Inkjet vs Laser vs LED: What’s best for you?

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You are no doubt familiar with those first two print technologies while LED printers are so similar to laser printers that you may have unwittingly used one of those too. But which is best? Well that depends on what you’re printing, how often and how much you want to spend.

We used to be able to say that laser printers are for the office and inkjets for the home, but in recent years the lines have blurred and now you’ll find business inkjets aimed at busy office-based workgroups and inexpensive laser printers designed for the home. Inkjets and lasers use very different technologies to achieve the same goal and each one has its pros and cons, so let’s begin by looking at inkjets.

Inkjet printers

HP sold the first inkjet printer in 1988 for around $1,300 (£1000) and the same company will sell you something similar today for less than $46 (£35). Inkjets are almost always cheaper to buy than lasers. They work by spraying microscopic drops of liquid ink onto paper through a print head made up of hundreds of micro-nozzles. A colour inkjet printer usually uses four airtight foil cartridges for a colour print, but they can use more colours to achieve an even wider colour gamut. Inkjet is still the best way to print high-resolution images at high quality and the only way to print photos on glossy photo paper.

You won’t find a laser printer for $46 (£35) partly because inkjets are smaller, simpler machines and partly because manufacturers are willing to sell their printers at a loss and recoup the cost through cartridge sales. A new set of ink for your $46 (£35) inkjet printer will cost more than the printer. It’s the old razor-and-blades business model. We’ve all heard how printer ink is more expensive than blood or Chanel No.5 perfume and unfortunately it’s all true. Worse still, inkjets use some of that precious ink to clean their nozzles and if you don’t use your printer much, the ink has a tendency to dry up.

Epson EcoTank ET-M2140

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However, for low-level printing, inkjets still make economic sense and their compact size and convenience makes them the first choice for home users. What’s more, the recent move towards cartridge-free inkjet printers with refillable ink reservoirs is turning the tables on laser printers and achieving a lower per page cost in some cases. The Epson EcoTank ET-M2140, for example comes with enough ink in the box for 11,000 pages, which is more than most bundled toner cartridges can manage.

In short, inkjet is your first choice for low volume, high quality prints and photographs. Just be wary about which cartridge system you’re getting yourself locked into and check the print quality and specifications before you buy.

Laser printers

Instead of liquid ink, lasers use toner which is a powder and it’s transferred to the paper using heat. The laser tracks along a drum creating an electrostatic charge that attracts the toner particles to the right place. The first commercial machine was made by Xerox in 1973 and until recent years, laser has been the expensive printer option and therefore rarely seen outside the office.

Laser printers are the opposite of inkjets in that they are generally expensive to buy and cheap to run. That’s because toner cartridges are able to print not hundreds, but thousands of pages before they need replacing. They tend to be bulkier machines, built to handle monthly duty cycles of anything up to 20,000 pages.

They can print faster than inkjets too, churning out paper at around 50 pages per minute in many cases. And no matter the speed, laser printers are the more consistent and accurate when it comes to printing page after page of text that’s immune to smudging. Because the toner is heated onto the paper, every page is warm and dry, whereas inkjets spray liquid onto paper that often takes a good few seconds to dry. And unlike inkjets, lasers don’t usually take any longer to print in colour, which makes them ideal for running off brochures.

HP LaserJet Pro M15w

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What lasers aren’t so good at is photo printing. They never have more than four colours (CMYK) so they cannot achieve the wide colour gamut of inkjets and because the laser warms the paper, they won’t work with coated photo paper. Lasers are generally noisier, bulkier and use more energy too. Having said that, the shoebox-sized HP LaserJet Pro M15w manages to be none of those things and costs less to buy than some inkjet printers. As you see, the lines are becoming blurred and lasers are no longer confined to the office. In general though, lasers are faster and more efficient and better with text than photos.

LED printers

At TechRadar, we file laser and LED printers in the same category because the two technologies are so similar to one another and so distinct from inkjet. Both systems use static electricity applied to a drum to heat toner onto paper. The difference is in how that static charge is applied. Where laser printers use a laser beam to strafe back and forth across the drum, LED printers use an LED array that highlights the whole drum at once and thus relies on fewer moving parts.

Xerox VersaLink C7000DN

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LED printers have not been around so long and the first we came across had a lower resolution. Today there’s no real difference between laser and LED in terms of image quality, but with fewer moving parts, LED printers have the potential to be faster, cheaper and more reliable. The Xerox VersaLink C7000DN is one example of how good LED can be. From here, it looks like LED has the brightest future.

So which should you buy? It comes back to the question of what do you want to print and how often? Broadly speaking, you’ll be better served by a laser or LED printer if you need to churn out text documents and brochures, while an inkjet printer is better for more eclectic and infrequent print jobs, especially if they include photographs. But those rules are not as hard and fast as they once were, so instead of getting overly hung up on the technology, look at the features and specifications of your potential purchase and read the reviews before you buy.

Jim Hill

Jim is a seasoned expert when it comes to testing tech. From playing a prototype PlayStation One to meeting a man called Steve about a new kind of phone in 2007, he’s always hunting the next big thing at the bleeding edge of the electronics industry. After editing the tech section of Wired UK magazine, he is currently specialising in IT and voyaging in his VW camper van.