For a long time, most color printers were too expensive for the home and not good enough for the office. Now, both drawbacks are gone. Today's ink jet color printers are not only affordable, but their quality is good enough to impress both your clients and your 6-year-old.

For many users, an ink jet color printer makes more sense than a laser printer. I can't think of any reason to buy an old-style dot matrix printer anymore, unless you need it for carbon-copy forms.

Ink jet printers work by spraying tiny dots of ink on the paper. The technology has been around for a number of years, but it's been improved lately so that the output quality is only slightly lower than what you get with a laser printer, the highest-quality class of machines.

For many applications, including letters and reports, you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a good ink jet and a laser printer.

Laser printers provide a sharper image and are faster, too. A typical office laser printer operates at about eight pages a minute while less expensive, personal laser printers usually run at four to six pages a minute. Ink jet printers typically operate at three to six pages per minute in black and about half that speed when printing in color.

I have both types of printers and, except for the rare occasions when I'm printing a manuscript for an upcoming book, I almost always use my color ink jet rather than my laser printer.

Leading color ink jet printer makers include Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Epson and Lexmark. More important than brand name, however, are the printer's features.

All the companies offer a low-end version which is, essentially, a black and white printer that can be upgraded by replacing the black cartridge with a three- or four-color cartridge. These typically start at about $250 and aren't bad if you mainly plan to print in black.

When using the color cartridge, the machine prints black by mixing various colors. The result isn't as good as black ink and costs more per page. And it's a hassle to remove and insert cartridges.

I highly recommend a printer that lets you use both black and color cartridges at the same time. The Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 660c, about $400, is a good moderately priced color and black printer that can do that. It's easy to set up and use and the text looks quite good. Expect to get about three to four pages per minute in black -- about the same as a low-cost personal laser printer -- and about one page per minute in color.

Canon makes several color model. The one I like the best, for general use, is the new BJC 4100, which costs about $350. It is capable of very high resolution (720 by 320 dots) black and white, as well as excellent color. The speed, at standard resolution, is up to five pages a minute in black. Paper handling is good and Canon has simplified operation by minimizing the number of controls.

This printer does handle both black and color ink at the same time, however, if you opt for both cartridges at once, you have to use a small black cartridge that's good for between 100 and 150 pages at a cost of up to 7.5 cents a page. You can lower your cost dramatically by using Canon's high-capacity black cartridge (900 pages at a cost of about 3 cents per page), but you can't use that cartridge at the same time as the color one. Epson and Hewlett-Packard don't put you in that predicament, allowing you to mingle large black and color cartridges in their models.

The Epson Color Stylus was once my favorite printer and its newest version, the Color Stylus II ($450), is even better. The black text is good, though not outstanding, but the color is amazing. If you're willing to use Epson's special paper, you'll get results that may wean you from your local photo store.

I used the printer to create some very professional-looking publicity flyers with a color photo. I also used it last year to create great holiday greeting cards. The machine is a bit loud and it's not as fast as the competition, but the color is spectacular.

My current favorite printer is the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 550c. It's bit more expensive than the rest, but if you plan to print a lot, it might be worth its $550 price. The printer can handle up to six pages a minute in black and about three pages in color. The quality of the black ink is near laser-like and the color is quite good. Like all Hewlett-Packard printers, the machine is very rugged, which is why you often find HP printers in schools.

When evaluating printers, consider cost per page, speed in both black and white and color, paper handling -- it should take at least 100 sheets and be able to print envelopes and card stock -- and quality of printing. And, of course, look for a good warranty and technical support offered through a toll-free telephone call. Lawrence Magid's e-mail address is magid@latimes.com