Are you thinking of shifting your company's printing needs from a traditional print house to an online printing service? Inc. asked a panel of CEOs and entrepreneurs to evaluate a number of leading online printing sites. To narrow the field, we focused on self-service printers -- sites where small-business customers can create their own documents and customized products -- rather than sites geared to the printing industry, such as those that auction off print jobs or match buyers and sellers.

We also excluded many sites specializing in one product, personal greeting card sites, and a few recently launched, under-construction, or repeatedly inaccessible sites. Finally, we eliminated several sites that sell printing services but outsource the actual work to other companies. (At, for instance, print orders are fulfilled by; Sir Speedy sends orders to both and For comparison purposes, though, we did include the site of office superstore Staples, which many small businesses already use.

Panelists -- all online printing novices -- road-tested the sites by placing orders of less than $50 for custom products: letterhead stationery, business cards, bound reports. Their adventures in self-service Web printing varied widely. Their biggest single complaint: sites that committed the cardinal sin of wasting their time. "When I was ready to buy, the site had completely lost my order and told me my shopping cart was empty," one panelist groused. Others disliked having to register, download software, or hunt through page after page before placing orders. "The sites need a simple Buy It button," said one frustrated tester.

Several testers said they enjoyed self-service tools that let them experiment with fonts, layouts, colors, graphics, and paper types. Others said they'd rather leave those decisions to the pros at the corner copy shop. "Printing on the Net is hard because you can't quite get the look of the paper or color on your screen," one panelist said.

Nevertheless, most panelists were pleased, or at least satisfied, with how their orders turned out. However, one CEO -- who acknowledged that his business cards were done just as he'd designed them and of decent quality -- said he doesn't expect to transfer his company's printing business online. "It just isn't the same as being able to touch and feel the samples, select based on that experience, and then get questions answered, like, What color of ink do you think works best with this paper?" he said.

In general, testers said they were most likely to occasionally turn to e-printers for specific small, basic, or repeat jobs, such as reprinting business cards previously designed by a brick-and-mortar printer. One panelist concluded: "Nothing caused me to think that I could get the job done better, faster, or cheaper than the way I do it now."

The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to Online Printers

Would our CEOs recommend it to others? CEOs' bottom-line take Mostly no. "I can see this being used by small businesses that need to produce materials quickly and inexpensively." Mostly yes. "User-friendly site offering a variety of services that seem high quality and speedy." Mostly no. "Once you get the hang of the interface, it's very easy." Mostly no. "No ability to use my graphics; limited custom-product selection." Possibly, in some cases. "Don't like downloading software." "Document received on time; quality is great." Mostly yes. "Extremely convenient site." "Job arrived one day later than promised, but quality was wonderful." Mostly yes. "If they did away with their registration form and made it easier to navigate, it would be a perfect site." Possibly, in some cases. "Good for volume reproduction of standard documents." Mostly no. "Clearly at a very early stage of development." "Seems to have promise."

Ease of navigation Selection Ease of use and ordering Reliability Value Versus traditional printers Final grade B+ B+ B- B+ B C+ B B+ B B B B B- B A- B C B- C- C+ C+ A C C+ B- D+ C- C+ B C+ B B- B+ B- B- B B B- B B- C B B+ A- B+ A- B C+ B B- C+ A B B C+ B- B D- B+ C+ C- D C