inkjet vs laser printers

The Inkjet vs Laser printers clash is about to begin. On one side inkjet printers, on the other laser printers. Who will win? Which printer should you buy? This in depth comprehensive guide will cover the difference between inkjet and laser printers so the next all in one you buy will be a perfect fit for your needs. Our inkjet vs laser printers rivalry compares the pros and cons of quality, cost, and reliability. Whether it’s for home or an office, this guide will answer all the questions.

  • Print quality. Techs use test charts to diagnose issues, make adjustments, and verify results. This post will show you inkjet vs laser printers quality so you can see for yourself which is better.
  • Total cost of ownership. Operating costs are done for the most popular models of inkjet and laser printers. The total cost of ownership is calculated for each model.
  • Reliability. Reliability isn’t easy to quantify. While a duty cycle defines the print volume a printer is designed to handle. A duty cycle doesn’t furnish information on how often a printer jams, or will have banding issues. Also, “frequent” paper jams means different things in different situations. Reliability can be a bit subjective but based on my 25 years of repairing printers, I’ll make a few generalizations.

An overview of the differences between inkjet and laser printers will be covered in each section. We’ll begin with a brief explanation of what each type of printer is. More in depth articles on how an inkjet printer or laser printer works are also found at The Printer Jam. How they work isn’t important for which to buy but it can provide a base for understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

What is an Inkjet Printer?

Inkjet vs Laser Printers

An inkjet printer uses ink to create images or text on paper. They spray tiny drops of ink onto paper. Basically, inkjet printers are just really good at spray painting.

Any printer that sprays liquid ink is considered an inkjet printer. Which are different from printing presses. Press inks are the consistency of a gel or hand cream.

Inkjet printers may use cartridges with a built in printhead. Or have a separate tank connected to the printhead. These are called supertank inkjet printers.

The printhead is the heart of any inkjet printer. The more nozzles and smaller the openings the better. Some printheads use heat and others use mechanical energy to push the ink through the nozzles of the printhead.

Brands such as HP and Canon use the heat method. Epson uses a mechanical method. Which somewhat works the same way. Instead of a resistor, a tiny crystal is behind every nozzle. It vibrates instead of using heat to spray out ink. Both methods suck ink from the tank to refill the chamber.

No matter which method is used, each color has its own printhead. A tri color cartridge has 3 separate tanks and printheads.

An encoder strip is critical for letting the printer know where the printhead is in proximity to the paper. This allows for precise timing of the spraying of ink as it moves back and forth across the paper.

The ink process may be simple but it does produce high quality images.

What is a Laser Printer?

Inkjet vs Laser Printers

Laser printers use an electrostatic process to create images or text on paper. They work on the principle of opposites attract and likes repel.

This principle will get the toner to stick where it should and keep out of the areas it shouldn’t. Finally heat and pressure are used to fuse it to the paper.

A critical component of any laser process is the photoconductive drum and toner. A drum has a thin coating that acts as a capacitor to hold a charge while in darkness but changes to a conductor when exposed to light.

The laser writes an image on the drum by discharging specific areas. It works with either a positive or negative image. In my experience most brands use a write to black method– where the light hits, the toner sticks.

Toner and drums can work with either a positive or negative charge. The drum charge depends on whether a write to black or write to white method is used. Light discharges the drum with either method.

While the drum charges change throughout the process, toner remains the same charge.

Charges are applied by rollers or thin wires. A magnetic roller with a regulating blade is used to get a uniform coating of toner. Yellow toner is so fine it almost acts as a liquid. Toner needs a carrier to hold a charge. It has an iron ferrite core since toner is made of wax or plastic resin.

Color printers typically need a drum and developer for each color. Unlike inkjet printers, they don’t make 6, 8, or 12 color laser printers. Although Canon has a 5 color process, the 5th toner is clear. It adds a glossy finish.

Compared with inkjet printers, laser printers have many steps.

