Printers, as we once knew them, are dull. Today's models are singing, dancing, color-scanning, faxing, copying, input-output devices that serve as a bridge between computers and the real world, between digital bits and hard-copy atoms--which may not necessarily be traditional ink and paper. They handle multiple tasks faster than ever. They take input from memory cards and digital cameras. New color laser printers are making professional-quality output more affordable and common. And specialized devices are writing with stuff that isn't ink on surfaces that aren't paper, even rendering objects in three dimensions. Goodbye dot matrix, hello The Matrix.
Best for... Working solo
What it is: A multifunction color inkjet for the office. It prints, copies, scans, and faxes.
What's cool: It's fast for an inkjet at 30 pages per minute for black and white, 24 per minute for color. A big document feeder holds up to 35 pages, and it can print two-sided copies. The Pixma accepts memory cards and can scan documents to e-mail.
Drawbacks: It's not designed for a network, so it's best for a small or home office. While inkjets are better at printing photos than laser printers are, lasers are better with type and line drawings. Laser jets print faster, especially in color. Plus, while the printer itself is inexpensive, you could end up paying a lot for toner.
Price: $240 to $280
Best for... Cranking out letters and documents
What it is: A high-volume black-and-white laser printer for small-office networks
What's cool: It comes out of sleep mode and starts printing in less than 10 seconds, then can print up to 17 two-sided pages per minute. The toner for this model comes in a 6,500-page version and a 13,000-page version, both of which price out to less than 2 cents a page, a good number in the printing world.
Drawbacks: It's just a black-and-white printer. There are close competitors that cost less but may lack some of the font management techniques and other features HP (NYSE:HPQ) has developed.
Best for... Printing on the go
What it is: A printer that is small enough to take on the road.
What's cool: Just 10 inches wide, the PocketJet 3 is about the size of a big stapler and weighs just over a pound, including its battery. It can print wirelessly using infrared or Bluetooth technology and lasts for about 100 pages before its battery needs recharging.
Drawbacks: This printer requires a special thermal paper, so you'll have to carry that with you (and if you run out, you probably won't be able to borrow some from your client). It does not print in color. It's much slower than conventional printers, producing about three pages a minute.
Price: Starts at $349. The thermal paper is $10.99 for 100 sheets.
Best for... Doing several things at once
What it is: A multifunction color printer for a corporate network. It scans, faxes, and makes color copies.
What's cool: Rather than toner cartridges, this printer uses Xerox's (NYSE:XRX) solid ink color technology, which reduces environmental impact and can be replaced while the printer is working. It can print, scan, copy, and fax simultaneously.
Drawbacks: Black-and-white and color print speeds are both about 30 pages per minute (good for color, a little slow for black). Duplexing (printing on both sides of a page) is optional on this printer, though it's standard on more expensive versions.
Price: Starts at $1,499
Best for... Handling big jobs
What it is: A large-office workhorse with color printing capabilities
What's cool: This is for a high-volume, paper-pumping office, able to crank out 200,000 pages a month, at 55 pages per minute for black and white and 45 pages per minute in color. It scans fast and faxes. Software lets IT people on a corporate network manage it from afar, and it protects sensitive documents with a biometric user ID system that skips passwords to detect vein patterns in people's fingers. That's useful in any office that has sensitive paperwork--and sticky fingers.
Drawbacks: This is not the kind of machine that you just plug in and run. You'll need in-house expertise or a good reseller to manage it.
Best for... Rethinking ink
What it is: A specialized printer that can spray fluids other than ink to create tools for scientific testing
What's cool: It uses "functional fluids" rather than typical inks and can print on plastic, glass, metal, and other surfaces. Genomics researchers can jet DNA onto slides to perform assays. Engineers can print organic light-emitting diodes or electroconductive fluids. This isn't for printing out business contracts, unless you want them in blood.
Drawbacks: It's a pricey research printer for prototypes, not churning out commercial quantities of a product. You may also have to provide your own fluids for it.
Price: About $35,000