Laser vs. inkjet printers: which is better?

We look at the pros and cons of laser and inkjet printers

If you're buying a printer, either for work or for home, one of the choices you're likely to be faced is whether to get an inkjet printer or a laser printer. Inkjet printers use liquid ink sprayed through microscopic nozzles onto the paper, and laser printers use a toner cartridge (filled with fine powder) and a heated fuser.

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Each technology has its own strengths and weaknesses. The two types use different approaches and each is appropriate for meeting different printing needs.

Initial costs

Surprisingly enough, you can purchase a basic laser or inkjet printer for almost the same price. If you're looking for a budget multifunction printer -- which will include the ability to photocopy and scan images as well as print -- there's not much difference in price between inkjets like the Canon PIXMA MX350 and lasers like the Dell 1133. One distinct difference between these two models, however, is that only the inkjet model can print colour pages — budget laser printers are only capable of producing black-and-white documents.

The cheapest laser printers will generally cost around $130; you can pick up inkjet printers for as little as $60-$70. However, these budget inkjet printers generally come with 'starter' cartridges, which don't have a full ink tank. This means you'll need to refill them after fewer prints.

Ongoing costs

As you continue to use your new printer over a period of time, you'll need to keep it supplied with appropriate consumables like paper and ink or toner. The ongoing running costs of printers are generally quoted in cents per A4 page. You can calculate this by dividing the number of pages an ink or toner cartridge can produce (this figure is provided by the manufacturer) by the price of the cartridge. This doesn't include the cost of paper though (but this won't change depending on the type of printers).

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Generally inkjet printers have a price per page of around 20 cents, although this includes both black and colour cartridges — if you intend to print only black, ongoing print costs are generally 7-8 cents per page. Cheap black-and-white laser printers have a price of around 6c per page on average. If you spend more on a laser printer, the cost per page generally drops quickly.

Larger laser printers have additional ongoing costs when compared to inkjets: they often require an additional fuser cartridge or the replacement of parts with a maintenance kit.

Print speed and text print quality

When it comes to printing black and white text pages, laser printing is unbeatable. Even in low-end cheaper monochrome laser models you can expect print speeds of up to 20 pages per minute. Inkjets are significantly slower, with budget printers rarely printing more than 6 pages per minute of black text.

For normal print sizes (of around 12pt and larger) text printing quality is similar between both laser and inkjet printing platforms. However, if your printing needs include printing small fonts then lasers are normally superior to inkjets, as the fusing technology better lends itself to the minute curves and dots of small text.

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Colour printing and colour print quality

If you want to print colour — whether it's a full-page colour photograph or simply a pie chart — you'll almost certainly be better off with an inkjet printer. Colour laser printers are often bulky and quite expensive and generally aren't suited to home or small office use.

Even when comparing a colour laser printer to a colour inkjet, the inkjet is likely produce better colour images. Inkjet printers are able to reproduce subtle colour gradation in images where laser printers will display banding (distinct changes in colour saturation).

Size

Size is an important consideration for some users. If you're looking for something to fit into a small space on or underneath your desk, it's hard to go past an inkjet printer. However, if you don't need scanning or copying a single-function laser printer may be small enough to suit your needs.

Conclusion

If you're buying based on price — and most consumers are — the choice between a laser printer and an inkjet is simple. If you can afford to pay a little more upfront and if you'll only be printing black text documents, a laser printer is a convenient solution. Inkjet printers are far more versatile, which is important for home use, but you'll pay more in ongoing running costs and will have slower print times. Choose carefully!

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