Should Your Office Buy an Inkjet or a Laser Printer?

Photos Still Stymie Most Laser and LED Printers

A laser or LED printer is not the answer to every printing problem--especially in the growing color category. Here are some of the challenges this technology still faces.

Mediocre photo quality: Though color laser and LED printers can handle simple, pie-chart-level graphics competently, they struggle to print smooth-looking photographic images--and don't even bother trying to print photos on a monochrome printer. We've tested a handful of models that buck the trend, but most of them are higher-end, graphics-oriented machines with commensurately high prices.

Bigger, heavier machines: Some very compact, low-end lasers are available, but the standard office model is still rather bulky and heavy.

Management headaches: If you buy a monochrome laser printer, congratulations: They are simple to manage. Color printers are more complicated, as they must juggle four toner cartridges and four drums. Also, because of the high print cost per page, employers don't want their employees to use color when it's not needed--or worse, to use it for nonwork purposes, such as garage-sale flyers or vacation photos. If you're shopping on behalf of an office, look for models that come with software that enables you to control access to color features. These applications may, for instance, let you designate which specific users can have access, or permit color usage only during office hours. Some can even limit color usage to specific applications.

Ink and Toner Costs Are Equally Complex

If you thought that lasers were cheaper to run than inkjets, think again: A low-end laser with an alluring price may rely on toner that is every bit as expensive as any inkjet's ink. Meanwhile, many inkjets use truly low-cost inks.

Instead of looking simply at the cost of the cartridge, delve further into the cartridge's page yield and cost per page to get a better idea of how much money you'll spend over time. A cost per color per page of 3 to 5 cents is average these days. Anything higher is getting expensive; anything lower is a good deal.

For inkjets, keep the following factors in mind. Lower-end inkjets may use tricolor cartridges that contain cyan, magenta, and yellow inks in a single package. These are generally a bad deal because you have to replace all three colors as soon as you deplete one of them. Dedicated cartridges for each ink are more efficient. Models that separate the ink tank from the printhead (the microscopic nozzles through which the ink squirts onto paper) can save you money, too.

For lasers, designs that separate the toner from the drum may provide cost savings, but it really depends on the model. Unfortunately, more and more often we're seeing printers that may cost very little coupled with toner that costs more--sometimes a lot more.

Some printers have high-yield cartridge options, which promise a lower cost per page than you'd get with standard-size cartridges. If you print fairly little to begin with, however, be aware that having a large, expensive cartridge sitting in your printer for months isn't any better of a deal.

In Video: Two Sub-$200 Printers for Your Home or Home Office

Inkjets and Lasers Have Fewer Trade-Offs

Once you've chosen the best technology for your needs, a further detail is whether to buy a multifunction printer. MFPs let you add copying, scanning, and faxing capabilities without buying separate machines. If you do a lot of any of these things, though, buying a dedicated machine is a better idea in the long run.

Buying both an inkjet and a laser or LED printer might sound a little silly--and it definitely is not space-efficient--but it's worth considering if your printing needs gravitate to both ends of the spectrum. For instance, if you want to print chiefly plain text and high-resolution photos, investing in a simple monochrome laser and a high-quality color inkjet printer might be the best way to satisfy your needs.

The good news is that most inkjets and laser or LED models can do most things at least competently. Their strengths and weaknesses tend to lie in specialized areas, such as photo or media versatility.

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