One of the fastest growing segments of the office equipment industry features a new kind of machine: the multifunctional. Sometimes referred to as an all-in-one, a multifunctional combines the functions of at least three different pieces of office equipment into one machine that s tailored to small offices, home offices and workgroups.
Is a multifunctional right for you? Where is the best place to buy one? What features should you look for when buying one? What can you expect to pay? The questions are endless. However, the Better Buys for Business team has created this special report to help you cut though the clutter and tell you what you need the know to make an informed buying decision.
Multifunctionals are commonly described as machines that perform at least three of the following functions:
• Printing electronic documents from your computer,
• Copying paper documents,
• Faxing paper or electronic documents, or
• Scanning paper documents to your PC or to others as an e-mail.
The theory behind multifunctional units is simple pack all the document-processing functions you could want into a single machine to save space and money. In practice, though, there are limits to what a manufacturer can combine into one device while preserving the integrity of the functions and offering a competitive price.
Evaluating Each Function
It s important to know what kind of performance you ll get from each function provided by your machine. Some important factors to consider:
• Image quality: Despite advances in ink jet technology, laser output remains crisper and clearer to most eyes, so if you only need black-and-white printing, a laser machine may be the better choice.
• Speed: The fastest multifunctional machines have laser engines most now print at 12-15 pages-per-minute. Inkjet models are often slower, even when running black-and-white jobs. Also, inkjet vendors may quote the maximum speed and maximum resolution in the same breath, but it’s unlikely that you will get both at the same time.
• Economics: The cost of supplies varies widely, but it tends to run higher for inkjet models than laser units. If you plan to generate high page volumes, these differences can mount up fast. Ink jet units can be less expensive than laser units to buy but are usually more expensive to run.
• PCL and PostScript: Not all multifunctionals offer the printer languages PCL and PostScript, but use a less powerful printing system called Windows GDI. You ll pay extra for machines with these features, which are needed for printing complex files, particularly those with lots of graphics and different fonts.
• Sheet-fed models: This kind of multifunctional is similar to a fax in that you place your originals in a document feeder when processing hard copies. The disadvantage, however, is that you can t copy a book or magazine unless you are willing to rip it apart.
• Platen models: These work like regular office copiers. They come with a platen, which is the glass surface that sits on the top of the machine. You can lay bound originals such as books and magazines on the platen and make copies without damaging the original. As a general rule, platen-based models are more expensive.
• Color models: If you need color copying, low-cost models can be especially slow several run at less than a page a minute. On the other hand, image quality can be surprisingly good.
• Fax speed: Most fax-capable multifunctionals have modems that operate at a top speed of 14,400 bps. Higher-end multifunctional models include 33,600 bps modems. To take advantage of this faster speed, the party to whom you re sending (or from whom you re receiving) must match it. Otherwise, the speed will default to the slowest common level.
• Fax memory: This determines how many pages you can scan into the machine when sending a large document, as well as how many it can receive if it runs out of paper. Low-end models typically come with between 100-150 pages of memory, while more expensive machines have 250 pages or more.
• Color faxing: A handful of models can send and receive color faxes, but there are limitations. Both the transmitting and the receiving machines must be color-capable, and this is still fairly uncommon. Also, color faxing can take a long time because of the large size of color files. Finally, image quality can be disappointing because the compression method used causes some image data to be lost during transmission.
Scanning to PC
• Bundled software: Unlike printing, copying and faxing, which are hardware-dependent, scanning depends mostly on software. The most important part of scanning is what happens to the image after it has been scanned. Multifunctionals generally come bundled with a software suite that includes Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software for converting scanned documents into editable text, as well as image manipulation software for enhancing halftones and graphics.
• Resolution: Contrary to what you might think, having the ability to scan at high resolutions isnot all that important on a multifunctional. Often, scanning at high resolutions (common when scanning photographs) creates large electronic files that are cumbersome to handle. For most general purposes, 200 dpi, 300 dpi, or 400 dpi will do fine. Though many machines offer resolutions of 1,200 dpi and higher, most people rarely scan at these lofty levels.