Print Quality Differences

Analyzing the types of images you intend to print gets the best results when deciding which type of printer to buy. Certain images do better on one type of printer than another. For example, images with a lot of color gradients and smooth backgrounds are better suited for an inkjet printer. Artwork, landscapes, or nature tend to have the best results from inkjet printers. The difference between an inkjet and laser printer will be most noticeable with these images. These images will not have good results from laser printers:

inkjet vs laser printers
inkjet vs laser printers

On the other hand, images with sharp edges or solid blocks of color do better on laser printers. Charts, graphs, logos, or some graphic art will look good on a laser printer. Certain maps and engineering drawings with fine lines will also look good with a laser printer. Not that they will look terrible on an inkjet printer, just that these are easier for a laser printer:

inkjet vs laser printers
inkjet vs laser printers

Some types of images are acceptable from either an inkjet or a laser printer. For instance:

  • There are few fine lines or sharp edges
  • When colors are broken into smaller areas
  • There are no large blocks of a single color or gradient

These images may still present a challenge for a laser printer though an inkjet printer should do fine:

inkjet vs laser printers
inkjet vs laser printers

An inkjet printer can generally match or exceed the quality of a laser printer. When that happens other factors such as cost or volume need to be considered. A laser printer can save some money on larger volume if a lesser quality is acceptable. Then again, the getting best quality is worth paying more at times.

Image Comparison

In order to make web friendly images some loss occurred. However it’s good enough to see the differences between inkjet and laser printers quality.

The inkjet printer matched nearly every detail of the image on the monitor. The laser printer didn’t match the colors as well as the inkjet but it was a good quality print nonetheless.

Left side: from a typical 4 color inkjet printer, on good paper. The silver, gold, and green streamers had very good detail. Ripples in the peach material were easily visible. The print was slightly darker than the original, which the scan did capture.

Right side: from a typical laser printer. The scan captured that it was light overall. It looks slightly fuzzy but the original was very sharp. The colors didn’t match 100% but the printer was able to replicate many of the finer details. It did struggle with the green gradient in the tent.


Left side: from a typical 4 color inkjet printer, on good paper. The inkjet was able to make an impressive print, the scan doesn’t do it justice. It was slightly darker when held side by side with to monitor. Other than that it was an excellent reproduction.

Right side: from a typical laser printer. Some details in the strawberries were lost in the print but not quite as bad as the scan shows. Red and yellow were a bit strong in the print as well but the scan only amplified it. Overall the print was lighter than it was supposed to be.

As expected, the inkjet printer did better with both images on good paper. While both printers used good paper, the results for the inkjet were more drastic.

Test Charts

Inkjet vs Laser Printer

In order to delve deeper into inkjet vs laser printers quality, we’ll use a test chart and some magnification. Test charts come in handy to show the differences of each type of printer. Techs use test charts when working on printers. They are designed to expose any flaws so techs can replace or adjust the necessary parts.

inkjet vs laser printers

This is just one of many test patterns that are used. It looks great on a monitor. The transitions from one color to another are smooth. Notice the small dots along the outer edge are 12 distinctly different colors. Converting this additive color process (RGB) to a subtractive process (CMYK) tends to lose some of the color fidelity.

Color Wheel Comparison

Inkjet vs Laser Printer

Left side: from a typical 4 color inkjet printer. The colors show smooth transitions from one color to another. Being a liquid, inkjet printers mix colors better than a laser printer. There aren’t any banding patters. Overall they are slightly muted or faded. Though this can be fixed with better paper.

Use slider to compare

Right side: from a typical 4 color laser printer. Cyan and yellow are brighter than the inkjet. Though the fruit image shows brighter isn’t necessarily better. While the abrupt color transitions and banding pattern are more apparent with the test chart. They are hard to see in the comparison images.


Left side: from the same 4 color inkjet printer, only with better quality paper. Move both sliders to the left then compare the top to the bottom image. High gloss photo paper makes a huge difference with inkjet printers.

