All-in-one printers used to be the computing world's jack-of-all-trades, master of none. They were expensive and didn't perform as well...

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All-in-one printers used to be the computing world’s jack-of-all-trades, master of none. They were expensive and didn’t perform as well as buying the same dollar amount of stand-alone devices to copy, fax and print.

Now they’re turning into a terrific option for those who want one simple device that does everything. They take up a tiny footprint on your desktop, are much smaller than the hulking behemoths they used to be and perform most functions adequately for any small home or office use.

Take the Epson Stylus Photo RX620, for example. It’s a color photo inkjet printer, a flatbed scanner and a fax machine rolled into one, as are most all-in-ones. (What kind of printer you get is the major difference.) It sells for about $280.

You get a better-than-average photo printer, a perfectly serviceable scanner and a good fax machine. It’s small for the class — about 18 inches long, 24 inches wide and about 12 inches high — though it’s heavy, at about 19 pounds.

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No one is going to say this all-in-one beats Epson’s better photo printers, which, along with Hewlett Packard’s, set the industry standard for consumer photo prints. Most folks who look at photos printed on this printer will, upon close examination, be able to tell that they were printed, not developed. That’s not true of the high-end photo printers.

But the RX620 costs about two-thirds of what a high-end photo printer does and includes the other office capabilities you might want. That’s the benefit of all-in-one printers: They give you pretty much every imaging gadget you might want for daily use in one compact package.

Here’s what to consider when buying one.

If a high-end performance in scanning or printing is needed, an all-in-one is not for you. While the quality has risen dramatically over the past few years, no all-in-one can compete with the industry-leading stand-alone devices in each category. The workhorse part of the all-in-one is the printer. It’s used for almost everything — printing faxes, documents, scanned copies and the like. So consider the printer the most important part of the purchase. You’re used to seeing less-than-stellar quality on your faxes and photocopies anyway, so how well the scanner works is secondary.

How good the prints look depends on two things: the technology built into the printer and its software, and the dots per inch it can produce. The more dots it can squeeze into an inch, the crisper your pictures and prints will look.

I recommend HP, Epson and Lexmark for print quality. I think HP has the best quality overall, and Lexmark the best quality for the price (although their machines tend to be ink hogs).

Next on your list is the scanner. Here, two measurements tell you how crisp your scans will be: the dots per inch (again, higher is better) and the color depth, measured in bits. The RX620 has 48-bit color, for example, which is perfectly serviceable.

Your resolution measurement will either be one number (1200 dots per inch) or two (1200 x 2400 dpi). Pay attention only to the first. Higher-end scanners typically have 2400 dpi. And look for the optical scanning resolution, not the enhanced resolution, if they’re listed separately. Optical is what the lens can actually see; enhanced is what the software can extrapolate from that image, which isn’t always as crisp.

All-in-ones handle faxes a couple of different ways. Some have a fax modem and phone connection built in. Others, like the RX620, produce scans that are ready to be faxed, but you’ll need a fax modem and software on your computer to actually do the deed. If you plan to send a lot of faxes, a built-in connection likely will make it easier and faster.