Coke or Pepsi? That's an easy one. Cat or dog? The answer's obvious. Inkjet or laser? Not so simple—the tug-of-war between the classic printer technologies is part taste, part tech, and part real-world considerations. And it's evolved in recent years in some surprising ways.
Twenty years ago, laser printers were priced out of reach of consumers and most small businesses. They couldn't print in color and needed expensive special paper. Color inkjets were more affordable but less precise, with ink that sometimes streaked or smeared. These truths turned into stereotypes about the two technologies that remain ingrained in the psyche of the IT market even today, despite tons of evidence to the contrary.
Believe it or not:
In fact, inkjet printers are at least equal and sometimes superior to their laser counterparts, as we've detailed in our in-depth printer reviews over the decades. When one technology does outshine the other, it's invariably in a specific application or usage case—what you're printing, how many pages you're printing, and so on.
And for the love of Bill Hewlett and David Packard, don't listen to arguments based on comparing, say, a $50 inkjet all-in-one (AIO) to a $100 single-function monochrome laser. That's comparing apples and grapefruits. When you look at similarly configured machines aimed at similar target markets, inkjets do just fine against lasers.
Which type of printer is better? Nowadays, that's not really the pertinent question. Instead, you need to ask yourself what you print and what your budget is—and to throw away the notion that lasers are somehow by default the Mercedes and the BMWs of the printer market while inkjets are the Chevys and the Hyundais.
Let's address this one first, because it's easy to glance at speed ratings and say that inkjets are slower than lasers. The cheapest inkjets are indeed slower than the cheapest lasers. That does not mean, however, that all inkjet printers are slow (or that you wouldn't favor a cheap inkjet over a cheap laser for other reasons, such as its offering color as well as monochrome printing, or its ability to make copies and scans as well as print).
Because of the way laser technology maps and applies toner to an entire page all at once, it's inherently faster than the way most inkjets apply ink to paper—sending a printhead with an array of nozzles back and forth across a page, spraying line after line of ink. Some entry-level inkjets can only crank out 8 pages per minute (ppm) or less, whereas many low-end laser printers can push paper at twice that rate. (See our favorite budget printers.)
However, when you compare higher-end, office-oriented inkjets with comparable color laser AIOs, speeds aren't that far apart. Brother's MFC-J6945DW inkjet, for instance, prints at 22ppm, versus the 25ppm of the same company's laser-based MFC-L3770CDW. Also, HP offers a line of inkjets, including the PageWide Pro 552dw, with fixed, full-width printheads that span the page and are capable of peak print speeds around 70ppm.
So yes, laser printers are generally capable of faster print speeds than traditional inkjets. But properly configured inkjets aren't inherently slow, and some models can easily outpace a laser. Besides, if you usually print one or two pages at a time for home office or school use, just about any printer on the market today will be fast enough to meet your needs.
WINNER: Laser, but not by much
Businesses don't just print black-and-white text anymore, and consumers never did. It can be argued that laser machines churn out sharper text than inkjets; we'll look more closely at that in a moment. But when it comes to most other kinds of output, especially photos and color illustrations and charts, the more detailed and vibrant results of inkjet printers blow their laser rivals away.
Today's inkjet printers have ultrafine printhead nozzles that mix and arrange ink droplets in patterns of tiny dots, allowing for greater detail and a wider color range or gamut than is achievable with laser toner. Their greater detail and more accurate and vivid color is even more visible when your photos and artwork are printed on glossy photo paper or other premium stock that laser machines just can't handle successfully. This is especially true of consumer-grade photo-centric inkjets such as the Canon Pixma TS9120 (a PCMag Editors' Choice winner) or the Epson Expression Photo XP-8600 Small-in-One.
Both of these examples feature six ink cartridges instead of the usual four. The four standard process colors of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK)—all that a color laser printer is capable of—are supplemented by additional inks such as the light magenta and light cyan of the XP-8600. The Pixma adds a richer pigment black and a photo blue that increases detail and widens the color gamut. These extra colors also reduce color striations and graininess. On the higher end, Canon, Epson, and HP also make professional-grade printers that produce truly eye-popping output for graphic artists and photo pros. The Epson SureColor P5000 deploys 11 inks, while Canon's imagePrograf PRO-1000 has 12 (11 colors and a clearcoat).