Inkjet vs laser
Use slider to compare

Right side: same as above, from the laser printer. While the inkjet printer on photo paper looks much better. If the comparison images above were printed on copy paper, the inkjet quality would be equal or lesser than the laser printer.

Examine the smaller dots around the edge. How many distinct colors can you count? Somewhere around 9? Or possibly 10? Neither printer is capable of achieving all 12 colors from the original.

While the laser printer gradients don’t look nearly as good as the inkjet, it virtually ties the inkjet printer for the number of distinct colors. Since they both use a 4 color process their color range or gamut is similar.

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    Text Comparison

    Left side: from a typical 4 color inkjet printer. It’s printed on multipurpose paper. Which soaks up the ink giving it a jagged appearance. This isn’t as quite as obvious at normal size.

    Right side: from a typical laser printer. The text isn’t as jagged as the inkjet printer. If it seems lighter, it’s only because the text is thinner. Both have acceptable density.


    Left side: from the same inkjet printer, only it is on high gloss paper. Coated paper prevents ink from bleeding into the paper. Though using photo paper for text documents may not be a fair comparison.

    Right side: same as above, from the laser printer. The thinner text may seem lighter however, with larger or different fonts this isn’t as noticeable.

    Both printers print readable, dark text. Just as the color print from the laser printer looked good until it was compared with something else. So was the text print from the inkjet printer on multipurpose paper. Only when it was held side by side with the laser printer text did the disadvantages become apparent.

    The text has to be enlarged to see the differences. At regular size, the inkjet using photo paper and the laser printer using multipurpose paper are practically identical. Though spending in excess of 45 cents a page to match text from any laser printer seems excessive.

    Magnified Text Comparison

    Left side: from a typical 4 color inkjet printer. The jagged appearance is easily seen under magnification. With the way the ink seeps some white comes through. This gives the text a dark grey appearance at regular size.

    Inkjet vs laserInkjet vs laser

    Right side: from a typical laser printer. Ink and toner are the same shade of black. But no white can be seen through the toner. The stray particles of toner that can be seen under magnification disappear at normal size.


    Left side: from the same inkjet printer, only with photo paper. Better paper makes a huge difference with inkjet printers. Even though it is the same ink as above, it looks darker due to better fill. Under magnification it still looks good.

    Inkjet vs laser

    Right side: same as above, from the laser printer. Even though the density and shade is the same as the inkjet printer. It appears lighter at regular size because the edges are not as well defined as the inkjet printer.

    With magnification it’s clear inkjet printers with photo paper make the best text. At regular size the inkjet on photo paper and the laser printer on multipurpose paper are hard to tell apart.

    As a rule laser printers do better at text and inkjet printers do better at color photographs. There are occasions where text is passable from an inkjet printer or color photos are passable from a laser printer. It comes down to what you find acceptable.

    These comparisons should help you choose which type printer is better suited for your needs. If you’re still deciding, compare the operating costs.

    Operating Cost Differences

    Operating costs of a printer are calculated by the cost and yield of its supplies. Supplies includes paper, toner, ink, and any other items that are replaced as routine maintenance.

    Ink cartridges tend to cost less than toner cartridges but they need replaced more often. Which tends to even out in terms of cost per page.

    The price per page operating costs of each type of printer can be a useful metric when shopping for a printer. Though this generally doesn’t include the costs of paper. Inkjet printers need more expensive paper to get good results.

    Operating costs can fluctuate based on these factors:

    • How much color is printed
    • Whether aftermarket supplies are used
    • Type of paper

    In order to do a cost comparison a level playing field will be used. How much color is printed and supply types will be set. In my experience businesses tend to print more B&W than color. Yet many home or small offices print mostly color. To keep it even, operating costs will be based on 60% color printing and only 40% B&W.

    All supplies will be calculated using OEM supplies and extended life (XL) when available. Some brands offer ink or toner programs to cap printing costs with a monthly fee. These programs are targeted at low volumes and won’t be factored into this comparison.

    Generally in printer reviews operating expenses are calculated without paper. This way printer specific costs are compared with each printer. All things being equal, paper costs would be the same among similar printers.

