This is the third in a series of four buyer's guides that focus on consumer oriented printers for use with computers. This guide covers some of the most popular color laser printers, including a couple of multi-function copier (MFC) models, in keeping with our emphasis on units suitable for home or SOHO use. The fourth and final installment will cover monochrome laser printers, along with a handful of specialty items such as tabloid size printers, which some readers might find interesting or even necessary. Our previous two installments covered 16 Multi-Function Inkjet Printers. Stay tuned for our final upcoming offering, and be sure to check out our previous two as well.
Color Laser Printers Explored And Explained
The basic mechanics of a color laser printer include several systems and components. To begin with, a rendering engine takes a digital document and makes one or more passes across its surface to create a rasterized version of its contents, page by page. Consider this as the input phase of the printing process. Second, a set of lasers creates a charge on a rotating photoreceptive drum, which in turn transfers the charge to an output page. This causes a fine granular powder made of pigment and plastic to adhere to its surface, or four different kinds of powders, in the case of most color laser printers. The charged page passes through a fuser that melts the plastic in the toner, causing it to bond to the page, creating the final printed image.
Lasers can be very tightly focused, so the resulting beams that track on the photoreceptive drum are incredibly fine; this helps to explain why laser printers, both color and monochrome, support fairly high resolutions nowadays. Typical monochrome output resolution (black print on paper, usually) ranges from 600x600 to 1200x1200, and color resolutions go up to 9600x1200 (though the highest color resolution for models in this article is 9600x600 Compare Prices on Color Laser Printers.
Color and black-and-white laser printers work pretty much the same way, except that color pages use four types of toner: black, cyan, magenta, and yellow, following the CMYK color model. Each color contributes its part to the resulting final image deposited on the page. Some more expensive color laser printers take pages through four print passes, one for each color plus black, and have a complete print unit for each of them, including laser, drum, and toner cartridge. Less expensive models (including most of the color laser printers covered in this story) apply the toner to the paper one color at a time, and then make a final fusing pass to create the printed page at the end.
Laser printers have lots of advantages over inkjets. For one thing, they are faster, because a laser can move much more quickly than a print head with dozens or even hundreds of inkjets that must squirt micro-droplets at individual stops along the print path. Lasers are also more precise, because of the tight focus that lets them work at high resolutions. Laser printers are also more economical than inkjets, because toner cartridges can usually print many thousands of pages before a refill is needed, whereas ink cartridges run out more quickly and must be replaced more often. The downsides are that laser printers cost more than inkjets up front, and when toner cartridges need to be refilled or replaced they usually cost somewhere between $60 and $100 each. When it comes to cranking out lots of pages, though, laser printers generally produce them at a lower per-page cost and do so more quickly than inkjet alternatives.
The color laser models we cover here that include MFC functionality basically extend the rasterize-and-print model that all laser printers use to include support for scanning original documents, and in some cases for communicating rasterized images via fax modem. The scan-and-print functionality turns a printer into a copier, and the ability to send rasterized images across a phone line turns a printer into a fax machine. Thus an MFC laser is simply an ordinary laser printer that also includes scanning and fax capabilities.
You'd think this would add substantially to the cost of an MFC color laser as compared to a plain vanilla color laser printer. In fact, the cost differential is not overwhelming, though it will limit your choices in a color laser to a smaller subset than if your needs are for print only. Nevertheless, MFC functionality is very attractive to lots of buyers, which probably explains why the MFC models in this guide (and on the market in general) are among the most popular of the offerings in this category.