Inkjet versus laser printers: how to decide

Choose between an inkjet and a laser printer for your home or business

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 co-workers. 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 colours 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.

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 colour 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 coloured 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. Colour 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 colour 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 coloured 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 colour laser printers.

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Melissa Riofrio

PC World (US online)
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