Although there were once more type of printers available, the choices now are pretty much laser and ink jet. Both are available in color and black and white, though the latter is now exceedingly rare in the ink-jet variety. Let’s take a look at the basics about these two common types.
Ink-Jet and Bubble Jet
Inkjet printers operate by propelling variably-sized droplets of liquid or other material (ink) onto almost any sized page. They are the most common type of computer printer for the general consumer due to their low cost, high quality of output, capability of printing in different colors, and ease of use. The emerging ink jet material deposition market also uses ink jet technologies, typically piezoelectric jets, to deposit materials directly on substrates. A specialty sunset of this group is the dedicated photo printer.
A laser printer is a type of hardcopy output device that rapidly produces high quality text and graphics on plain paper. As with digital photocopiers and multifunction printers (MFPs), laser printers employ a xerographic printing process but differ from analog photocopiers in that the image is produced by the direct scanning of a laser beam across the printer’s photoreceptor. The prices of bot black and white and color laser printers have dropped significantly over the past several year.
Both types of printers are able to print on regular paper of almost all kinds. Paper-handling hardware has gotten much better and most quality printers in both categories will print on a wide range of papers, both types and sizes, including envelopes. Companies such as Avery also make a wide variety of media for both types of printers, from labels to photo paper to business card blanks. If you have special need in the area of paper supplies, such as large sizes or heavy card stock, make sure to test before you buy.
This is the part of printing that gets expensive. Some manufacturers virtually give away their printers in order to get you locked into their brand of supplies. With ink-jets, that is mainly ink cartridges. With laser printers, it involves toner cartridges and some mechanical parts of the printer, such as the fusing element and drum. Dig deeply enough into the manufacturer’s spec sheets and you’ll find highly fudged estimates of supply life, fortunately all fudged by about the same percentage. Then look up the prices of the printer supplies at popular outlets, like Staples or Office Depot, and you will be able to come up with an estimate of supplies cost per printed page.
This is a pretty straightforward calculation with black and white laser printers. A toner cartridge will print so many thousand pages, and every so many thousand pages you will need a new fuser roller, or other such part. Let’s say your toner cartridge ($60) will print two thousand average pages, and that you have to replace the fuser assembly ($100) every six thousand pages. Thus, every six thousand pages will cost you $280 in supplies and every page that emerges from the printer will cost 4 cents, plus the cost of the paper. Those are samples and not actual prices or how long your supplies will last. Those details are all over the map, which is why you need to do the research and run your own figures,
This calculation will also work for color laser printers if the printer uses a single toner cartridge for all the colors. Regardless of how much yellow ink there is left in such a cartridge, when the blue ink runs out, you have to buy a new cartridge. Generally you are better off, though, to buy a printer that uses separate cartridges for each color: you don’t waste nearly as much ink. Ink-jet printers are different in that you replace only the ink. All of the other considerations are the same as for laser printers. You can make the same cost per page calculations, and you are still better off buying a printer which uses one cartridge per color instead of a printer that uses a single cartridge containing all of the colors.
Also on the topic of supplies, it is almost always possible to purchase both ink and toner cartridges which have been refilled by third parties. All printer manufacturers warn you against doing this. Some people have good luck with these refilled cartridges. Others tell horror stories of ruined printers. My experience is somewhere in the middle. The refilled cartridges have caused me problems but have not ruined any of my printers. Nor have the savings been worth the problems. I stick with factory cartridges, but your mileage may vary.
Your Printer Needs
You also need to consider what you will be using the printer for. First, when you include the cost of supplies, laser printers (despite their higher price tags) have a generally lower supply cost per page and also last longer than ink-jets. That price is a lot lower if you will be printing mainly black and white laser pages.
Another consideration is longevity and safety of printed product. One of the shortcomings of ink-jet hardcopy is that it runs when it gets wet. That means that if you spill water on ink-jet pages, or walk with them in the rain, they bleed and smear. Laser pages generally do not do that. If this situation is likely to cause you trouble, buy a laser.
Photographs and color graphics look better for less printer investment on an ink-jet, water danger notwithstanding. They also look slightly more professional on a color laser printer when printed on plain paper, such as you would do for reports or presentations, since the ink-jet process tends to ripple the paper slightly when you use a lot of ink in one spot, as when you print photos and graphics.
Those are the main considerations, and the major differences between the two primary types of printers. Consider what you are willing to pay for a printed page and to what use you will be putting that page. That, plus a little research, should allow you to make an informed printer purchase decision. For general tips an pointer on buying on the Web, see our column “How to find the best deals online.”