Last Updated on 8 August 2023
They aren’t the only types of printers out there, but they’re the two most popular types for general home and office use.
And LED printers? Relatively new to the market, they’re closest to laser printers, but they use an LED array rather than a laser beam to heat the toner that is applied to the paper.
Because that’s the only real difference between a laser printer and an LED printer, most people (and most computer stores) don’t differentiate between the two types.
Image quality is comparable but, because LEDs have fewer moving parts, they promise to be speedier, less expensive, and more durable than lasers. An example of an LED printer is the highly regarded OKI C650DN.
As for inkjet printers, they’re very different from LED and laser printers. But all printers have their benefits and drawbacks — they’re better at some things than others.
Ultimately, which type of printer is best for you depends on what you’re printing, how much printing you will be doing, and what you can afford to spend.
The old rule of thumb was that if you’re largely printing text documents and brochures your best choice is a laser or LED printer. And if you’re printing anything else, particularly if you want to print photographs, the right printer is probably an inkjet.
But now, with recent advances in printer technology, your choices are not so black and white.
Inkjet printers have narrowed the gap
Inkjet printers have become faster and more reliable. Sure, laser printers still lead the way in producing quality text output, but today’s best inkjet printers produce text documents that are perfectly acceptable for most applications.
And, with both durability and reliability not the issues they once were, there’s little to separate modern inkjet printers from lasers — unless, that is, you’re buying at the cheap end.
True, laser prints will better stand the test of time. And an inkjet printer will be less bulky and take up less office space than a laser printer. But it’s not uncommon now, contrary to conventional wisdom, to see an inkjet printer used in offices, and laser printers used as at-home printers.
One thing hasn’t changed — if you purchase an inexpensive inkjet printer you may be in for a shock when you need to buy more ink. New ink cartridges can cost you more than you paid for the printer itself. That said, you can lower your ink costs. There are ways you can save money on ink cartridges and laser toner cartridges (see our related story, 10 Ways to Save on Printer Toner and Ink Cartridges).
Inkjet printers that use pigment inks (like Canon’s PIXMA and Epson’s SureColor printers) offer a good middle ground between dye-based inkjet printers, LED printers and laser printers. Expect great quality printouts, low running costs and better value replacement ink cartridges. Their main downside? They’re only for photo printing. You’ll need something else if you want to print everyday documents and graphics.
Need a photo printer? See our guide: How to Pick the Perfect Photo Printer
Inkjet vs Laser Printers - what’s the big difference?
The first thing to know when comparing an inkjet versus a laser printer is that they work differently.
Inkjet printers use micro-nozzles to spray liquid ink droplets directly onto the page. LED and laser printers use toner powder, not ink, and light beams to melt tiny dots into the surface of the page.
This difference can make some tasks easier with one over another but also affects such things as print quality, the size of the printer, the cost of the printer, and printing costs.
Inkjet vs Laser - which is the cheapest printer?
Besides the difference in printing technology, the next biggest difference between inkjet and laser printers comes down to cost.
Inkjet printers usually have much lower upfront costs than laser printers.
The catch? Sure, the initial cost is low, but ink cartridges can get expensive over time, and if you’re frequently printing a lot of image-heavy documents, you’ll be buying ink on a regular basis. What’s more, if you don’t print very often, the ink can dry up, and also need replacing.
So while you pay less upfront for an inkjet, you may be paying more, in the long run, once you add in the price of replacement inkjet cartridges and parts. If your budget doesn’t allow for replacing your printer every few years, you’ll end up paying higher prices over time.
If you want to get the most cost-effective inkjet or laser printer (and not just settle for the cheapest one to buy), you need to consider how much printing you do.
Laser printers are designed and built for large output at a low cost per page. They are more expensive to buy, and replacement toner powder is pricier. However, you’ll need to replace a toner cartridge less often — you’ll get as much as ten or more times the prints you would with laser printing that you would from an ink cartridge. And because laser toner is a powder, not a liquid, it doesn’t dry up.
Laser printers also tend to have fewer maintenance issues and are more durable, making them an economical choice over the long run. Adding to their expense, however, you will also need to replace the drum unit periodically to maintain performance.
Some laser printers use a toner cartridge that includes a drum, making replacement toner cartridges more expensive but ensuring better quality output.
For other laser printers, you’ll know it’s time to replace the drum unit when you start seeing poor printouts. Text and graphics may seem blurry and smudged, or you may see streaks, stripes, or blank spots.
Changing the printer toner won’t help and left unattended your printer will soon stop printing.
In most laser printers, the drum unit will produce about 12,000 pages before you need to replace it. But drum lifespan will vary by printer, and the general rule is to replace the drum unit after you’ve used 3-4 cartridges of toner.
Inkjet vs Laser - which has the cheapest cost per page?
This is where LED and laser printers have traditionally had the edge. But if you print a lot, and need colour, an ink tank printer will give you a lower cost per page, cheaper still than a laser printer using a high-capacity cartridge.
Cost-per-page — the price you pay for the ink consumed in printing one page — will be different for colour and black and white prints. But it can also vary widely by printer make and model, however, so check the details before you part with your cash.
If the cost-per-page is not shown in the printer specifications, look up the cartridge price and divide it by the expected page yield (the number of pages you can expect to print with each cartridge).
Inkjet vs Laser - which produces the best prints?
Print quality is determined by the printer’s resolution (which is measured in dpi, or dots per inch). The higher the dpi, the smaller the dots on the page, and the sharper your images.
