A long list of features can come into play when deciding on a printer: color or black-and-white; multi-function or single function; wired or wireless. Is noise a concern? Do you need duplex capability? Should the paper path be U-shaped, L-shaped or straight? Before weighing those factors, though, there is one threshold question: Will it be laser or inkjet?
Printer manufacturers, of course, would have us believe that either option is marvelous. In reality, especially when comparing comparably priced machines, inkjets and lasers have clear-cut strengths and weaknesses.
While there are high-end inkjets that cost more than low-end lasers, inkjets cost less as a general rule. Acquisition cost is only one part of the picture, though, and the difference in the ongoing cost of consumables can be significant. Toner, used by lasers, generally costs less per page than the ink that inkjets use.
The analysis is complicated by the fact that manufacturers charge different prices for consumables, so that an inexpensive printer may well require very expensive ink, but some of that expense can be overcome by using compatible inks and toners, readily available online, as opposed to buying consumables from the printer manufacturer. Some printers, especially at the low end, come with “starter” supplies that hold significantly less than standard replacements.
Both lasers and inkjets can produce crisp, high-quality text, especially in black and white. Lasers do a better job when printing tiny fonts and other highly detailed work. Inkjets, especially expensive inkjets, can manage those detailed jobs, but they generally do so at the cost of speed and ink consumption.
Although either option can produce acceptable color prints, either text or graphics, photographs are the province of the inkjet. Lasers can do the job, but not with the rich, bright color and the delicate gradients that inkjets produce. That strength has made inkjets the choice of professional photographers and has led inkjet manufacturers to develop dedicated photo printers.
Speed and Volume
Manufacturers tend to inflate speed numbers, but this is one place where there is a clear winner: Lasers are faster than inkjets. This is especially notable when printing black-and-white text, one feature that has made the laser the choice of text-heavy businesses.
The laser’s speed advantage, especially when combined with lower toner costs, also means that lasers are the better option for large print runs.
Both types of printers have their own paper requirements. Lasers, because they use heat to fuse toner to paper, cannot use photo paper and can cause other paper to curl. Inkjets apply ink to paper by spraying ink through a nozzle. As a result, inkjet ink is wet when first applied. It can smudge if handled before it dries and it can bleed into ordinary paper. On the other hand, inkjets can use a much wider array of paper than lasers, including specialized photo paper.
The fact that inkjet ink is wet can be a problem for people who rarely print. If an inkjet is left idle for long enough, its ink become so dry that it no longer works. A fresh cartridge solves the problem, but lasers, with their dry toner, do not share this potential point of failure.
Inkjets tend to be smaller than lasers, and they tend to be lighter, with comparable lasers weighing up to four times as much as inkjets.
Finally, inkjets are simpler machines, but they tend to have shorter lives. Perhaps manufacturers recognize that the laser is likely to be the office workhorse, but, in any event, the cost of repair is often prohibitive. With relatively modest prices for new machines, replacement is often the more sensible option.
If you ultimately decide on an inkjet printer, read our article on choosing the correct inkjet printer.