Experts have been debating the benefits and drawbacks of laser and inkjet printers for years, so many customers are confused about which printer style is best. In general, laser printers are hailed as more reliable, faster and able to produce better-quality prints, while inkjets are painted as the cheap, low-quality option.
However, technology has moved on significantly since the advent of printing, and many of these arguments are out of date. Bearing that in mind, what is the difference between inkjet and laser printers? And is one better than the other?
How Do Inkjet and Laser Printers Work?
Although both inkjet and laser printers can provide high-quality printed documents, they use considerably different processes to achieve that goal, with inkjet units using ink cartridges and laser units requiring laser printer toner. Read on for a closer look at how each style of printer works.
Once your inkjet printer receives the document or image sent by your device, it processes it and positions minuscule nozzles, also known as jets, to spray droplets of ink onto the paper as it passes. The nozzles are heated by electricity, causing the ink to expand and drop onto the page. The jets are attached to a printhead that moves from side to side along the paper to form new characters.
The average inkjet printer has hundreds of nozzles, and each shoots thousands of droplets of Epsom, Brother or Dell printer ink, depending on the brand. Every character in a document requires hundreds of ink droplets. The larger the letter, the more ink is needed.
Laser printers use an electrical charge — static electricity — to disperse the toner onto the paper. Laser toner is made from tiny ink particles, heated by the fuser used and melted onto the paper. When you send a document or image from your computer or mobile device to your laser printer to be printed, it undergoes the following process:
The laser printer uses a high voltage corona wire to charge the photosensitive drum. Once it is sufficiently charged, a laser beam is aimed onto the drum via a series of mirrors, meticulously scanning the images onto the drum’s surface. Essentially, the mirror sketches a negatively charged image onto the positively charged drum.
Once complete, the positively charged toner is released and is attracted to the negatively charged parts of the drum that outline the image. Next, a piece of paper is given a stronger negative charge than that in the drum, and it is rolled into the printer. As the paper passes the drum, it attracts the toner grains so they rest on its surface.
Finally, the printer removes the paper’s static charge and passes it through the fuse unit — two hot rollers that fuse the toner grains to the paper using heat and pressure. Excess toner from the drum is disposed of into a waste toner bottle that needs to be replaced from time to time.
Inkjet Printers Take Up Less Space
Because inkjet printers are not fitted with the same internal drums and rollers necessary to run a laser printer, they are usually considerably more compact and lightweight. This is true even for inkjet printers with additional capabilities, such as scanning and photocopying.
While size might not be such an issue in a professional office, an in-home office or student dorm room space comes at a premium, and customers are keen to make the most of every space-saving tip possible. Inkjet printers can be easily stored on shelving units or desktops without taking up too much space.
Due to their small size and light weight, they are also highly portable machines, whereas laser printers are more suitable for keeping in one designated location. It’s also worth noting that inkjets are typically quieter than laser printers, meaning they are both physically and audibly less intrusive.
Laser Printers Are Usually Faster
If you print content in high volumes, you may be concerned with the speed your unit prints. As a rule, laser printers print considerably faster than inkjet machines. Laser prints are designed to produce high volumes quickly. However, there is quite a variation between the speed of different models. On average, laser printers can print between 15 and 100 pages per minute. On the other hand, inkjet printers average around 16 pages per minute, depending on the model.
In addition to printing faster, laser printers tend to have paper trays with a higher capacity than those seen on inkjet units. This means that inkjet printers require refilling with paper more often, slowing down the printing process further.
In general, laser printers are designed and engineered with the demands of the workplace in mind and aim to produce clear, smudge-free pages in seconds, even in large volumes, with minimal input from the user. Although inkjet printers don’t usually meet this high standard, they work perfectly for home use where speed is less of a priority.
The Complex Issue of Cost
When deciding whether to buy a laser or an inkjet printer, the cost is usually a significant consideration. However, calculating which option is cheapest is not always straightforward. As a rule, most laser printers are more expensive to buy than inkjet printers, but you should consider more than just this upfront cost when picking between the two types of machines.
Most inkjet printers have a shorter lifespan than laser printers, so you may have to replace your inkjet printer sooner than you wish. Of course, this depends on the quality of the printer you choose, how much you use it and how well you maintain it.
Over time, your highest printing cost will be ink. Laser toner cartridges tend to print more pages per cartridge than inkjet cartridges, so they usually have a significantly higher initial price. Despite laser toner cartridges costing more to buy, they can work out cheaper because of the number of pages one cartridge can produce.
