Printer Buying Guide: Major Printer Types Explained

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Laser and LED Printers: Business Basics

Though some small offices or departments could get by with a business-oriented inkjet, the standard office workhorse is a laser or LED printer. Each technology uses its light source to beam an image onto a rotating drum; the image attracts toner, and the toner then transfers from the drum onto paper though a quick baking process. Laser and LED printers are usually faster than inkjets and create precisely drawn text (as well as acceptable or better graphics). They are also more expensive to purchase, although their toner costs can be lower than the ink costs of an inkjet, depending on the model.

Choose a monochrome laser or LED printer for the most basic printing need: plain, black text on plain paper. These models are simple to use, their toner is cheap, and they tend to be very reliable. Models start around $100 and rise in cost from there, depending on the features and the expected monthly output. Our Top 10 Monochrome Lasers chart rates personal and small-business models in the sub-$1000 range.

Color Printers Taking Over the Office--Slowly

Color laser or LED printers are expected to supplant their monochrome cousins someday, but the transition is happening slowly. Some reasons are obvious: Offices may delay replacing a machine until it's truly past its prime, for instance. Another, major reason is resources. Color printers are more complicated to manage. They have four toner colors and four drums (one for each color) to replace, rather than a monochrome laser's single drum. Those additional consumables take up more space inside the printer, making a color printer much bigger and heavier than a monochrome model; the spare replacements take up more space in your office's storeroom, too.

Managing the use of color within an office is a significant concern. No manager wants employees to use color when it isn't needed--or worse, to use the printer for personal purposes, such as garage-sale flyers or vacation photos. If you're shopping for an office printer, look for models that come with software that can control access to the color features. Through these applications you can, for instance, designate which users have access, or permit color usage only during office hours. Some can even limit color usage to specific applications.

If you think a color laser or LED printer will print photos that look as good as those you'd get from an inkjet, think again. Most of the machines we've tested can print perfectly pleasing pie charts, logos, color bars, and simple graphics, but they continue to struggle with smooth-looking photographic images. We've tested a handful of models that can rival an inkjet printer's photo quality, but they are mostly higher-end, graphics-oriented machines with commensurately high prices. Read our color laser printer reviews for details on specific models.

Solid Ink: The Middle Ground Between Inkjet and Laser/LED

Solid-ink printers, which only Xerox currently sells, use a unique technology that melts waxlike blocks and then squirts the resulting semiliquid ink through tiny holes in a printhead onto paper.

Long ago, before color lasers took off, solid-ink printers were the best bets for office-quality color. They remain a strong competitor, and Xerox touts their less wasteful operation: The ink blocks use zero plastic packaging, unlike toner cartridges, and they take up a lot less space in shipping and storage. These models are also easy to load--you just drop the fat, crayon-like blocks of ink into keyed hoppers. Their photo quality is about the same as that of a laser or LED printer's, producing results that are adequate, but not quite as good as the typical inkjet's photos. Early problems with the high scratch-sensitivity of their output have diminished significantly, but the printers still need extra warm-up time to melt the ink.

This technology would fit well within a small office or department that wants something faster than an inkjet but somewhat less complicated than a color laser or LED printer. Because solid-ink printers compete most closely with lasers and LEDs, you will find our top solid-ink picks among the models in our color laser printers chart.

Next: Snapshot Printers

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