    Paper will be added in later in our inkjet vs laser printers cost comparison.

    Cost of Inkjet Printers

    Costs for inkjet printers include ink cartridges and rarely a maintenance kit. Home, office, and a few supertank printers are included in the comparison. While these inkjet printers vary on features, speed, and durability, we’re just looking at printing costs. Features, speed, and durability will effect the initial price.

    ModelHP Deskjet 4155Epson Ecotank ET-15000HP OfficeJet 3830Canon Pixma TS3320HP Envy 6055Epson EcoTank ET-2720HP OfficeJet Pro 6978Canon G3260HP OfficeJet Pro 9015Brother MFC-J491DW
    Initial Cost$99$600$214$80$140$230$180$200$250$150
    1,200 pages $233$600$380$194$237$230$238$200$250$150
    2,500 pages $349$600$561$317$421$230$348$200$295$173
    6,000 pages $771$600$1047$648$831$244$584$218$540$306
    15,000 pages $1,779$639$2296$1510$1867$298$1190$263$976$606
    50,000 pages$5699$850$7250$4833$5896$480$3,646$422$2,766$1,670

    The numbers on the left represent the total pages printed before selling, replacing, or throwing away the printer. Now, 1,200 pages may seem a bit low but some people I talk to tell me they get a new inkjet printer every 6 months. Others may take 10 years to get 1,200 pages out of their inkjet printer.

    Then again 50,000 pages may seem high. Many businesses I know replace their inkjet printer not long after the warranty is up. Some make it past the 50,000 page mark.

    Cost of Laser Printers

    To keep it simple laser printer costs use the same range. The only expense for laser printers are toner cartridges, at least for the first 50,000 pages.

    Just like inkjet printers, not all these printers have the same features. Which is reflected by the difference in initial price. Though laser printer operating costs are more consistent than inkjet printers.

    ModelHP Color Laserjet Pro M281Canon Image CLASS MF644CdwBrother MFC-L3770CdwLexmark MC3224iHP Color LaserJet Pro M479fdwCanon imageCLASS MF741CdwBrother MFC-L8900Cdw Lexmark MC2535adweHP LaserJet Pro M255dwXerox VersaLink C405
    Initial Cost$700$399$399$350$649$489$550$600$329$900
    1,200 pages $700$399$399$350$649$489$550$600$329$900
    2,500 pages $700$467$474$575$649$489$550$600$329$900
    6,000 pages $979$684$687$994$1,049$1,110$858$954$632$1,750
    15,000 pages $2,026$1,696$1,676$1,960$1,351$1,550$1,535$1,510$1,623$2,379
    50,000 pages$5,123$4,723$4,655$5,716$4,617$4,151$3,935$3,991$4,642$5,830

    Supply yields and cost will change depending on the model. Yet most laser printers work out to roughly the same cost per page.

    It would be rare to get rid of a laser printer after printing only 1,200 pages. The lower end is included just to compare with inkjet printers. The middle figures may have the most overlap between inkjet and laser printers. As for the high end of the scale, laser printers can last much longer than 50,000 pages. Some can handle that many pages per month.

    Cost of Paper

    TypeCopy PaperMulti-purpose PaperColor PaperCoated Color PaperInkjet only>Photo PaperProfessional Photo Paper
    Cost per page.012.013.019.029.37.62
    1,200 pages $14$16$23$35$438$744
    2,500 pages $30$34$48$73$913$1,550
    6,000 pages $72$78$114$174$2,190$3,720
    15,000 pages $180$195$285$435$5,475$9,300
    50,000 pages$600$650$950$1,450$18,250$31,000
    For an explanation of the different types of paper, copy, laser, inkjet, and even transfer paper are covered.

    These figures show paper costs for laser printers are minimal compared with photo paper for inkjet printers. How much photo paper is used will drastically change the operating costs.

