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Laser or Inkjet?

Personal printers are very affordable nowadays. You can get a laser printer for less than £50, and inkjet printers for the home start at £25 (though such cheap models should be avoided). So, which type of printer is best for your needs?

There are inkjet printers for business and industry, which cost hundreds or thousands of pounds, or even more, and of course there are laser printers costing at least as much, but in the article below I'll be focusing on the characteristics of home machines. Ones costing, say, less than £200.

Technology

Laser printers work by 'painting' the page onto an electrostatic drum, the drum rolls through a trough of toner (granules of carbon, plastic and oil) and picks up the toner where the laser struck. The toner is then deposited onto the paper, and then fused onto it with a hot metal roller. Since the whole page is printed in one go, they are referred to as page printers
    Inkjet, on the other hand, works by 'spitting out' droplets of ink through tiny nozzles on a print head, which runs along the page from side to side. Once one line has been printed, the paper is advanced and the print head repeats the process of going from side to side, spitting ink at the appropriate moment. The ink is not fused to the page but simply dries on the page naturally. Much of the technological development of inkjet printers is in the area of formulating new inks to be quicker drying, fade resistant etc.

Laser

Basic laser printers print in monochrome (black and white). Most laser printers are designed to print only ordinary paper, and work less well, if at all, on card stock, labels or special paper. If this is not a problem for you, read on!

One of the major advantages of laser printers over other technologies is that they consistently produce good quality output. Laser printing technology is that same as that  in photocopiers (indeed, the two products are often merged into an 'all-in-one' device), so you should be familar with the general look and quality of laser prints. 

Toner for such printers comes in cartridges or bottles which should last for at least 1,500 pages, and on some models, as much as 10,000 pages. The printers are generally very reliable, and the combination of these features translates into long, trouble-free periods of printing. The average life of a laser printer  is around 6-7 years, but many exceed that.  Finally, the cost per page is fairly low (there are big differences between makes and models, but for a personal printer the price is likely to be 2-5 pence per page).

On the downside, laser printers do cost more than comparable inkjets, so cheaper laser printers typically havevery basic features. In particular, most laser printers under £100  don't print in duplex (double sided printing), and only have a USB connection, not a networked one. Although you can get colour laser printers, starting at around £100, consumables are expensive, and price per print rises dramatically, even for ordinary black and white printers.

Inkjet
In contrast with the reliable-but-dull beast which is  a laser printer, personal inkjets print in colour and are typically full of bells and whistles. Many can print on different stock, including card, labels and sometimes also on CDs/DVDs and other 'exotic' stock. Other features often found on such printers include duplex (double sided) printing and networking (wired or wireless) which allows multiple computers to connect to a single printer with ease.

Another common feature is that many of today's models are 'multi-function devices', which combine a scanner and a printer into one device. Apart from saving space, this also turns the device into a photocopier (some are standalone, others need to be connected to a PC for this to work), and many also have a camera memory-card reader, turning them into a one-stop print & scan centre.

If inkjets sound perfect, you should also be aware of their weaknesses:
  • Unreliable. Most inkjets printers are flimsy. They are designed for ocassional printing and will take, typically, no more than 50 pages at once. They are not designed to cope with lengthy, sustained printing, and will tend to fail when asked to do so. Paper jams, misaligned paper, running out of ink in mid-job and many other problems will be all-too-familiar to the veteran inkjet user.
  • High running costs: inkjet printer manufacturers make the bulk of their profit on ink. In fact, some have openly admitted that they subsidise the printers themselves in order to 'lock' the costumer into using their ink cartridges, which is where they make their money. Printing costs with original cartridges are very high (except for Kodak, who tout low ink price as their unique selling point). Although it is possible to reduce costs by using compatible cartridges or continuous ink systems (CISS), this is not suitable for everyone. Even with compatible cartridges, the price per page may be higher than with laser.
  • Uneven print quality: At worst, some printers produce 'bands' which correspond to the lines printed, and badly mar the appearance of the page, but even the best inkjets, which print beautifully when everything goes well, have small ink cartridges which can clog, run out of ink or develop some other problem. In short, you cannot expect the 'excellent results, page after page' which you can fully expect from a laser printer.
  • Fading: the ink from inkjet printers is simply laid on the page. It is not 'fixed' in any way and can smudge. If exposed to moisture (e.g. rain) it will 'run', and in the longer term sunlight will cause the inks to fade.
  • Short life: the simple fact is that inkjet printers are designed to be less robust than lasers. While not true for every model, let alone every specimen I've seen, I think it's safe to say that the average inkjet printer starts 'acting up' after around 3 years.

In summary, inkjets have a very low purchase price, and many desirable features, but they are not as reliable as laser printers, tend to print text less well, and in the long term, are expensive to run.

So, which will it be? 

You can now see that the choice of printer type depends on your intended use. If you only need to print ocassionally, or if you need to print in colour, then inkjet is clearly the better option for you. If on the other hand, you print lots of text in black and white, then laser is obviously a better option. Most people however, need a mix!

My advice is that you think about this, setting out the different printing scenarios you'll face and figuring how you would cope with them using a laser vs. using an inkjet printer. Also,  if you have the space, consider getting one of each!
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