Laser Printer vs. Inkjet Printer

Most people buy an inkjet printer without really considering the differences between laser and inkjet technology and which one would be the better choice for their circumstances. And who can blame them? It’s not like the printer makers help with the decision.

 

Here we'll discuss the pros and cons of each to help you make an informed decision about what to buy. 

Brief Description of the Two Types

Inkjet printers use liquid ink of several different colors and black. The ink is sprayed as microscopic droplets onto a sheet of paper by a print head that rides back and forth on a rail inside the printer as the paper advances forward.

Laser printers use dry toner (powder) in three colors and black. Some lasers are black only. Imagine colorful or black baking soda, that’s what toner is like. Laser printers don’t have a moving print head. Instead, toner is applied using a metal drum that covers the entire width of the paper. The drum rotates as the paper moves forward.

Pros and Cons of each type

Since lasers and inkjets use completely dissimilar printing technologies then it figures that each will have their pros and cons. This is probably the best way to illustrate the differences and help guide you to a selection. So we’ll go over that here.

Laser

Pros

  • Cheaper to operate. Toner costs less per page than ink, sometimes considerably so.

  • Much faster. Even the slowest lasers are faster than inkjet printers. If you print a lot, you’ll spend less time waiting.

  • Printed sheets come out completely dry, no wet ink to smear. Similarly, printouts won’t smear if they become wet later on for some reason such as from a splash of water or other liquid.

  • Text is crisp and sharper than inkjet. Toner is dry so it doesn’t bleed into the paper’s fiber.

  • Toner cartridges last longer before you have to install a new one. Most toner carts yield in the low thousands of sheets whereas most inkjet carts yield in the low hundreds. That means less cart swapping.

  • A laser printer can sit unused for months on end without the print heads clogging up.

Canon Color Laser w/Scanner

Cons

  • Costs more up-front to purchase, especially for color units with a scanner.

  • Not intended for photo quality printing. Lasers can print photos, but not nearly as well as inkjet printers.

  • Some models have additional maintenance requirements such as replacing fuser rollers and drums. Some newer models incorporate some of these parts into the toner carts themselves, reducing maintenance.

  • Lasers tend to be a bit larger and heavier. But once in place, that’s not a big deal.

Inkjet

Pros

  • Cost less up front to purchase.

  • Produces excellent photos when using photo quality paper.

  • Most are smaller and lighter than laser printers.

  • Fewer consumable internal parts. Ink is the only consumable other than paper.


Cons

  • The biggie: Ink is expensive and refill ink is often not as good as the manufacturers ink.

  • Inkjet printers can clog up if they aren’t used regularly. To help prevent that, print a small wallet-sized color photo once every week or so that uses all the colors. Or use my printer color bar sheet.

  • Lots of (expensive) ink is wasted during print head cleaning procedures.

  • Text is not as sharp because the wet ink bleeds into the papers fiber a little before it dries. Think what would happen if you wrote a note on tissue paper using a Sharpie. Not as extreme, but that’s basically what happens.

HP Inkjet w/Scanner

AIO -- All In One (Print, Scan, Copy, Fax)

All but the very cheapest inkjets have a scanner built-in so you can scan, copy, and fax. In keeping with low prices for inkjets, these scanners are painfully slow and often lack a document feeder, which means you must scan one sheet at a time laying it directly on the glass.

Mid to upper-end inkjet and laser printers also include a scanner. These scanners are faster and usually include a document feeder that can handle a small stack of originals. Lasers, especially AIOs, have full networking capabilities so that it can be easily shared between multiple computers. Higher end inkjets have this feature, too.

Third Party Refills

Using refilled ink carts is generally not recommended. My experience, backed by Consumer Reports magazine, show that refilled ink carts don’t perform as well as genuine factory ink. That’s not to say you’ll always have a bad experience, but satisfaction rates are a bit lower for refilled ink.

If you are buying ink often enough that the cost difference between genuine and refilled ink is that noticeable, then your printing volume is high enough that you should be using a laser printer instead.

So, considering all the pros and cons presented above, you should figure out which technology is best for your circumstances.
 

Decider

If all the above pros, cons, and other verbiage weren’t as helpful as I’d hoped, then use the following points to help decide.
 

  1. If you print more than a ream a month (500 sheets) then you need a laser printer, period. Inkjets are not intended for that level of printing, regardless of what the manufacturer suggests. You’d spend a fortune on ink. Between 300 and 500 sheets a month? It could go either way. If color is important (but not necessarily color photos) then a color laser is indicated.

  2. If printing photos yourself at home is important then you need an inkjet. However instead, you might consider using one of the numerous online photo printing services. Results are often better and they costs less, especially for 4x6 prints which most services practically give away.

  3. If both 1 and 2 are true, then you need both inkjet and laser. It may sound extravagant to have two printers, but it's really not. In this case, you can get by with a black-only laser (they are cheap) and do your color printing (text and photos) on the ink jet.

  4. If color printing (text or otherwise) is unimportant, for example, you mainly print boring documents and email, then a black-only laser may be indicated. They’re as cheap to purchase as inkjet printers but have all the advantages of laser in terms of cost, speed, and convenience. However, cheap black-only lasers don't have scanners and cannot be networked.

More about Online Printing

If you like to print photos, especially numerous photos, then you’ll do better by using an online photo printing service. Most offer 4x6 prints for under 20 cents each, which is often less than printing them yourself when you factor in ink costs and photo paper. Most offer deeper discounts when printing in higher quantities, say 50 or more.

It’s also far less hassle especially if you have a lot to print. Just upload your photos and that’s it. The online company will mail you the prints. Or if you use a local retailer like Walgreen's, CVS, Walmart, etc. then you can pick them up in person, often on the same day.

Conclusion

I ask all the above questions when determining what kind of printer to suggest to a client. In general, I prefer lasers unless there’s a compelling reason to buy an inkjet -- like printing photos at home.