A few decades ago, choosing between an inkjet and a laser printer was more clear cut. Laser printers were often considered to deliver cheaper printing costs but required a larger up-front investment in the hardware, while inkjets rules the color and photographic printing world. Today, with both technologies catching up to each other, choosing the right printer for your home or small business is a bit more convoluted depending on what your needs are. Thankfully, given that the technologies in both inkjets and laser have improved significantly in recent years, you’ll be happy with either choice. But if you need some guidance on which printer is best for your needs, budget, and type of work, we’re here to help you pick the right printer for you.
If you just want to skip to buying a printer, here are the best printers available.
- Printing speed
- Photo printing
- Document printing
- Ink economy
- Printer size
- Our take
Traditionally, laser printers are considered the speed champs, but thanks to advances in printing technology, inkjets have steadily caught up with their rivals. Cheaper inkjet printers, and particularly portable printers designed for travel, are often slower than mainstream laser printers. These printers generally output about eight to ten pages per minute, but larger, more premium inkjets designed for business use are much more agile.
HP’s latest PageWide Pro 477dw is one example of a speedy inkjet printer that outperforms its laser rivals in printing speeds and costs, but requires a heftier up-front investment than traditional home inkjet printers. The printer can print at speeds of up to 55 pages per minute, and it is able to do this with HP’s PageWide printing technology. On traditional inkjet printers, the nozzle has to move back and forth on a moveable print head to cover the entire paper width, but with the PageWide technology, the stationary nozzle doesn’t need to move back and forth to cover the paper width. The printer retails for $700 and is likely priced out of the reach of most homes, but it is a great example of how inkjet printers are closing the gap on laser printers in several ways.
More common home inkjet printers, like HP’s $250 Envy Inspire 7900e are still capable of printing with speeds up to 15 pages per minute, which is more than adequate for most small print jobs. On the other hand, HP’s LaserJet Pro M283 Color costs almost twice as much and is just 50% faster. A more direct comparison to the LaserJet Pro is HP’s OfficeJet Pro 9025e, an inkjet printer that’s designed for the office and comes with a speed rating of up to 24 pages per minute. This shows that laser printers aren’t necessarily faster than inkjets if speed is a concern.
By using ink to render pixels on paper, inkjets are more adept at blending colors, leading to better tonal range and detail rendering, making for more dynamic and vivid photos. Glossy photo paper will also enhance an inkjet’s photo rendering capabilities, showing vivid colors and better details. The downside, though, with inkjets is that the ink cartridges are often smaller than laser toner drums, and over time, will cost more to replace.
In more recent years, thanks to advances in printing technology, laser printers are quickly catching up to their inkjet counterparts for photo-quality prints. Professionals may still want to stick with inkjets, but advanced laser printers will be more than capable for homes and small offices that do not want to invest in two different printing systems. Like inkjets, there are specially designed photo papers, ranging from glossy to matte, that will work with lasers and can cope with this technology’s use of heat in the printing process.
In our picks for the top color laser printers, systems like Canon’s imageCLASS MF644Cdw are suitable for a wide range of color print jobs, including photo printing, making it a versatile addition to any office. And even though you may save on the per-page printing costs by opting for a color laser printer – laser printers generally cost more up-front and toner for each color (black, cyan, yellow, and magenta) are more expensive to replace than inkjet cartridges but will last far longer – they are often bulkier and require more space than a conventional inkjet, like Canon’s Pixma TS9521C.
The benefit of inkjet is that you can have borderless prints. Wide format inkjets can also print stunning photographs and portraits in sizes larger than the typical 8.5 x 11-inch that’s typical of most laser printers on the market. In the professional market, there are specialty inkjet printers for printing to a wide variety of media, including vinyl.
If you’re printing just occasionally in the home, an inkjet, particularly a multi-function inkjet printer, may be the best option as it balances cost, printer size, and performance. When choosing a photo inkjet printer, choose one that supports at least four separate ink cartridges for the best performance. More advanced models may support six or more cartridges, and the added ink colors add more dynamic range to your photographs. And if you want your photos to last, be sure to use photo archival paper that was designed for your printer. Canon and Epson each have their own photo paper with different surfaces — glossy, semi-glossy, and matte — that are designed to last for up to 100 years without fading.
While home users may need a printer that can handle photos, small offices will want a printer that can handle text printing. In the past, inkjets are viewed as the more capable option for photos, while laser’s technology is more adept at handling text, in particular smaller fonts. Today, the distinction isn’t quite so apparent, and both technologies are capable of handling a dizzying array of print jobs.
If you need a capable printer to handle documents, ranging from tax forms to Internet-based research, you may want to choose a multifunction, or all-in-one, printer with duplexing capabilities. These printers will allow you to print, scan, copy, and potentially even fax, and printers that support duplex will save you time and paper by letting you print to or copy from both sides of the paper. And even if you choose a model without a scanner on top, many modern printers will come with a companion app that allows you to scan documents by simply snapping a photo with your smartphone’s camera.
Despite inkjet catching up to lasers in being able to render sharp text even at small font sizes, we still recommend you stick to a laser printer for your document printing needs, especially if you have moderate print jobs. The simple reason for this is cost. Laser printers are generally more expensive to own, but the cost-per-page is simply cheaper. Although toner drums in a laser printer are more expensive to replace than inkjet ink cartridges, they last longer and will require less frequent replacements. This will be a win for your budget and the environment.
If you need a basic black-and-white printer to handle document printing, HP’s Neverstop Laser 1001nw is a terrific option. This speedy printer can churn out 21 pages per minute, and the toner is rated to last for up to 5,000 pages. The big downside is that it is limited to monochrome printing, so colored documents, flyers, and other printable that a small business may require in color won’t be a suitable fit for this hardware.
