The “inkjet vs. laser” printer stereotypes are becoming less accurate. Once home-oriented, inkjets now include models that are sufficiently fast and capable to keep up with an office’s demands. By the same token, the workhorse laser and LED printers of yore have spawned a new generation of machines that are small enough to fit into a home office.
Which one is best for you? Here’s how to decide between an inkjet and laser printer to handle work around your workplace.
Before you start shopping, take some time to think about your printing habits–the kinds of things you print (plain text, graphics and photos, or a mix), how much you print (in pages per week, say), and whether you need to share the printer with your family or coworkers. If your prints include external communication or promotional materials, consider the content and print quality you need.
Inkjets Keep It Simple, Excel at Photos
The basic inkjet method of squirting liquid through microscopic nozzles onto a page hasn’t changed, but ink and hardware advances have made inkjets worth considering even for business users. You can find models whose pigment-based black inks generate crisp-looking text, or whose extra photo inks produce subtly shaded images. Multifunction models are so versatile that they are rapidly overshadowing single-function models.
Consider an inkjet if you want to:
Print photos. Inkjets still do a better job than lasers of blending colors smoothly. Some have special photo inks that help create subtler shadings and contours, and of course, special photo paper garners the best results. You don’t have to be a photo enthusiast or a snap-happy family to want this level of quality. Visually oriented businesses such as real estate and design, or any business that wants to create photo-heavy promotional materials, should also consider an inkjet.
Print on a variety of media. Inkjet printers can print on fancy cotton or textured stationery; specially coated fabric, canvas or iron-on transfers; or on banner-size sheets. Some can print on specially coated CDs and DVDs, to boot.
Keep it simple. Inkjet printers tend to be smaller and lighter in form factor, and also simpler to maintain than laser/LED printers. Check out our top picks for stand-alone inkjet printers and multifunction inkjet models.
In Video: How to Choose the Right Printer
Speed and Paper Remain Inkjet Issues
Time was when all inkjets were slow and printed awful-looking output on plain paper. Many current models have significantly improved in these areas, but some challenges remain.
Speed: Most inkjet printers remain slow-to-average performers, but a number of business-oriented models are now competitive with lower-end color laser and LED models. Unfortunately the double-digit engine speeds that vendors promise tend to be achieved under artificial conditions. For the best indication of real-world speed, look for a “laser-quality print speed” specification based on the ISO/IEC 24734 test, or check our printer reviews.
Plain-paper print quality: Inkjets have gotten a lot better over the years at printing on plain office paper, but some models still produce gray, fuzzy text or grainy, oddly colored graphics on such paper. For the best-looking text on plain paper, look for an inklet model whose black ink is pigment-based, rather than dye-based. Color images on plain paper may look better if you choose a higher-quality setting in the driver. For details on the output quality that specific printers demonstrated in our tests, again consult our printer reviews.
Paper handling: Most inkjets are designed for small-office or home users, with lower-capacity input trays of 50 to 150 sheets. Output trays may be nonexistent or may consist of a token plastic extension. For office use, look for a model that has a 150- to 250-sheet main tray–and a standard or optional second tray, if you print a lot–as well as a dedicated output tray. An automatic duplexing (two-sided printing) feature is always a plus.
Laser and LED Printers Are Still Business-Basic
Laser and LED printers use their respective light sources–either a fast-moving laser or an array of LEDs–to beam an image onto a rotating drum. The image attracts toner, and the toner transfers from the drum onto paper via a quick baking process. Laser and LED printers–even color models–are now available at prices and sizes that accommodate a home or small office, but they’re not inkjet killers yet.
Consider a laser or LED printer if you want to…
Print perfect text. Laser and LED printers create precisely drawn black text, and their colored text is usually either just as good or almost as good. If you print mostly text with occasional, simple graphics, a laser or LED printer is the easiest way to go.
Print exclusively on plain paper. Laser and LED printers work well with any laser-compatible paper: sheets that are smooth-surfaced and designed to handle the high heat of the fuser mechanism. Basically any standard office paper will meet that requirement. While laser and LED printers can handle some thicker and banner-size media, anything heat-sensitive cannot be run through them.
Print quickly. Most laser and LED printers are faster than most inkjet printers; but some low-end laser and LED printers have no speed advantage. Take vendors’ claims of double-digit engine speeds with a grain of salt, as the numbers are often derived under artificial conditions. Our tests indicate that most printers achieve 50 percent or better of their specified top engine speed. Our printer reviews detail the results of real-world print-speed testing that we conduct for specific models.
Print a lot. Laser and LED printers are designed to handle high-volume printing easily. Most come with 150-sheet or 250-sheet main input trays, and many models offer dual or extra-cost trays. As with inkjets, automatic duplexing is a useful feature to have. Don’t miss our ranked charts for monochrome laser printers and color laser printers.
Next page: Where laser and LED printers still fail…
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.