A 1200 x 1400 dpi printer, for instance, prints at 1200 dots per inch across the page (each dot is 1/1200th of an inch across) and 1400 dots per inch lengthwise.
When comparing inkjet and laser printers with comparable printer resolution, most people will never see much difference in image clarity between the two printer types. But there is a big difference in how each type prints text and images.
Text printed by laser printers looks crisp and clear because the lasers used to fuse the toner onto paper create very sharp lines. Inkjet printers will produce legible text that is adequate for most purposes, but the individual letters will not be as sharply detailed.
Text-based documents aside, if you are printing fine lines and diagrams, a laser printer will give you a more precise copy, particularly if you are printing in black and white.
Conversely, because inkjet printers use dye-based or pigment-based liquid inks rather than powder, they are much better at reproducing colour for images and photos.
Most laser printers have a resolution of 600 x 600 dpi or 1200 x 1200 dpi, but newer models can further enhance the resolution of a printed image. For richer-looking prints, look for laser printers that include Optimised dpi (or Enhanced dpi). When you print with this feature, the printheads overlap the dots and improve print quality. Pages will take longer to print and, naturally enough, you will use more printer ink.
If you only need text documents, look for less expensive colour laser printers with a lower dpi (300 dpi); 600 dpi if you want good high-resolution prints. If you are printing black and white text only, a monochrome laser printer is an economical and reliable option.
The typical DPI for today’s inkjet printer is 1200 x 1440 dpi. This is good enough for most purposes if you are printing photos up to 5 x 7 size (but no more). If you want larger prints or if you’re a professional needing higher resolution, look for an inkjet photo printer with a resolution of 2880 x 1440 dpi or higher.
Inkjet vs Laser - what’s best if you’re not printing on standard paper?
Inkjet printers get the nod here. They’re better for printing on a wide range of different materials and types of paper, whether that’s acetate, canvas, vinyl, handmade or textured art paper, fine art paper, or heavyweight card.
For photographers, some inkjet photo printers also give you borderless prints or accept roll paper so that you can output stunning panoramic images up to more than 3m in length.
If your type of printing is less specialised, laser printers may still do the job for you. Depending on the model and available add-ons, they can print on a variety of paper types and materials, and a range of paper sizes. That includes transparencies, labels, envelopes, index cards, and even the thicker card stock you might use for printing greeting cards and the like.
If you need to print on different media, look closely at the models you’re considering to see which of them are capable of handling the media types and sizes you need. Check printer specs for maximum media thickness and feed methods.
You’ll need a straight-feed path for thicker media that doesn’t bend; a fine art feeder for delicate or thick paper. If you’re deciding between inkjet printers that handle roll paper, compare the core size and maximum print length.
Inkjet vs Laser - which printer is faster?
If all you really want is to get your printouts quickly, then you’ll probably be happier with a laser printer. However, if you are only printing a page or two now and then, print speed shouldn’t be a priority.
When it comes down to it, a cheap laser printer will be faster than a cheap inkjet printer, due to the differences in the way they print and what they use to print. But does that mean that laser printers will always print faster than inkjets? Not necessarily. More expensive inkjet printers designed for office environments can match or even better laser printer speeds.
Inkjet vs Laser - how much and how often are you printing?
When you’re comparing specifications for laser printers vs inkjet printers, you’ll see a big difference in the recommended monthly print volumes and maximum monthly duty cycles.
Don’t simply gloss over these figures — you need to pay close attention to them, no matter how much printing you plan to do.
This may be news to you: the recommended monthly print volume is the number of pages you should be printing each month to keep your printer running at peak performance. (That’s right, just like a car, you can’t leave it idle for too long.)
In contrast, the maximum monthly volume (or duty cycle) is the number of pages you can safely print each month without any damage to your printer.
How much should you print each month, then? Keep below the maximum monthly print volume (it is generally recommended to keep to within 10% of the maximum number), and close to the recommended monthly print volume. That way, you aren’t overworking your printer, and it’s less likely you’ll have to replace printer parts. If you exceed your printers’ maximum duty cycle, make sure you give it a rest and get it serviced.
Laser printers, originally intended for busy office environments, are your best bet if you need to print out large volumes of documents at a quick speed.
Inkjet printers, on the other hand, are not intended for high-volume printing. Printing speeds are generally slower, paper tray capacity is limited, and recommended monthly print volumes are well short of the figures for laser printers.
Inkjet vs Laser - printer size may be the decider
Another important factor in choosing which type of printer you get is its size.
While printers vary widely in size and design, laser printers have more moving parts and are usually both heavier and larger than their inkjet equivalents. For that reason, when desktop or shelf space is limited or when you want a printer you can easily move around, your go-to option should be an inkjet printer.
If you only occasionally need to use a printer, you probably don’t want one that takes up a lot of space. If that sounds like you, then a compact inkjet printer might be your best option. Examples include the Canon Pixma TR150 and the Epson WorkForce WF-100W, both designed to print from your phone or laptop and small enough to throw in your briefcase when you need to take a printer with you.
Inkjet vs Laser - which should you buy?
There are many factors to consider when deciding what kind of printer to buy. But the most important thing to remember is this: whatever works best for you primarily depends on what kind of printing you will be doing.
Because printer technology continues to evolve, the once obvious performance gaps between inkjet printing and laser printing have narrowed. Rather than fixate on the differences in print technologies, our advice is to keep an open mind and look for the features you need.
Know what kind of prints you will be making, how much printing you will be doing, and what your budget is. You will then be able to pick the type, make and model printer that best meets your needs.