To figure out which type of printer is cheaper to run in terms of ink, you need to calculate the cost per page. Whether it’s a premium Dell laser toner or high-quality HP printer ink, the product description should indicate the expected cartridge page yield when you buy an ink cartridge. To work out the cost per page, simply divide the cartridge price by the expected page yield.
When weighing up the financial pros and cons of laser vs. inkjet printers, you should ask yourself how you will be using your printer. If you will be printing high volumes, it’s usually worth investing in a more expensive laser printer that can withstand more wear and tear and which often has a lower cost per page. However, if you are looking for a printer for occasional use for your family, a cheaper inkjet unit may be perfect.
Pick Inkjets for Images and Lasers for Text Documents
Just like the issue of cost-efficiency, evaluating whether laser or inkjet printers produce better-quality prints is not cut and dried; rather, it depends on what you use your printer for.
Laser printers are typically the best choice for printing text documents. These fast, efficient machines produce crisp, clear lettering that is much sharper than the text that inkjet printers can print. Text printed on inkjet printers tends to bleed slightly and, while they are perfectly legible, on closer inspection it’s just not as precise as the laser-printed equivalents.
Where inkjet printers shine is printing images. The dye- and pigment-based inks used by this type of printer create wonderfully subtle shade differences. This is because, unlike the granular laser toner, liquid ink is much easier to color mix.
Laser printers use half-tone dots to print different colors, which results in lower quality of colors, less variation in shade and less smooth graduations. Some laser printers have been designed to produce better image prints, but they usually require specialized photo paper specific for laser printers, which is less convenient and more expensive than using standard printing or photo paper.
Another thing to consider when looking at the quality of inkjet vs. laser printers is that documents printed by an inkjet machine are more likely to smudge. Laser printers use a heat transfer method, so the toner is set by the time it comes out of the printer, and it can’t be smudged. Documents printed by inkjet units continue drying after they’ve been printed, so they can be smudged or smeared if handled too much. These days, this is much less common an occurrence. If you find you are getting smudged prints, it’s probably because you’re using the wrong kind of paper that doesn’t absorb printer ink properly or an inferior quality of ink cartridges.
Like anything, the question of which type of printer produces the best prints is not black and white. If you are trying to decide whether to buy an inkjet or laser printer based on the quality of the prints, reflect on how you will use your machine. Plan to print a lot of photos or documents where high-quality colored images are important? Opt for an inkjet. Need to run off high volumes of sharp text at speed? Then a laser printer is more suitable for your needs.
Which Printer Style Is More Durable?
There is a stereotype that inkjet printers are less durable than laser printers. While there has been evidence for this in the past, the machine durability depends more on the model than the printing style. This is because the market has forced printer manufacturers to step outside of the box.
Laser printers have a reputation for being robust but expensive, so cheaper models have been made to cover the lower end of the market. Conversely, inkjet printers were thought to be the cheap, poor-quality option that won’t last long, so some brands have brought out sturdier, though more expensive, models to compete with laser printers. There is also a curious trend for inkjet printers offering longer warranties than laser printers — a factor that’s worth considering before making your purchase.
When shopping for your printer, pay close attention to the quality of the plastic and metal used; details such as a flimsy paper tray are telltale signs about the quality of a machine. Another sign that a machine is not very durable is that it shakes or vibrates when it prints, so look out for this when reading reviews.
Are Laser Printers More Operationally Reliable?
Similar to the durability question, inkjet printers often get a bad rap when it comes to operational reliability. This is because earlier inkjet models had several frustrating problems, such as paper jams, pulling too many sheets into the input tray resulting in blank pages in the middle of a print and streaky prints. Fortunately, printer manufacturers have worked hard to solve these problems, and now a good-quality inkjet printer is no more problematic than a laser model.
In general, most inkjet printers these days are as reliable as their laser alternatives, but one area where inkjet printers do have more problems than laser printers is with clogged nozzles. If you don’t use your printer often, dried ink and dirt can block the tiny nozzles that inkjets use to print.
Modern printers are fitted with systems to discourage this; for example, many pass a small amount of ink through the nozzles when you power up the machine. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to switch off your printer at night, rather than relying on sleep mode. It’s also good practice to print a minimum of two times a month.
Each Printer Has Its Own Forte
Although inkjet and laser printers function differently from each other, one using ink and the other laser toner, the quality of their prints, their cost and their durability are based more on the specific model than the printer style.
If you’re considering buying a printer and are unsure which type to get, think about how you will use it. If you will frequently be printing at large volumes, particularly text documents, a laser printer is your best bet. However, people with limited space or who plan to print lots of images tend to get on better with an inkjet.