network connectivity

Network connectivity is a critical factor to consider when purchasing an all-in-one printer. If a multifunction device is going to be accessed by multiple users or PCs, whether for scanning or printing, choose a device that includes an integrated Ethernet network interface. Without a network connection, a multifunction device's service capacity is limited to essentially a single PC (or requires that a clumsy network share be created on the host PC and that the host PC always be available to the other systems).

Wireless connectivity

The other option for networking an all-in-one printer (besides a wired Ethernet connection) is wireless LAN connectivity. In environments in which many wirelessly networked laptops (or desktops connected to the local network via a wireless network) will need to print to or receive scans from the multifunction device, wireless network capability is required.

When selecting a multifunction machine that PCs will connect to using wireless connections, be sure the machine is compatible with the existing wireless network. Many organizations are moving to 802.11n as their WLAN standard. Whether your organization uses 802.11b, g, or n, confirm the multifunction model being purchased matches the deployed standard.

Driver support

Users of Apple Macintosh, Linux, and even older Windows operating systems (including Windows 2000 and Windows 98) should check whether all-in-one printer manufacturers provide driver support for their operating systems. Driver support is essentially standard for Windows XP systems, but organizations should still verify that the all-in-one models they purchase support Windows Vista, as well. Without drivers and supporting print, imaging, and fax software, users of other operating systems may find themselves unable to use the multifunction device.

Duplex printing

Duplex printing is an element that's often overlooked. Organizations that need to print anything from reports to forms using both sides of a sheet of paper will find themselves out of luck if they buy an all-in-one device that doesn't support duplex printing. Check to ensure that the model you select matches your organization's needs.

Replacement cartridge availability

Replacement cartridge costs, whether the cartridges are inkjets or lasers, are one thing. Finding replacement cartridges is another.

If you're considering purchasing off-model or lesser-known brands, you may find it difficult to locate replacement ink. Since ink cartridges often seem to fail at the most inopportune time (such as the evening before an important presentation is due), the ability to locate replacements at local office supply stores can be of particular importance.

By sticking with reputable brands, and by using only ink cartridges supplied by the original manufacturer, you can ensure that replacement ink is readily available and that the cartridges work as well as the original ones when the unit was new.

Pros of all-in-one printers

Buying a multifunction laser printer can save your company space, money, and aggravation.

Having one machine that does it all also makes it easier for maintenance, such as downloading just one driver update (opposed to up to four of them) and purchasing "consumables" such as ink or toner, paper, and other supplies. One machine also consumes less power than three or four printers.

Cons of all-in-one printers

As with any converged device, a clear downside is if something goes wrong with your product, you'll likely be without everything while it's being repaired or replaced. In other words, if the scanner in your all-in-one device fails to work and you send it out to be fixed, you're now without a printer, copier, and fax machine, too. 

When it comes to quality there isn't a clear difference between standalone products and multifunction ones anymore. Multifunction printers used to be a generation or two behind its single device counterpart when it came to quality, but this is not the case anymore. 

All-in-one printers, he says have come a long way -- the quality has caught up to the convenience for the most part -- so it boils down to your comfort level with the pros and cons, the cost per copy and what you plan on using it for.

While most standard all-in-one printers can print, copy, scan and fax, some go above and beyond to offer additional features. Such features include double-sided printing and photo printing. As of September 2013, some wireless models even offer apps. For example, some wireless HP all-in-ones provide apps to print directly from online news outlets and apps for novel purposes like printing colouring pages and paper aeroplane outlines.