Also, most inkjet printers (unlike lasers) support borderless output, meaning that they can apply ink up to the very edge of the paper for a professional finishing feature known as a "bleed." Some output, especially photos, makes a better impression without a blank margin. Inkjets can also print on not only plain, glossy, and semi-gloss paper but even some other materials, such as certain types of cloth or vinyl. Laser printers are limited to only a few types of paper, many of them formulated especially for laser toner, giving you a narrower range of professionally designed and decorative documents.
As for text, inkjets have come a long way. Ten years ago, an inkjet loaded with cheap copier paper would undeniably produce fuzzy text. But contemporary inkjets printing on relatively inexpensive paper can produce easy-to-read, attractive text that's absolutely fine for most applications.
A while back, inkjet printers often struggled to produce well-shaped, highly legible text, especially in small fonts. That's simply not the case anymore. Laser printers are more adept at producing typesetter-quality fonts, as they pay more attention to the embedded rendering instructions with character-shape and font-foundry specifications. But realistically, as long as your text is legible and consistent in appearance throughout your document, adherence to rendering specs matters only if you plan on entering your documents in design contests. Document layout and prepress professionals have reason to prefer laser to inkjet text. Most businesspeople don't.
WINNER: Inkjet for color, laser for text
The long-held conceit that laser printing is cheaper keeps hanging on. It can be true, depending on the printers in question, but a business-oriented or "laser alternative" inkjet printer can save you big money on consumables.
True, a set of replacement ink cartridges for a cheap inkjet AIO will likely cost you more than the printer did. But some high-volume inkjet machines are formidable comparisons to like-priced lasers. Take two Editors' Choice award winners, the Canon imageClass LBP226dw monochrome laser and the Epson WorkForce Pro WF-M5299 (which is a rarity, mind you: a monochrome-only inkjet printer). The Canon's cost per page is a low 1.1 cents, but the Epson's is an even lower 0.8 cent. Increasingly, in the business-printer market, this is less the exception and more the rule.
In the home or consumer segment, lasers tend to be cheaper to operate, but the economics of the situation can change if you don't mind paying more for the printer and getting a big supply of ink up front. Epson, Canon, and HP offer "bulk ink" machines (under the EcoTank, MegaTank, and Smart Tank Plus banners, respectively) with running costs of under a penny per page for both monochrome and color pages. To find a laser printer that produces black pages for under a penny, you'd probably have to opt for a high-volume model costing $1,000 or more. HP's cartridge-free Neverstop laser printers, such as the Neverstop Laser MFP 1202w, are entry-level machines with modest paper capacities, not suitable for high print and copy volumes the way bulk-ink printers are. And I've never seen a laser printer that prints in color for less than 5 cents per page.
Bulk-ink printers are attractive deals, but only if you put out, say, 300 or more pages per month—you need to print enough to reap the value—and don't mind that most are relatively low-end home printers. Epson's new EcoTank Pro line brings the bulk-ink paradigm to the office with units such as the EcoTank Pro ET-5850 that have capacities and features more in line with business needs, including some wide-format models. They're a little costly up front, but they can satisfy a small office at around 2 cents per page for color or mono. If you put out 500 or more pages per month, especially in color, you can save a bundle versus a color laser AIO. (The Brother MFC-L9570CDW laser, for instance, will cost you about 7.5 cents per color page; multiply a difference of 5.5 cents by thousands of pages, and an EcoTank Pro looks pretty good.)
Discounted ink-cartridge schemes don't require a big initial investment in the printer. HP Instant Ink, for example, is a subscription plan in which the printer monitors its own ink consumption and orders new cartridges over the internet as needed. Monthly plans range from 99 cents per month to $24.99 a month, for volumes ranging from 15 to 700 pages. The plans let you print any page regardless of its ink page coverage (including letter-size photos with 100% coverage!) for as little as 3.5 cents apiece. This is a great deal if you print a lot of photos and other color-heavy pages. As for Brother's INKvestment Tank subscription, it delivers monochrome pages for just under 1 cent and color pages for just under 5 cents, no matter how many you print.
