Printers: Inkjet vs. Laser

As one might surmise from their technical differences, inkjet and laser printers cover a wide range of both capabilities and cost. Laser printers typically use a laser to produce an electrically charged image on a drum, roll it through toner and then fused the toner to the paper by using heat. Inkjet printers, by contrast, spray ink directly onto the paper which then must dry. Both types of printer have their uses, but one can draw enough conclusions to compare the two technologies.

What To Look For

When comparing printers, you should consider several factors:

Provided in pages per minute (ppm). Relevant for higher use printers, or long documents (at 3 ppm, a typical low-cost inkjet speed, a 30-page document would take about 10-15 minutes to print). Note most inkjets have several speed/quality settings so compare appropriately.
Cost Per Page
Roughly, the cost of the toner/ink divided by the number of pages provided.
Total Cost
Some printers require users to regularly replace parts like print heads or fuser drums. Others include these with each toner or ink cartridge. Include these items when comparing cost per page figures.
Printers with low memory may have trouble printing pages with large or lots of graphics, or be slower when printing multiple pages.
Duty Cycle
Represents the number of pages a printer can handle per month without breaking down.

Be aware that manufacturers have ways to fudge these numbers! For example, the number of pages per toner/ink cartridge is typically provided assuming a certain coverage (e.g., 5% coverage). This means that ink only covers 5% of the page. While this may be true for a text-only letter, a full page photo will have far higher coverage, providing only a fraction of the expected number of pages (a black rectangle would be 100% coverage).

Drawbacks To Inkjets

Contrary to what many people might think, the main drawback is cost. Except for low-use situations inkjets typically result in a higher cost of ownership over the long term. Most ink cartridges result in a higher cost per page figure when compared to laser toner. Cheaper models typically use a cartridge with less ink than those for more expensive inkjets, thus the more expensive models are cheaper in the long run. Others use a 3-in-1 cartridge that requires users to replace the entire cartridge even when only one color is empty. Some models require special paper for quality color output. Inkjets also provide lower print speeds than laser printers. Many are not suited to print multiple copies of one page. Ink will tend to smear when wet, and also can fade over time, leading to the introduction of printers using higher cost "archival" ink. Finally, many inkjet printers cannot be shared on a network.

Where Inkjets Rule

Inkjet printers dominate the low initial cost category. For a simple, occasionally-used printer at home an inkjet is fine. Photo quality is typically excellent (superior to many laser printers), and usually improves with more expensive models or higher quality paper. The other area where ink is common is for large-format printers such as plotters which use large rolls of paper.

Drawbacks To Lasers

While laser toner costs more, usually it lasts longer than ink. Some manufacturers include only toner so their cartridges appear cheaper, but then the user must replace other parts after every few toner cartridges which usually evens out the cost (HP includes these in each cartridge). These toner-only units can be messy to install. Laser printers are often not as good at printing photos.

Where Lasers Rule

Laser printers are cheaper to operate over the long term. A one-cent difference in cost-per-page results in $250 savings per year assuming only 100 pages printed per day, 5 days per week, 50 weeks per year. Toner will not absorb into paper like ink, providing a consistently crisp image. Lasers usually have faster processors and more memory, suitable for printing graphics, photos, or large documents. Laser printers usually provide three to five times faster printing speeds than even higher-end inkjets. To handle this, they typically provide high capacity input and output trays, and often multiple trays for different paper. Some include collators and staplers. Almost all laser printers are networkable.

Solid-Ink Printers

Solid-ink printers are not truly laser printers yet provide laserlike quality, in color. They tend to offer better color consistency than laser or inkjets, with little variation caused by changes in temperature, humidity, or type of paper. The output, however, can cause jams in office copiers and some scanners with automatic document feeders, because the ink on the pages doesn't slide smoothly over glass flatbeds.

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August 2002

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