Inkjet printers print by squirting liquid ink from a small tank onto a page. While this is somewhat of an oversimplified description of the technology, at its core, that’s what is happening. Using four, and sometimes more, separate tanks for each ink color, these printers are able to seamlessly blend tens of thousands of colors together.
Laser on the other hand does something entirely different. Laser printing works by changing the polarity of a photosensitive drum in certain areas so that a powdered ink (toner) of the opposite charge will stick to it. That drum is then rolled over a page to create an image. This works in similar fashion for both black and white and color printing.
What’s right for me?
Which technology you choose really depends on two factors: what you’re printing most of the time and how much you’re willing to spend. This article is aimed squarely in the middle of the market, not at the fringes, so I’m not going to talk about high-end photography printing or super-large business users. If you’re one of those customers, you probably know what you need. Everyone else, read on.
Inkjet printers, which always come in color, are much more adept at printing photographs and graphics. While they can do text, it is widely considered that the text is not as sharp on an inkjet print than on a laser. This is because, even though the technology has advanced, the liquid ink still spreads a little as it soaks into the paper. This can cause ‘fuzzy edges’. How fuzzy depends on many things, including the paper, type of ink used, and the printer itself. But this is not always a bad thing and, in fact, these printer were designed to work this way.
As I said, inkjets are very adept at printing photos and in photos, you want the colors to seamlessly blend from one to the next. Think about a clear, blue sky. It may be darker on one side of the photo than the other, but you don’t want the colors to stop halfway through and suddenly shift. You want a gradual blending. This is where inkjets really shine.
Photos and graphics, on the other hand, are where lasers have trouble. This is not to say that they cannot produce them, but they’re certainly not as rich and vibrant as with an inkjet (at least, not at the consumer level). Laser printers, which are available in both black and white and color models, really hit the mark when it comes to text, both in quality and speed.
Because of the way the laser printer works, it can operate at speeds that cannot be reproduced by inkjets. The laser only has to ‘write’ the information to the drum once and then roll that drum over as many pages as need to be printed. Inkjets need to move the printhead, line by line, over each page. In addition, because the information is written on the drum by a laser (see: extremely precise) and because the ink only sticks to the spots that the laser touched, everything is a sharp as a tack. This precision doesn’t lend itself well to the blending colors of a photograph, but for text, it just can’t be beat.
The second factor: cost
For years, the companies that make inkjet printers have operated under the ‘give away the razor and make money on the blades’ model. Many printer companies will actually take a loss on the printer itself because the margin on the ink (or ‘consumables’ in industry parlance) is so high. They know that once you have that printer, you could conceivably have it for years and you must buy their brand of ink. While statistics vary from printer to printer, page output for inkjets are typically measured in the hundreds per cartridge.
On the other hand, page output for a laser printer per toner cartridge is typically measured in the thousands. Because toner cartridges are much larger (they’re stationary as compared to an ink cartridge), the can contain much more ink per package. This means that the per-print cost for a laser printer is much less.
So, what do I do?
Take a look at what you’re mostly printing. Are you printing a lot of photos at home? Are you printing web pages? Are you typing letters or forms? Don’t necessarily think about what you ‘may like’ to print, that’s how you get suckered. Looking at all of the low-cost inkjets on the market, you think that you may want to print your holiday cards at home or make t-shirts. The problem is, that after you factor in the cost of the ink, it usually ends up being more economical to buy your cards at the store!
That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy an inkjet printer, the majority of people do (I’ve got one at home). If you want to print photos at home or need color for presentations or reports, an inkjet is a great device.
On the other hand, if you’re an occasional printer (directions from MapQuest, a shopping list, email) a black and white laser printer is a great, low-cost option. You get a very high page output per cartridge and the toner will never dry up (which can happen if you don’t use your inkjet that often). Think about how much you really NEED to print in color. I’ll bet that it’s not that often.
So, examine your needs, take a look at the costs (both initially and throughout the life of the product) and make a smart decision. If you do that, you can’t go wrong.