Difference Between Inkjet and Laser Printers

by J.T. Barett

Inkjet and laser printers represent two very different approaches to document printing; generally, inkjet technology is better for most small office/home office applications whereas laser models excel at medium- to high-volume printing needs.

Technology

Inside a laser printer, a focused beam of laser light scans a metal drum coated with a light-sensitive material, creating patterns of static electricity on the drum surface. Finely-divided toner powder sticks to the areas with static electricity; a blank page is pressed onto the drum and heat is applied, bonding the toner to the paper and forming a printed image. An inkjet printer is a mechanically simpler device, spraying tiny ink droplets onto paper from a print head that moves back and forth across the page. Much of the inkjet’s technology is in the cartridge itself; when you put a new cartridge in, you’re replacing tiny intricate parts as well as ink. The rest of the printer requires very little maintenance.

Speed

Although some overlap exists between the slowest laser printers and the fastest inkjets, the laser printer is inherently faster as it prints a whole page at a time, whereas inkjet models print every character individually, albeit rapidly. Print speeds vary depending on the sophistication of the printer mode and whether the output is black-and-white or color. Desktop inkjet models run between about six to 20 pages per minute in black–and–white mode and four to 16 pages per minute in color. Laser printers for small to medium-sized office use print 12 to 45 pages per minute. Large-scale laser printers, designed for very high output, print at speeds up to 110 pages per minute with some models capable of more than 3 million pages per month.

Supplies

Inkjet printers use snap-in ink cartridges. Typically, the printer takes one black ink cartridge and one each of cyan, magenta and yellow. Laser printers use toner cartridges, which are typically larger and produce more printed pages than an ink cartridge can. Although most inkjet printers print in color, some laser models print only in black-and-white. Color laser printers use black, cyan, yellow and magenta toner cartridges.

Costs

Because of their relatively simple inkjet mechanism, these printers in general cost less than laser models. For print volumes under 300 pages per month, inkjet printers can make good economic sense. However, due to the relatively high cost of inkjet cartridges, costs increase rapidly as print volume grows, making laser printers more economical. The actual cost per page depends on how much ink or toner the page receives; inkjet printers range from about 25 cents to $1 per page. By comparison, the per-page costs for a laser model run from a few cents to about 15 cents.

Startup Time

Laser printers typically take a few minutes to warm up before printing after the printer’s been off for more than a few hours. By contrast, inkjet printers can print with little to no warmup time.

Types and Formats

Both laser and inkjet printers come in a wide range of sizes and formats. Most familiar are the desktop models for home and office. Larger-format specialty inkjet printers are capable of producing posters and large wall maps. The technology used in laser printers restricts the size of the output to the width of the drum, so they handle common paper sizes such as 8-1/2 x 11, legal size and envelopes.

Print Quality

Laser printers have a better reputation for printing clear, crisp text, and inkjet printers have an edge for quality photos, especially when printed on photo paper. The laser printing process, which tightly binds toner to paper, is much less prone to smearing than inkjet output, which can take a few minutes to dry. Image quality depends not only on the printer itself but also the print setting you use on the computer: higher-quality settings produce better output but consume more toner or ink. With advances in technology, print quality for both laser and inkjet models has improved over time.

About the Author

Chicago native J.T. Barett has a Bachelor of Science in physics from Northeastern Illinois University and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."