    For laser printers, the coated color paper is the top of the line. Photo paper and professional photo paper are for inkjet printers only. The coating on those papers will not work in a laser printer.

    As we saw in the text comparison, good photo paper makes great text. Still it would be very expensive to sustain printing documents on photo paper. There is usually some mix between multi-purpose paper and the good stuff to save on printing costs.

    In the paper cost comparison, inkjet printers will use photo paper 20% of the time and use multi-purpose 80% of the time. Since laser printers can’t use photo paper, they will substitute the coated color paper. Laser printers will use coated color paper 60% of the time and multi-purpose paper 40% of the time.

    Model HP OfficeJet Pro 9015 Epson EcoTank ET-15000HP Envy 6055Canon Pixma TS3320 HP Deskjet 4155 <Inkjets
    Laser>
    Canon Image CLASS MF644Cdw HP LaserJet Pro M255dw Brother MFC-L3770Cdw HP Color LaserJet Pro M479fdw Lexmark MC3224i
    Initial Cost$250 $600$140$80$99$399$329$399$649$350
    1,200 pages $351$702$338$295$334$426$356$426$676$377
    2,500 pages $506$811$632$528$560$531$386$524$706$632
    6,000 pages $1,046$1,106$1,337$1,154$1,277$822$767$819$1,184$1,129
    15,000 pages $2,242$1,905$3,133$2,766$3,045$2,015$1,962$2,035$1,0690$2,299
    50,000 pages$6,889$5,030$10,116$7,248$9,919$5,785$5,772$5,853$5,747$6,846

    Total Cost of Ownership

    The total cost of ownership of a printer includes the initial cost of the printer plus supplies over the lifetime of that printer. Whether the initial cost is spread out over 1,200 or 50,000 pages it will impact the cost per page. The longer the printer can be used the better.

    Differences between inkjet and laser printing costs are mostly influenced by paper costs.

    The type of paper has more of an impact for inkjet printers. Many times brands don’t use 37 cent paper when calculating cost per page.

    In the cost analysis a few differences can be seen. Between the two types of printers supertank printers emerge as the lowest total cost of ownership. They’re quite an anomaly on the chart.

    Some inkjet printers can be less expensive at lower volumes with cheap paper. But costs will eventually invert and laser printers will have lower printing costs.

    A cost comparison can show which printers are better for low or high volume. It doesn’t take into account any features, print speed, or duty cycles.

    Reliability

    A printer is only as good as its weakest link. When that part wears out the printer will need replaced or repaired. Professional or business class printers have serviceable parts. Meaning when a part wears out it can be replaced. These printers are much more expensive and by replacing parts they can last for hundreds of thousands of pages.

    In the retail market the printers aren’t as expensive and have few, if any, serviceable parts. When a part wears out they are generally thrown away. Ink and toner cartridges are supply items.

    The weakest link in a retail printer is the paper feed rollers. This will be the first part that’s going to wear out on inkjet or laser printers. On the printers I service a typical paper feed roller can last roughly 50,000 pages. The smallest ones last around 20,000 pages.

    inkjet vs laser printers

    They’re a lot like tires an a car. Once the tread wears down things will start slipping. The bigger the diameter of the roller, the more surface area. Which means it will last longer.

    The type of paper will also impact whether the paper feed rollers will last beyond their expected life. Copy paper might as well be sand paper for as rough and dusty as it is. Multi purpose is better. Color or photo paper is the smoothest and least dusty.

    Inkjet Printer Maintenance

    Inkjet vs Laser Printers

    As far as reliability, inkjet printers have few moving parts and apart from the printhead little goes wrong with them. Compared to laser printers though, inkjets do require more user maintenance. Ink cartridges need replaced often. Then the printhead may need cleaned or aligned from time to time.

    Inkjet printer drivers usually have a maintenance tab which has a list of items:

    • Alignment
    • Head Cleaning
    • Deep Cleaning
    • Nozzle check
    • Roller cleaning
    • Bottom plate cleaning

    Cleanings, alignment, and a nozzle check are simple tasks. Good instructions are usually available when they need done. These maintenance items only need done if there’s a problem, which is rare. Roller or bottom plate cleaning is just feeding paper. It’s kinda useless to be honest.