In the home, however, a monochrome printer makes a poor choice, as you may find yourself needing color prints from time to time. An all-in-one inkjet may be a better option in this instance, and if budget is a concern, you may want to choose an inkjet with refillable ink tanks. Rather than disposable cartridges, these printers come with tanks that you can refill with more economical bulk ink purchases, saving you money and the environment! Tank printers, like Epson’s EcoTank ET-2850, generally costs the same as a standard laser printer but combines laser’s ink economy with inkjet’s color features in a convenient package, making it ideal for homes and smaller offices.
If you’re working in an environment where you need to archive your documents, a laser printer may be the best solution. Crisp text rendering and resistance to smudging and fading make lasers the preferred choice for this purpose.
After purchasing your printer, the second most important cost is ink. The cost of ink is what drives your per-page print cost, and you can calculate this by taking the price of the ink toner or cartridge and dividing that by the yield, or how many pages can be printed before the cartridge needs to be replaced. Typically, laser printers are the most efficient in terms of ink in that a single toner can last for a few years if you only occasionally print — HP’s Neverstop Laser 1001nw’s toner can last for up to 5,000 printed pages, for example. The downside is that laser toners require a higher initial investment, as they’re more expensive to replace. Generally, laser toners start around $50 for home printers and can run as high as several hundreds of dollars for enterprise printers. If you have a color laser printer, though, you’ll need to multiply your toner cost by four, as you’ll need a black toner, and separate toner drums for each of the three colors. With laser printers, you’re looking at an average cost of under $0.05 per page for monochrome jobs and between $0.10 and $0.20 per page for color jobs.
Inkjet cartridges are cheaper to purchase, and depending on your printer model, you may need to buy multiple cartridges for your black and color inks. However, given that the cartridges are relatively small, you’ll deplete the ink much more quickly, resulting in more frequent ink replacements. This leads, generally, to higher per-page printing costs than laser printers.
If cost is a concern, both laser and inkjet printers come with large, extra-large (XL), or high yield printer cartridges and toners. These high-yield cartridges will cost more than the standard cartridge, but they will last longer and lead to a better cost-per-page yield, making them suitable for offices with larger print jobs.
If you’re an infrequent printer at home, you may be fooled into accepting the higher cost per page from an inkjet printer. Just keep in mind that because inkjet relies on liquid ink or pigments, your cartridges can dry out over time if not stored properly. In this case, your yield will be much lower if you have dried out cartridges. On the other hand, laser toner, which comes in powder form, is much easier to ship and store, and generally, will last for a long time.
For frequent printers, most manufacturers have combatted inkjet’s short fuel supply with newer tank-based printers to help keep your cost per page low. These refillable tanks deliver laser ink efficiency with the quality, reliability, and color rendering of an inkjet printer. If you’re concerned about per-page print costs, a printer with a tank may be your best option. Particularly for home users, these printers are versatile enough to handle a variety of tasks, including color photo printing.
Ted Needleman/Digital Trends
Printing technology dictates the size of a printer, so if you’re in need of a small printer, inkjets are the best bet. In recent years, inkjets have benefited from miniaturization, from compact cartridges to smaller print heads, and advancements in design and technology have allowed manufacturers to create portable printers suitable for travel. Many of the travel printers even support a rechargeable battery so you won’t need to plug into power to print. Portable printers, like HP’s OfficeJet 250, will generally be more expensive because of the technology involved to miniaturize the internal components, and smaller ink cartridges will need to be replaced more often, leading to higher operating costs if you’re on a budget. But if you infrequently print and live in a smaller apartment or dorm room, these printers are great tools that will serve their purpose. HP’s Tango X is a great example of a compact printer that is designed for the home and can blend in with your decor.
Laser printers are generally larger than inkjets, because they require bulkier toner drums, a laser, and thermal elements to print. Both types of printers are available in varying sizes. If you need printing and scanning capabilities, these printers will be larger to accommodate either a built-in flatbed scanner or automatic document feeder — the latter can be extremely useful for quickly scanning a stack of paper.
Summary: If you need to save on space, choose an inkjet for its compact size.
Choosing the right printer depends on your document needs. If you need to print photos, inkjets are the better bet, and choosing a model that supports more ink cartridges will give you photos with better dynamic range and tonality, but that comes with the added cost of having to buy and replace additional ink. If you need a printer for quick document needs, printing tax forms, and making hard copies of contracts, then a monochrome laser printer can’t be beaten for its speed, size, and value.
Most home users will likely want to stay with an inkjet, however, because they are generally more compact than color laser printers while being more versatile. But if you have the space, color laser printers are also shedding their bulk, and a few modern models are also great photo printers when paired with special photo laser paper that can withstand the heat generated in laser printing. These models are a bit larger, and when outfitted with a scanner, automatic document feeder, and wireless support make for a great document workhorse in home offices and small businesses.
When choosing a printer, you’ll also want to consider both the price of the printer and the long-term on-going cost of making a print. Inkjets typically cost less up front than a comparable laser printer — though more capable versions of both technologies are now just as comparably priced — and inkjet cartridges are deceptively less expensive than laser toner. However, because the cartridges last less, you’ll get fewer prints from a single cartridge, meaning you’ll need more frequent replacement. Laser printers come with higher up-front costs for both the printer hardware and the toner, but each toner generates more yield and will lead to a better per-page print cost. To figure out how much a print will cost you, take the price of the cartridge and divide that by how many pages the individual cartridge or toner will give you based on the manufacturer’s expected yield per cartridge. If you’re on a budget, you may want to invest more money up front with a laser or a tank printer for fans of inkjets.
For some extra suggestions on what printer to opt for, check out our guides to the best photo printers and best home printers.