An additional printer running expense that's often overlooked is your electric bill. Depending on the machines you compare, a laser printer can consume two to 10 times the power of a comparable inkjet. According to SaveJoules.com, to print 1,000 pages per day, HP's LaserJet Pro MFP M477fdw would consume 266.4 kilowatt-hours versus 88.9 for the Epson WorkForce Pro ET-8700, translating to an extra cost of 3 cents per page—not counting the Epson's cheaper consumables.
WINNER: Bulk-ink inkjet printers, if your printing volume is high enough
Again, ignoring the cheapest inkjets and monochrome lasers, the durability answer depends solely on the machine itself and how it's used. I've seen some laser printers with flimsy pull-out trays and inadequately reinforced innards; I've also seen inkjets, like most of Brother's Business Smart and Business Smart Plus series, with heavy, metal-reinforced frames and other substantial parts.
Some machines on both sides of the aisle make excessive noise, indicative of poor insulation. You also want to beware of printers that shake and vibrate not only their chassis but also the table they're sitting on. (Typically, if a printer moves itself while working, it's not a good sign.)
Early laser printers, such as the 55-pound HP LaserJet 4, were built like Sherman tanks and lasted forever; you could keep a printer for a decade and your only reasons to upgrade would be greatly increased speeds and improved print quality. A modern mono laser like HP's LaserJet Pro M404dn is several times faster than its ancestors, weighs under 20 pounds, and costs less than a twentieth of the price. It may not stay viable as long, but replacing it is much less of an expensive hassle.
Again, longevity these days is more dependent on the class of machine and how it's used, rather than an absolute statement about its core technology. Indeed, these days I see a lot of inkjet printers with two- and three-year warranties, while most lasers come with only one year of protection.
WINNER: A tie between categories; sturdiness depends on the specific model
Once a product earns a bad reputation, the stigma lingers. Years ago, some inkjet printers (especially cheap consumer models) had frustrating issues that not only got in the way of productivity but were persistent enough to cast a pall over the whole category. Let's go through some of the more common snags:
It's a good idea to turn your printer off at night and on again in the morning instead of letting it sleep, because all manufacturers include instructions in their startup routines that flush a little ink through the printheads as the machine boots up. Similarly, it's best to use your inkjet printer every so often, printing at least a few color pages each month, to keep those tiny nozzles clear.
If you really print only a few pages every few months, maybe you'd be better off with a low-end personal laser printer like the $99 HP LaserJet Pro M15w. Such models have relatively high running costs, but for only a handful of pages each year, 5 cents per page isn't much of a hit to the wallet. Otherwise, the increased operational reliability of laser printers isn't sufficient to be a deciding factor; inkjets have really caught up, especially if you use manufacturer-supplied ink and decent paper.
WINNER: Laser, but not by as much as you'd think
There was a time when the cliché was valid: Laser printers were better for business, and inkjets were strictly for low-volume family and home-office settings. But inkjet manufacturers have relentlessly improved their products and developed more reliable, higher-volume printers and AIOs, many explicitly positioned as alternatives to business lasers. In fact, an inkjet is often a better fit for certain office environments, just as a small mono laser is for some home offices.
Sometimes HIPAA compliance or other regulations require toner-based output, which holds up better over time than ink—it's more resistant to cracking or fading, as well as less likely to smear when exposed to moisture. A laser printer is therefore a better choice for long-term hardcopy document archiving. And high-volume office lasers are still better equipped for massive expansion, with multiple large paper drawers or cabinets and finishing options such as collators and staplers. But a monochrome laser printer that provides no other functions is a poorer choice for a family or home office than an inkjet AIO that lets you make copies and print in color as needed.
In other words, what you plan to do with your printer is really what determines which technology is better for you. Our roundups of the best laser printers and best inkjet printers can help you weigh the various factors and find the printer that meets your particular needs.