    Supertank printers seem to need less maintenance. The printheads don’t need aligned as much as other inkjet printers. Ink needs added when it’s new. Then it may be a long time before it asks for ink again.

    Rarely a printer will have a maintenance kit. If a printer has one it will not need replaced often. Some may last the lifetime of the printer, some may need changed only a couple times.

    Laser Printer Maintenance

    Inkjet vs Laser Printers

    Laser printer maintenance mostly involves replacing toner cartridges. Toner generally lasts thousands of pages instead of ink which lasts hundreds. Adding toner is much more infrequent that ink cartridges.

    Though adding an ink cartridge can be easier than removing an image unit, separating the drum unit from the toner cartridge, replacing the toner cartridge, then putting everything back together again. Looking at you Brother.

    In Brother’s defense, separate units are very cost effective. Also, going to all that trouble may only happen a few times a year. As opposed to adding an ink cartridge every couple of weeks.

    Unlike inkjet printers, supply items vary greatly depending on the model. These supply items may need replaced only a few times or possibly never depending on the model.

    • Drum
    • Developer
    • Toner
    • Fuser
    • Transfer unit
    • Waste toner

    HP toner cartridges generally include the drum, developer, toner, and waste toner. Whereas Brother generally separates them. The drum is part of the image unit, while the toner and developer are part of the toner cartridge. This is a generalization though, brands change configurations from one model to another.

    Brands will list the supplies for each model on it’s product page or on the box. Some online retailers are better than others about which supplies are necessary. For most retail printers toner cartridges, whatever parts are included, are the main supply item.

    Summary

    For inkjet vs laser printers quality, the images speak for themselves. Inkjet printers can produce great quality print and text as long as you use good quality photo paper. Laser printers make excellent text and are better suited for business color. Meaning charts, graphs, logos, or simple graphic arts.

    Printer costs largely depend on the type of supplies and paper. If only cheap paper is used in an inkjet, it can keep costs down. But the quality will not surpass a laser printer. Which defeats the purpose of getting an inkjet printer. Laser printers costs are generally lower, this is especially apparent at higher volumes.

    Neither has any overall problems that make a big difference between inkjet and laser printer reliability. Any printer will occasionally have a paper jam, have difficulty with WiFi, or issues printing a specific document for no apparent reason. Both type of retail printers have one weakness in that paper feed rollers are not serviceable.

    Pros and Cons

    Inkjet vs Laser Printers

    Inkjet printer pros and cons:

    Excellent print quality
    Low initial cost
    Slow print speeds
    Expensive paper

    Laser printer pros and cons:

    Faster print speeds
    Low maintenance
    Average print quality
    Expensive supplies

    Conclusion

    Inkjet vs Laser Printers

    Inkjet printers have the best results if quality is a priority. Laser printers have good outcomes with large volumes of text. If cost savings is the most important a supertank inkjet printer will have the best results.

    Print volume shouldn’t steer you toward one type of printer or the other. Though it may help choose one model over another. Unless your volume exceeds 50,000 a month. Not many inkjet printers are designed to handle that volume.

    The intended use for a printer has the greatest impact on which printer to choose.

    Bottom line:

    In our inkjet vs laser printers clash, we’ve gone over quality, costs, and reliability. Each type of printer has its own strengths and weaknesses. Which type of printer wins will ultimately depend on the purpose of your printing needs.

    Inkjet vs laser printers
    copier guy

    The Copier Guy, aka Dave. I’ve worked on scanners, printers, copiers, and faxes over 23 years. When I’m not fixing them I’m writing about them. Although, I’m probably better at fixing them. I have certificates from Canon, Xerox, Ricoh, Kyocera, Lexmark, HP, and Konica Minolta. My experience includes other brands as well as several types of processes. If it uses paper I’ve probably worked on one.

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