Comparisons between laser and inkjet technologies invariably mention advantages in terms of speed and cost per page with laser and higher quality with inkjet. But the reality is quite different, so it's important to take a closer look in order to distinguish the specific characteristics of each technology - and dispel some common myths.
- Laser printers are always faster than inkjet printers: FALSE
When it comes to printing complex color documents like photos or graphs with a high rate of coverage, lasers printers are significantly faster. That's because the complexity of the document makes little difference in calculating printing time - the work done by the laser beam inside the printer is about the same. With inkjets, on the other hand, performance depends a lot on the rate of coverage of the page to be printed. Speed can vary from 20 ppm for text in draft quality - faster than most entry-level and midrange lasers - to several minutes for one page when printing a photo. Color laser printers have the advantage of more or less constant performance. The figures we measured were closer to the manufacturers' claims than is the case for inkjet models.
- The cost per page is always lower with laser printers: FALSE
This is another preconception that's hard to kill. Though it was still quite true a few years ago, the development of inkjets with separate tanks, by Canon, Epson, and HP among others, brought printing costs down significantly. A page of text printed on an inkjet costs between one and five cents depending on the model, which is equivalent to what a laser offers. That's because even though the capacity of laser toner cartridges is much larger, their cost is a lot higher as well. More or less the same is also true for color printing, and ultimately there's not a lot of difference in cost per page between the two technologies, even if it varies greatly from one model to the next.
- Inkjets always produce better-quality prints: FALSE
It's true that inkjet printers boast better quality when printing photographs, but this is because they use ink that's better suited to photos, and especially because they can use coated paper, which produces "photo quality" results. Laser models have made progress, though, and can now put out text and color graphics that are almost identical to the quality of inkjets - at least on plain paper.
- Inkjet printers last longer: FALSE
Even though laser printers have more moving parts, and therefore can be more prone to breakdowns, inkjet models wear out more quickly - especially the printing heads - and the quality of their output can decrease over time. On a laser, it's much simpler (though much more expensive) to replace certain parts, such as the drum or fuser, and restore the printer to its original performance.
- Color laser printers are bulkier: TRUE
It's no contest in this department. Despite some progress on certain models that really have slimmed down, the lightest laser printers still weigh around 40 pounds, compared to less than 11 pounds for some inkjets.
How We Tested
We focused our tests on performance and quality:
- To measure cost per page, we used a test pattern with 25% coverage for each of the four primary colors. We printed the pattern until each toner cartridge was used up, always using high-capacity cartridges when available.
- To test the printer's ability to render detail, we printed an A4 Illustrator document at 300 dpi, several files combining text and graphics, and an Excel graph with a black background and very fine colored lines. We also printed color masses in different colors.
- To assess speed, we measured the printing time for a 20-page black text page (1,500 characters per page) and a fairly complex 13-page color document combining text and graphics. We also measured other important parameters like warm-up time and time to print the first page, and noted significant differences from one model to the next.
- Other points of comparison among the six models have to do with additional functions (such as duplex printing and connectivity), overall ergonomics, noise level and the page-description languages supported.