Just as personal computers have become more versatile over the years, so have printers. Multifunction printers combine printing with copying, scanning and faxing in one unit -- and sometimes phone, voicemail and e-mail-sending functions as well.

Another name for these all-in-one units is, not surprisingly, "all-in-one." Other names include "multifunction device" and "multifunction peripheral."

Multifunction printers are particularly useful for the small office, home office or the home itself, where there may not be space for a separate copy machine, scanner and fax machine. What's more, there's significant cost savings in buying one multifunction unit instead of multiple separate units.

Multifunction printers are taking market share away from single-function or stand-alone printers. Multifunction printers comprise 62 percent of all printer sales, according to the latest numbers by market research firm IDC.

There are downsides to using a multifunction printer, but they are less of an issue than in the past. It used to be that you had to sacrifice functionality. You didn't get the same quality or feature set with an all-in-one that you got from individual units. But today's multifunction printers have bridged that gap, according to testing by Consumer Reports. There's one exception: Stand-alone scanners still do an appreciably better job at the specialized task of scanning film and slides.

The other main downside to multifunction printers is the risk of downtime because of malfunctions. If the unit breaks, you're can't print, nor can you carry out all the other tasks that the unit makes possible. But many of today's machines are so inexpensive -- often less than $200, and sometimes less than $100 -- that buying a new unit to fill in for the one that's being repaired, or simply replacing the one that's broken, can be an efficient way to go.

There are four main types of multifunction printers: general inkjet, photo inkjet, black and white laser, and color laser. Inkjets print in black and white or color, while photo inkjets provide extra resolution and color fidelity for those who use the machine extensively for printing photos.

Laser devices cost more initially but cost less in consumables per page printed, and are better suited if you use the machine heavily or need lots of top-quality text. Color lasers cost even more but are useful for busy offices that require color for charts and graphs in business documents.

In PC Magazine's most recent survey, users were more satisfied with laser multifunction printers than inkjet multifunction printers. Traditionally inkjet manufacturers have earned high profit margins from selling expensive replacement ink cartridges.

As a way of differentiating itself from other inkjet manufacturers, Kodak has recently introduced multifunction printers that use cheaper replacement ink cartridges. For example, Staples sells the Kodak ESP 5250 All-in-One's brand-name color-ink cartridge for $14.99 and a black-ink cartridge for $9.99.

The Kodak ESP 5250, like a number of newer printers, can print wirelessly from multiple PCs in a Wi-Fi network. You don't have to connect the printer and the PC with a cable, and the PC doesn't have to be turned on. Like some multifunction printers, however, it doesn't have faxing capabilities. The more expensive Kodak ESP 9 provides faxing.

In Consumer Reports' most recent ratings of multifunction printers, Hewlett-Packard (HP) earned the most top spots, followed by Epson. HP makes some very good general inkjet multifunction printers, while Epson shines with its inkjets that are optimized for printing photos. The HP Officejet 6500 Wireless won Consumer Reports' Best Buy award for inkjet multifunction printers.

The top multifunction printer vendors by market share, according research firm Gartner, are HP (40 percent), Canon (19 percent), Epson (14.2 percent), Brother (6.2 percent) and Samsung (4.9 percent).

HP received the top reliability score from users in PC Magazine's latest survey. HP and Epson both received

Reid Goldsborough  |  Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.