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Inkjet printers vs. Laser printers: What’s best for you?

So you want to buy a printer for your computer, or you’re thinking about replacing your old printer with a newer one, but you’re not sure what kind to get? Here are some things you should know.

For most small-business or individual computer users there are two types of printers to consider: inkjet printers (sometimes called “bubblejet”) and laser printers. (Some computer users, such as graphic designers and photographers, have more specialized needs which we will not cover here.)

Feature Inkjet printer Laser printer Color Laser
Cost of printer Lower, roughly $50 - $350 Higher, roughly $300 - $1000 Higher, roughly $1000 - $3000
Cost per page to operate Higher Lower Higher
Color Output Yes, most have 2 ink cartridges, black and color No, most have 1 toner cartridge, can do shades of gray Yes, most have 4 toner cartridges - 1 black and 3 color
Speed Slower, prints each page a chunk at a time Faster, prints each page all at once Faster, prints each page all at once
Size Smaller, lighter Medium sized, heavier Larger, heavier
Image smearing Yes, be careful not to get a printout wet No, uses toner, similar to a copier No, uses toner, similar to a copier
Image bleed-through Can occur with lower-grade paper or large areas of color Sometimes noticeable with lower-grade paper Can occur with lower-grade paper
Repair costs Usually not cost-effective Lower Higher, has more moving parts

In general, inkjet printers are less expensive than laser printers, but cost more to operate in the long term. If you need color output and you can’t afford a color laser, an inkjet printer is the way to go. Just be aware of some of the problems with inkjet printers: printouts may smear if they get wet, and the ink may bleed through the paper so that you often can’t print on both sides.

A laser printer is a good choice if most of what you print is text (word processing and email, for example), and color images and text are not important for you. If you only need color output occasionally, you can even email a page to a local Kinko’s, Mail Boxes Etc., or the like for printing there.

A color laser printer prints high-resolution color with all the benefits of a laser printer (high speed, printouts won’t smear, etc.). If you need to produce professional presentations or materials yourself and can afford one, this can be a good choice.

In addition to letters, brochures, and other 8.5 x 11 printouts, it can be useful to print directly onto envelopes. Since envelopes are composed of many layers of paper folded and glued together, when they pass through a printer a number of avoidable problems can occur.

If you are going to use a laser printer, you should know that they apply heat to “bake” the toner onto the paper. So be sure to get envelopes designed for a laser printer, otherwise you may find that your envelopes come out wrinkled and already sealed from the heat.

Whether you use an inkjet or laser printer, the “paper path” makes a big difference when printing envelopes. Many printers have a winding path, often making the paper turn 180 degrees as it passes through the printer. Unfortunately, this can severely wrinkle an envelope, and may cause it to jam. Some printers have multiple paper paths, which you can select by turning a lever or opening a door on the side of the printer. In general, the straighter the paper path, the more successfully you will be able to print envelopes.

If you have an older inkjet printer whose print quality has diminished, before you throw it out and buy a new one, try the printer’s “clean” function. One of the “jets” might just have been clogged, and this may clear up the problem. Alternatively, putting in a new ink cartridge may also solve the problem.

Multifunction / All-in-one printers:
Several companies make multifunction printers. These are single devices which are usually a combination of:

  • inkjet (or laser) printer
  • fax machine
  • color (or grayscale) scanner
  • color (or grayscale) copier

For small offices on a limited budget, one of these can be a cost-effective and space-saving choice. Most are inkjet, but if you need laser there are some on the market at a higher cost. Just keep in mind that to keep the overall cost down, the manufacturers often choose medium-quality components, so a multifunction device’s print engine may not be as high quality as a standalone printer, etc. Also, if the device is busy sending or receiving a fax, then you can’t print or make a copy with it at the same time.

One more consideration:
In my experience, some very inexpensive inkjet printers (under $100) don’t last very long, often barely a year. Keep this in mind when you’re making your decision about which printer to buy.

If you have additional questions, or if you need some help to buy, configure or install your printer or scanner, contact me at (617) 484-6657, martin@kadansky.com.

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