• Ease of use: Scanning can be a tricky function to master, particularly if you ve never done it before. Some machines are easier to operate than others and it s worth trying out this function on demo models in stores.
Scan to e-mail
• This is one of the more helpful functions in the multifunctional category. It s something of a crossover technology, somewhere between scanning to a PC and faxing. Scan to e-mail allows you to take a hard-copy document, scan it into your multifunctional, and have the image sent as an e-mail attachment. The person receiving it has the option of either viewing it or printing it out. Look for multifunctionals that offer this function as a single button on the control panel.
When getting a feel for how you want each function to perform, keep these additional factors in mind:
Connectivity & compatibility - Most multifunctionals feature either a parallel or USB (Universal Serial Bus) port for connecting to your PC. A growing number can be connected to a computer network, either by plugging an external network server into the parallel port or by installing an Ethernet card into the machine itself. Note that an Ethernet link can add several hundred dollars to the purchase price of your unit. If you are working from a Mac, make sure the multifunctional you choose works with that platform not all do.
Ease of use - We can t overemphasize the importance of ease of use. With so many functions and features crammed into one machine, "user friendliness" is critical to determining whether you re getting your money s worth. Here are some things to consider: Does the software install rapidly and without creating conflicts with other programs? Are the various functions well integrated and easily accessible through the software? How easy is it to replace the supplies? Is the control panel uncluttered?
One of the biggest challenges for manufacturers is designing a control panel after
packing as many as four functions and numerous features into a single product.
The Case For & Against
Incorporating a multifunctional machine into your office can have both advantages and disadvantages.
• It s far cheaper to buy one machine that combines three or more functions than to buy three single-function machines.
• Keeping track of supplies and keeping the paper tray filled is far easier when dealing with only one machine; maintenance is easier, too.
• Multifunctional models don t take up much space most sit comfortably in the corner of a desk. It’s likely you wouldn t have enough room for a copier, printer, fax, and scanner if each was bought separately.
• Since there is just a single connection, cabling to your PC is easier. It can be quite confusing running multiple cables from your PC to a separate printer, scanner and, in some cases, fax machine. (The exception is if your office equipment is on a network.)
• When combining several functions into one machine, manufacturers are often forced to make certain tradeoffs, affecting what is made available to you. For instance, you may have to sacrifice fax speed to get a model that copies with a glass platen (where you place your original). Or, you may gain higher-resolution laser printing at the cost of engine speed, and so on. Keep an eye out for these tradeoffs.
• When a multifunctional machine suffers a malfunction, your document processing may grind to a halt. Instead of losing only a single function, you re likely to lose copying, printing, and the ability to print an incoming fax.
• If several people share the same machine, there can be contention problems. For example, when a print job is in process the other users are unable to make copies, or have a fax reception printed, until it is finished. High-end multifunctionals let you at least scan a copy job to memory, but most low-end models make you wait.
• Some multifunctional models suffer from an imbalance of features. For example, the print function may be quite strong, while the copy or fax function is weak.
• If you already own a single-function machine that suits your needs, it may not make sense to buy a multifunctional model just to get a additional functions. For example, if you already own a $400 desktop copier you might be better off buying a cheap consumer scanner for $69 and an inkjet printer for $129 rather than a multifunctional printer/copier/scanner for $399.
But convenience isn t the only factor to consider when shopping for a multifunctional. Multifunctionals are fairly complicated products, far more complex than single-function printers or fax machines. If you can get a good look at (or a demonstration of) a multifunctional model before you buy it, you re less likely to have an unpleasant surprise once it s sitting on your desktop. The best place to get a close look is an office supplies superstore, but don t expect to see the full product line for any given vendor. Retail stores keep only a few machines on the floor in order to keep down costs.
Original source: Better Buys - Free Special Reports
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